Malacañang Palace in Manila, home of Philippines presidents. The country is still ruled largely by political dynasties who have managed to retain control for decades, possibly threatening the democratic future of the country.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Malacañang Palace in Manila, home of Philippines presidents. The country is still ruled largely by political dynasties who have managed to retain control for decades, possibly threatening the democratic future of the country. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Powerful political families have been a feature of Philippines politics for a long time. At least 75% of the legislators in the country’s congress belong to political dynasties. A Sydney Morning Herald story in 2012 fittingly called some of the more established traditional political families a “dynasty on steroids”.

For some political scientists, political dynasties are not necessarily anathema to democracy. They say the entrenchment of strong political families is a byproduct of the people’s right to vote and the right to run for public office.

However, for the Philippines, the domination of dynastic families in the country’s political system has become a serious threat to the very possibility of maintaining genuine political democracy.

According to a ground-breaking study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012, lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in districts governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty. A more alarming development is that the “fattest” dynasties — those with the most family members in office — are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.

Dynastic power built around blood relations

Interestingly, this dynastic supremacy can be traced to the era before the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The basic socio-political unit of that time was called the barangay which was made up of different families who were all related to one another. Hence, the power structure tended to be built around blood relations.

The leadership of a pre-colonial community rested on the datu — denoting the rulers (variously described as chiefs, sovereign princes, and monarchs) of indigenous peoples in the Philippines.)  According to Philippines historian William Henry Scott, writing in Barangay Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, a datu was expected “to govern his people, settle disputes, protect them from their enemies, and lead them into battle.” And “in return for these responsibilities and services, a datu received labor and tribute from his people.”

More importantly, community chiefs claim their leadership position on the basis of their reputation as brave warriors, and not on mere noble lineage.

The position of datu could be inherited. But according to Luis Francia in A History of the Philippines, From Indios Bravos to Filipinos, datus made “no claims to a divine imprimatur or special access to the heavens, no boasts about having a hotline to God.” More importantly, community chiefs claim their leadership position on the basis of their reputation as brave warriors, and not on mere noble lineage.

Pertinently, a datu’s ability to retain his office as the ruler of the barangay depended on his performance as a leader. When warranted by the circumstances, he could be replaced by the community with a challenger who is more able to deliver the needs of the barangay.

The pre-colonial history of the Philippines reveals that powerful clans emerged in leadership roles underpinned by a social contract. They enjoyed the advantage of such an elevated social status but also assumed the role of protector of the community. Additionally, it was incumbent upon them to exercise good leadership, for to do otherwise may cause their removal from their privileged position.

Spanish used tribal ruling class as lackeys

Sadly, this organic social democratic arrangement was destroyed during the Spanish colonial period. Under the encomienda labor system established by the colonial government, the tribal ruling class was utilized by local governors as lackeys (i.e. tribute collectors).

Those who embraced their new role became the first among the indigenous population to be Hispanized and were rewarded for their loyal servitude with wealth and limited authority. The datu class thereafter become the principales and the barangay simply evolved into the generic appellation, indios.

This was a fundamental transformation because according to Apolinario Mabini — considered as the “brains” of the revolution against Spain — writing in The Philippine Revolution, the cabeza, unlike their previous incarnation as datu, functioned not as a community leader but as “a servant of the town’s parish priest and constabulary commanding officer.”

The underpinning social contract was now gone and the obligation to protect the community with it. More importantly, the power of the community to choose its own ruler was now lost and has found its way into the hands of a central power. Indeed, from a mandate to be earned, authority to govern the community has at this point become a commodity that can be bargained for.

Filipino elite collaborated with the Americans

Not surprisingly, many from the colonized Filipino ruling elite immediately and willingly collaborated with the Americans when the United States replaced Spain as the country’s colonial master. Obviously, this was the best way to preserve and even expand their political clout.

Noted scholar Michael Cullinane writes in Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898-1908, “The structure and operation of Filipino national politics had its origins in the municipal and provincial elections of 1901-1902 and in the proliferation of political networks and alliances that came into being as local elites competed for political power through the electoral process.”

Moreover, according to Patricio Abinales in Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative, once democratically ensconced in office the modern day cabeza “entrenched themselves further through intricate ties with other local elites.” Alliances and loyalties that gained the principales class of Filipino society access to national government largesse.

It is a painful irony indeed for present-day Filipinos to know that their country’s introduction to the democratic way of life was actually the point when public office became not just a commodity to barter with, but also to profit from. More importantly, this was the moment when the authority to govern the country fell under the control of the privileged few.

The Americans brought with them democratic institutions that Filipinos enjoy and are proud of today but they also brought with them the politics of patronage. This was the means used by past presidents to take full control of the country in the seat of power, Malacañang Palace. The very same method used by others after them to ascend to power as well as for the many political families to keep their hold on their supposedly elective offices for the past half-century.

According to a recent study by the Ateneo School of Government, Dynasties Thrive Under Decentralization in the Philippines, “almost 70% of the entire local government leadership will be dynastic by 2040.” Therefore, if the problem of political dynasties is not addressed now, not only will the national legislative body be filled up with members of traditional political families, even the local bureaucracy will be utterly dominated by political clans.

Such a scenario will further lessen the opportunities for new political leadership to evolve in the country. Consequently diminishing the probability of new ideas to solve the perennial economic inequality in Filipino society to emerge within the established political order.

This brief review of the Philippines’ colonial past has unraveled the loss of two extremely valuable indigenous political traditions. First, the fundamental belief that rulers have the duty to exercise good leadership in order to keep their privileged position in the community. Second, the core principle that it is the community that holds the power to choose its ruler and no one else.

Recognizing these losses are critical because modern political dynasties sprung out from this void in the Philippines’ political culture. Revitalizing these socio-political principles in the psyche of the polity is, therefore, key to addressing the problem of dynastic domination in the country’s purportedly democratic political system.

Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, author of Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective, lecturer at the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific and a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila. He is also a regular contributor in various public affairs and media outlets in the Philippines and Australia.