Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walking with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after an oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/Stringer/Presidential Communications Office/ Stringer

Marcos. Aquino. Roxas. Duterte. Dynasties are synonymous with Philippine politics, a captive yet rambunctious democratic system that at least one academic has dubbed an “anarchy of families.”

But a new provision introduced as part of a constitutional reform drive seeks to loosen the grip of these legacies, in the noble name of uprooting corruption, promoting diversity and alleviating poverty.

With a Congress audit showing two-thirds of elected positions nationwide are dominated by a handful of political families, meaningful political and economic reforms have always been a tough ask of the country’s ruling class.

President Rodrigo Duterte, whose family rules the southern city of Davao in dynastic fashion, has vacillated on earlier populist vows to tackle the influence of big political families.

A 20-member team, known as the Consultative Committee, or ConCom, is now drafting a new constitution to move the country from a unitary political system towards federalism – one of Duterte’s campaign trail promises to break Manila’s domination and devolve more power to the provinces.

This month, ConCom voted overwhelmingly in favor of enshrining anti-dynasty measures, including blocks on dynastic families from fielding election candidates to removing incumbent dynastic lawmakers from their elected seats, in a proposed new draft constitution.

Former president Benigno Aquino speaks with the backdrop of an image his late president mother Corazon Aquino in Manila, August 1, 2010. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

ConCom is split, however, over how widely to define a dynasty, including whether its members should extend beyond children to cousins and even mistresses. The current anti-dynasty provisions would cover only parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren and the in-laws of incumbent lawmakers.

“If we want to end political dynasties, we better ban them completely. If we just regulate, we just allow loopholes,” former senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr told local news outlet Rappler. Fittingly, his son, Aquilino Pimentel III, is the current senate president.

Duterte, who personally appointed the committee’s 20 members, has already said he considers the proposed reforms “anti-democratic.” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told media that Duterte believes voters should decide who serves.

“The President has said that the voice of the people is the voice of god. So, if they want to send a relative of an incumbent official into public office, so be it,” Roque said.

Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio took over from her father as Davao City’s mayor after he won the presidency in mid-2016. Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, was vice mayor of the city until he was forced to resign late last year amid unproven allegations he is involved in the illegal drug trade.

Paolo Duterte, Davao’s former Vice Mayor and son of President Rodrigo Duterte, testifies at a Senate hearing on drug smuggling in Pasay, Metro Manila, September 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Predictably, other dynasties have voiced opposition to the anti-dynasty measures. Senator Cynthia Villar points to the Clinton and Bush family dynasties in US politics as democratic norms.

Villar, whose son is a high-ranking public official and husband a former senator, told local media that dynasties are a reality of public life and they should be embraced not banned.

“It’s something that is natural. What is important is that people learn to elect good public officials, whether they belong to one family or not,” she said in local media.

Villar suggested voter empowerment through education and job creation is a better long-term solution to the country’s entrenched political and economic problems.

While the proposed anti-dynasty measures have been well-received by the Philippine public, they will still need to be backed by lawmakers. With as many as 75% of the country’s lawmakers hailing from dynastic families, according to a congressional audit of members’ backgrounds, there are likely hurdles ahead.

Ferdinand Marcos and his family at his second inauguration as Philippine president. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While dynasties are embedded across all levels of government, not all are created equal.

A study conducted by Ateneo University’s School of Government last year made a distinction between “fat” and “thin” dynasties, with the former having more than two family members in government at a given time and the latter holding positions in succession.

Philippine provinces which are dominated by “fat” dynasties are more likely to suffer from wide-scale poverty and corruption, the study found. The report recommended that anti-dynasty bills should target the “fat” families, as “thin” dynasties are far less likely to exacerbate these problems.

Ronald Mendoza, dean of Ateneo’s School of Government, said in February “anti-fat” dynasty reforms would open 25% of all local government positions, allowing for a diversity of would-be candidates to fill the roles.

The study tracked dynasties from 2007 to 2016, a period where family influence grew to command 78% of all district representatives, 81% of governors and 70% of mayors across the country.

The study also found a clear correlation between dynastic governance and poor outcomes for constituents, with the province of Maguindanao in Mindanao, dominated by the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans, having the highest density of dynastic rule and ranking as the nation’s second poorest.

Sajid Ampatuan (2L) whose politically-influential family members are suspected of ordering the murder of 58 people in the southern island of Mindanao in 2009, with relatives in a May 10, 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/Mark Navales

Mendoza doubts that any anti-dynasty measures could feasibly reduce poverty in the country, currently affecting 26% of the population according to official statistics. He says where one dynasty fails another usually rises to replace it in a cycle that pits political elites against the rest the population.

“Political dynasties have effectively replaced political parties as the primary electoral machinery. This could be attributed to the weak party system in the country,” says Jan Robert R Go, a political science expert from the University of the Philippines.

“But more than that … the historical development of political institutions in the country, especially at the local level, has centered on land-owning families,” he says, noting families literally control the territory and people they govern.

For lawmakers and political activists, this is nothing new. Efforts to pass anti-dynasty bills have been in the works since the fall of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, but none have affected meaningful political change.

Indeed, an enabling law for a constitutional provision barring the more overt forms of dynastic rule initially laid out in 1987 has still not been passed. And with so many lawmakers hailing from powerful families, even the most ardent of reformists recognize they are fighting what is likely a losing legislative battle.

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