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Political dynasties and the art of the possible

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Whether or not political dynasties should endure has become a heated issue particularly in this election season, but the surrounding ruckus has drowned out valuable insights in understanding the phenomenon in the context of pushing the country forward.

In my view, the work of “developmental politics” has less to do with eradicating political dynasties and more to do with finding ways to make our political realities best work for us. Otto Von Bismarck put it quite lucidly: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”

In the Philippines, the reality is that political dynasties are remarkably resilient. From the American colonial period, this kin-based political organization has survived phases of colonialism, democracy, authoritarianism and re-democracy. Still, what is more striking is not so much that political dynasties persist—as they do in both developed and developing countries—as that ours seem to have been enjoying their political and economic stature without the pressure to bring about national development. In contrast, political parties in Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China harbor political dynasties, but their longevity has been conditional to their success in “delivering the goods.” Worse, a big number of political clans in the Philippines have been associated with patronage, corruption and coercion as means to maintain their access to the state and, through it, gain economic entitlements.

It is therefore quite understandable why there is a strong clamor to purge Philippine politics of dynastic rule. To this end, two means have been proposed: One is to push for an enabling law that will give teeth to the antidynasty provision in the Philippine Constitution (Article II, Section 26); the other is to urge Filipinos to “vote wisely” by choosing alternative candidates.

Yet, dynastic politics is unlikely to abate in the near future. Firstly, the legal solution propounded by civil society movements has little chance of prospering in Congress for obvious reasons. Secondly, Filipinos who vote for their dynastic mayor or governor are not necessarily doing so unwittingly, as some candidates may have a reputation for maintaining security, providing infrastructure development, and delivering public services, albeit alongside under-the-table activities. (In contrast, reformist candidates may not necessarily evoke the same positive memories in voters, however good their intentions and immaculate their track record.)

Thirdly, we must accept the reality that “not all good things go together” in democracies: Strengthening democratic processes (e.g., electoral and legislative processes) may only affirm the dominance of political dynasties, as the swift restoration of “old oligarchs” in the first post-Marcos elections easily reminds us.

Realistically, therefore, dynastic rule is here to stay.

If so, what implication does this bear upon our political project? I think it should shift our priority from “How do we rid politics of dynasties?” to “How do we form a coalition of reform-minded dynastic politicians who can work toward national development and who can create a coherent development strategy?” The latter question (and challenge) is particularly relevant for the leadership of President Aquino.

Unfortunately, there is no exact formula for addressing the challenge. What is certain, however, is that leadership plays an important role in building coalitions, particularly for overcoming the problem of lack of coordination among our politico-economic elites who are unable to work together in the creation and enforcement of rules needed for development (e.g., rules for industrial upgrading, agricultural financing, land reform).

Alfred McCoy put it more strongly when he wrote that Philippine politics suffers from “an anarchy of families”—indeed, “anarchy” articulates better the problem of Philippine politics more than the mere existence of powerful surnames.

Mr. Aquino’s leadership is important in two ways. First, in the immediate future, he must engage reform-oriented clans both nationally and locally with whom he can build a coalition to push for much needed legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Bill and the amendment to the current mining and landownership law (might the successful passing of the “sin tax” bill be indicative that he is learning how to do this?). Second, for the long haul, he must rebuild his own Liberal Party in a way that articulates a clear developmental vision, exercises discipline among its members, and mobilizes a wider constituency while accommodating powerful families in the party-building process.

In both endeavors, seeking dynastic cooperation is imperative, as they have the political and economic resources to block or support institutional changes.

Following Bismarck’s principle, to make these proposals is not to concede defeat; rather, it is to work with a sense of aspiration that is rooted in reality.

Arnil Paras holds a master’s degree in political economy of late development from the London School of Economics, where he is now pursuing a doctorate degree in development studies.


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