While the avowed focus of the 1st Inquirer Senate Forum last Wednesday was the inner workings of the Senate, the three former and four incumbent senators who accepted the invitation spent more time discussing pressing issues, including the hot-button topic of political dynasties.
While the constitutional provision is clear—“The State shall … prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law”—the scope of the necessary enabling law is in fact vague. At the Forum, in an attempt to frame the challenges in passing an antidynasty bill, Sen. Koko Pimentel offered three ways (at one point he called them “obstacles”) to understand that essential vagueness. We can use those terms, as ex-senator Ernesto Maceda did at the Forum, as a starting point: How do you define a dynasty? What is the limit on the degree of relationship? Which offices do you include?
“I don’t think it should go as low as councilor or barangay councilman (kagawad),” Maceda said. He may be right about service at the barangay level, although even that is arguable. But seats on city councils are much coveted, especially in big cities, because they come with their own version of the pork barrel and with greater access to political advantage; a mayor with a son in the council undermines the equal opportunity at the heart of the democratic project just as much as a Senate president with a son for a Senate colleague.
Sen. Chiz Escudero hinted at the complicated issue of degree of relationship when he said he would inhibit himself from committee hearings and plenary debates on any antidynasty measure, so as not to be accused of “self-serving” interventions. His recently deceased father, a former agriculture secretary, served as congressman when he was already in the Senate; his widowed mother is running for Congress. After the Forum, he told reporters he would still ultimately vote on any antidynasty measure, because “there might not be enough senators to [vote on the bill] if there are too many colleagues related to each other and who would then inhibit themselves.”
That is precisely part of the problem. In the Senate, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano is seeking to rejoin his sister Pia (two degrees), San Juan Rep. JV Ejercito to work beside his stepbrother Sen. Jinggoy Estrada (two degrees), Rep. Jack Enrile to serve under his father, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile (one degree).
If we look at relationships between senators and officials holding “major positions” outside the chamber, to borrow Maceda’s term, the Senate of the 16th Congress may have the following new members: Vice President Jejomar Binay’s daughter Nancy (one degree), President Aquino’s aunt Tingting Cojuangco (three degrees) or the President’s first cousin Bam Aquino (four degrees).
No one among the senatorial candidates tried their hand at defining a dynasty, but almost all seemed to agree, or at least to assume, that something needed to be done, for real. Former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr. acknowledged that the problem was an old one, and suggested that it now required presidential intervention: “This means a certification by Malacañang [of an antidynasty measure as an urgent legislative priority] has become necessary.” (Talk about inner workings.)
But can the candidates create the necessary momentum to pass the needed enabling act? That remains to be seen.
It might help to remember the antidynasty provision in the Constitution in full. Article II, Section 26 reads: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”
In that formulation, the prohibition on dynasties is part of or related to the basic principle of equal access to opportunity. In other words, the Constitution bans political dynasties not because they are dynasties, per se, but because they tend to monopolize the access to political power.
So even a smaller-scale bill that prevents relatives within, say, two degrees of consanguinity or affinity from simultaneously occupying positions in the presidency, the vice presidency, the Senate and the House, if it becomes law, would be a real advance. It would have the effect, at least as far as national positions are concerned, of decongesting the pathways to political power.