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About political dynasties

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The campaign against political dynasties is on full blast. Nothing will come out of it.

This, in fact, is not a novel issue. The constitutional provision on the subject was already a subject of debate in the 1987 Constitutional Commission. The debate started during the deliberations on the article on Local Governments when Commissioner Vicente Foz proposed the prohibition of political dynasties. The arguments pro and con about prohibiting political dynasties were rehearsed during the brief debate.

Briefly Foz argued that “The idea of a prohibition against the rise of political dynasties is essentially to prevent one family from controlling political power as against the democratic idea that political power should be dispersed as much as possible among our people.”

Immediately, however, Commissioner Teodulo Natividad objected saying that this would be a diminution of the power of the people to elect their governors.

Essentially that was Commissioner Christian Monsod’s argument too, saying that “we have to be very clear on what we mean and not just have a provision that can be interpreted in a very wide latitude. I say so because this is a restrictive provision. It excludes and it disqualifies. We should think very hard about this before we put things in the Constitution that will deprive the people of the right to a full choice as to who should be their local leaders.” He added: “I just want to note that the ultimate objective in cleaning the election process is to make sure that an elective office is accessible to all, whether rich or poor. If we are going to say that in order to democratize we will have to disqualify somebody, this does not sound right.”

But Commissioner Jose Nolledo argued for prohibition, saying that “If we adopt a provision against political dynasties as defined by Congress, we widen the political base or the political opportunities on the part of poor but deserving candidates to run for public office with a better chance of winning.”

In the end the Foz proposal was rejected.

But the idea refused to die and Nolledo tried to revive it during the deliberation on the Declaration of Principles. Nolledo entertained the hope that the Constitutional Commission might still approve a prohibition of political dynasties because, as he said, “It seems to me that the resolution asking for a provision in the Constitution is very popular outside but does not seem to enjoy the same popularity inside the Constitutional Commission.” He was also faintly hoping that Congress would do what the Commission would not do. Hence his impassioned plea: “And so I plead with the Members of the Commission to please approve this provision. . . [W]e leave it to Congress to determine the circumstances under which political dynasty is prohibited. The Commission will not determine hard and fast rules by which political dynasty may be condemned. But I think this is a very progressive provision and, in consulting the people, the people will like this provision. I hope the Commission will hear the plea of the people.”

The Commission responded to his anguished plea by approving what we now have: “Section 26. The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

As can be seen, it is a limp-wristed provision. It is like most of the provisions in the Declaration of Principles. They are not strict constitutional provisions which bind; they merely served to shorten Commission debates. At best they invite Congress to accept an idea and to give it substance and form.

In 2011, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed Senate Bill 2649 on political dynasties. Her Explanatory Note pretty much summed up the arguments expressed by others for the passage of such a bill. But the bill did not get anywhere. Will a constitutional amendment by referendum and plebiscite, as suggested by the currently disheartened Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes, succeed in drafting a provision that defines what political dynasty means? But amendment by initiative and referendum has had its own problems.

Now we are at it again looking for an end to political dynasties. In 1986, Commissioner Blas Ople was more optimistic. “We see lots of evidences that, in fact, people disadvantaged by the accident of birth have indeed risen through their own efforts to become successful competitors of entrenched political dynasties in their provinces and cities.” Now, however, as new dynasties are sprouting, there is not much room for optimism.

The argument that the electorate should be left free to decide whom to choose is not without validity. Partly for that reason, the meaning of political dynasties has been left for Congress to define. But since Congress is the principal playground of political dynasties, the realization of the dream that the provision on political dynasties would widen access to political opportunities, will very probably be exhaustingly long in coming. In the end, how people vote this year and in the election years to come will determine our future.


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