CEBU CITY—Sharp exchanges punctuated the debate among the senatorial candidates on what to do to implement the constitutional ban on political dynasties, the topic of the third and final episode of the Inquirer Senate Forum here on Friday.
The exchanges crystallized the public’s strong sentiment against the domination of Philippine politics by a few but influential and powerful families. The question that surfaced is whether the next Senate will push legislation to give teeth to the constitutional ban.
The intensity of the debate showed that political dynasties are one of the most contentious issues in the May 13 midterm elections, along with the controversial reproductive health (RH) law that has put the Catholic Church in a collision course with the Aquino administration, which backed the measure in Congress.
Their stand on the two issues would either make or break the 33 senatorial candidates’ political fortunes, as indicated by the public’s reaction to them in the three episodes of the Inquirer Senate Forum (the first was held in the University of the Philippines in Diliman and the second in Baguio City).
The three forums tapped into the vein of the views of the senatorial candidates, as the winners will be the policymakers who will shape the national agenda, including political dynasties, the RH law, the economy, poverty, education and taxes.
The eight candidates, who took part in the Cebu forum, represented a cross-section of society—incumbent office holders, those seeking reelection, and the NGO (nongovernment organizations) sector, with no financial base to fund a campaign, unlike the candidates from political families who had ample resources.
In a way, the candidates from the NGO sector who are seeking electoral support are pitting themselves against the resources of the embedded political families. What are their chances against the goliaths of the dynastic families?
Although they are fighting an uphill battle, the aspiring “outsiders,” the Inquirer forums have found, are rich in ideas and have much to offer to the voters. They can, if elected, democratize the social base of the Senate.
A sort of consensus emerged in the Cebu forum, i.e., there was a need to level the playing field by bringing down the prohibitive costs of electoral campaigning, especially of political advertising.
Independent senatorial candidate Teddy Casiño opened fire on the dynasty issue. After a stint in the House, representing the Left in Philippine politics, Casiño appeared to have already acquired the airs of a veteran senator when he pointed out that he had authored several antidynasty bills, but none of them went to the plenary “because of opposition from lawmakers belonging to big political families.”
Using his own definition of political dynasty, Casiño said the wife, children, parents and siblings—or second-degree relatives—should not be allowed to run for the post being vacated by an outgoing elected official. Singling out Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, Casiño said, “There are other families who have young and budding politicians.”
Angara is running for the Senate as a candidate of the administration’s Team PNoy, led by President Aquino himself, scion of the country’s most powerful dynasty, which has produced two presidents (the incumbent and his mother, former President Cory Aquino).
Casiño lamented the fate of the antidynasty bills being killed in Congress. How can the bills be reported out to the floor after the President has stubbornly refused to certify them as urgent legislation?
Angara replied that Casiño’s definition does not apply to him because his father, outgoing Sen. Edgardo Angara, is retiring in June after serving in the Senate for 24 years. “Everyone must be given equal opportunity to serve,” the younger Angara said. But voters, he said, should not elect him because of his family name but because of his track record.
The six other candidates in the forum were former Bukidnon Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance, Bro. Eddie Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas, Rizalito David of Ang Kapatiran Party, Mary Grace Poe of Team PNoy, Samson Alcantara of the Social Justice Society, and independent Ricardo Penson.
According to Alcantara, there is no need to define what a political dynasty is because the Constitution is clear that “political dynasties are prohibited, whether they are good or bad.”
David and Penson agreed that the Constitution had already sufficiently defined what a political dynasty was. But they pointed out that the constitutional prohibition had not been implemented because the electorate had kept on voting the wrong officials into office.
Villanueva reiterated his earlier position that no one should be discriminated against in serving the country through the government because of his or her family name, so long as he or she is competent and of good moral standing.
A religious leader, Villanueva has a son, Joel, who is chief of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, a government agency.
Casiño, David, Penson and Alcantara, a lawyer, are against political dynasties.
Zubiri made a pitch for a broad public health care system subsidized by the state. He belongs to a political family in Bukidnon. He is the son of Bukidnon Gov. Juan Zubiri Jr. and the younger brother of Bukidnon Rep Jose Ma. Zubiri III. He contended that there are scions of political clans who have excelled and surpassed the performance of their parents and grandparents.
Zubiri took pains to point out that his region, Mindanao, is grossly underrepresented on the two main contending tickets. It is represented only by him and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III of the dynasty founded by former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr.
Dynastic lineage runs across interlocking party lines. None of the two alignments can claim superiority in being able to push antidynasty legislation in the next Congress. Both are blighted on this issue.
There is no more ironic setting for the third Inquirer Senate forum than Cebu. As the campaign heated up, I observed that the walls in the city were plastered with election posters that carried the pictures of candidates from Cebu’s political dynasties.
Among the cities or ethnic regions of the country, Cebu has the most political dynasties. The posters carry the names of families that have ruled the region since the turn of the 20th century—the Osmeñas, Duranos, Garcias, Sottos and Cuencos.
According to a study by Bobby Tuazon of the Center of People Empowerment in Governance, 94 percent of the provinces (73 out of a total of 80) have political dynasties. The average number of political families per province is 2.31. Cebu accounts for at least six. Whether the density of dynasties has made Cebu more democratic and more economically progressive is an issue that calls for further academic research.