Political dynasty or political family?
One of the most appalling changes being proposed in Congress by the Arroyo-led coalition on constitutional amendments is the removal of the ban against political dynasties. Together with the lifting of term limits, this proposed constitutional change would perpetuate the stranglehold of a few families now controlling the nation’s political life.
It is argued that the constitutional ban is, after all, unenforceable. So, after decades of pussyfooting in producing an enabling law, Congress now wants to get rid of the provision altogether. This is like saying that since our democracy is not working, we might as well give up on it as a system and try something else, like authoritarianism.
True, sociologists tell us that change does not happen by fiat. It is often observed that this country has some of the best laws in the world, but they remain unimplemented, for the simple reason that they lack the support of what is known as “plausibility structures.” A law needs the force of existing structures, an enabling social context, to make it operative and enforceable.
In the case of the constitutional ban against political dynasties, it is not that the state machinery cannot implement this. It is just that Congress, as it is presently constituted, is unwilling to pass a bill that would eliminate most of them and their relatives from maintaining their positions.
Years back, research by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism found that fully 80 percent of the congressmen then were descendants of politicians, some dating back to the era of the American Commonwealth. A more recent Ateneo de Manila University study puts it at 78 percent.
So it is not surprising that the congressmen have seen to it that no enabling law is passed. And with the absence of a law that would put into motion this constitutional provision, political dynasties have proliferated. According to Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, “Seventy percent of governors in 2007 were dynastic. It is now 81 percent in 2016. For congressmen, 75 percent in 2007 were dynastic. By 2016, almost 78 percent of congressmen are dynastic,” he said.
Mendoza makes a distinction between what he calls “fat” dynasties and “thin” dynasties. “Fat” political dynasties have more than two and even 20 clan members occupying government offices all at the same time. “Thin” political dynasties are content with having members succeed each other in office.
An example of the latter are two candidates from political families that are running for senator in the May elections.
Erin Tañada descends from an illustrious political family in Quezon. His grandfather, Lorenzo Tañada, ran for the Senate in 1947 and was known to be a nationalist and foremost street parliamentarian during the Marcos dictatorship. It was only after four decades that his father, Wigberto Tañada, succeeded to get elected in the same office. Erin himself got into Congress only in 2004.
Likewise, Chel Diokno is son to Jose “Pepe” Diokno, champion of human rights, pro-Filipino economic legislation, and prisoner during the dark days of martial law. Ka Pepe had for grandfather Ananias Diokno, a general who fought during the Philippine Revolution and the subsequent war against American occupation. Diokno ran for the Senate in 1963, and it is only now that his son Chel seeks the same office, after a long private career as educator and human rights lawyer like his father.
At the Senate hearing on the antidynasty bill, Mendoza shared the finding that wherever there is a “fat” political clan, poverty deepens. Disturbingly, he warned that “We are slowly becoming less democratic over time, particularly in the poorest areas of the country, and if we don’t stop this, democracy will slowly die.”
The reason: “There are no checks and balance. Even if you are wrong, the public would have a very hard time to get you out of office. You are scaring your opponents, you are the richest there, or you control all the mayors.”
Ultimately, one important issue that is at stake in the May polls is whether we would allow the perpetual presence of political dynasties with a proven record of wholesale robbery like the Marcoses, or the resurfacing of more decent political families with a pedigree of honor, valor, love of country and integrity in public service.
The more critical distinction this time, it seems to me, is not so much between “fat” and “thin” dynasties, but between those whose family DNA indicates that they will serve the country well, and those who belong to dynasties with a shameful history of corruption.
Melba Padilla Maggay, PhD, is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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