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Commentary

End perpetual power

Nearly 120 years since its colonial birth, the country’s legislature remains an antediluvian arena still flocked with aging and rising political dynasties emblematic of an old era. This elite institution hardly embodies modern democratic representation, since even the party list system—crafted in 1987 as a “social justice tool”—is also inundated by the powers that be. Some have tried changing the legislative membership by reviving antidynasty bills, but such an act needs retooling after almost 35 years of futile exercise.

The results of the last midterm elections show that at least 180 of all district representatives in the new 18th Congress belong to political dynasties. Adding party list members who are dynastic, the figure rises to 214, or more than 70 percent of the House of Representatives seats. Senators from the same monocracy represent 67 percent of the chamber. Local elective posts abound with dynasties, including governors and city mayors from the same families holding the same posts for decades through a revolving door of kinship.

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In the Bangsamoro, the reign of local dynasties remains uncontested, with all seven congressional districts being held by the Mangudadatus, Hatamans, Sinsuats and others. Oligarchic persistence in the region is borne out of deeply entrenched feudal ties, where the elite dominate politics even as fellow Muslims die in war and poverty. How the dynastic system will coexist with the MILF-led Bangsamoro transition authority’s vision of making governance inclusive and arms irrelevant remains uncertain.

Even as they comprise a trifling -1 percent of the country’s population, oligarchs have a cunning ability to sprout. After seven elections, the party list system, which was envisioned as a legislative voice of the poor, has been co-opted by them. By some legal chicanery, the system is now anybody’s game where dynasties form political parties and win seats — 34, or nearly 60 percent, of 61 seats in the latest count. Except for a few minority seats, the party list is packed with millionaires; at least one billionaire is the richest congressman today.

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In the May elections, the same leverages pivotal to the resiliency of the dynasty system were operative — electoral edge, name recall, money, vote-buying and an automated system that is vulnerable to fraud. As usual, the lack of a viable political party system, where issues and performance should have counted most, reduced the election to a feud between political clans, with machineries employed in the guise of political parties, thus marginalizing aspirants who stood for principled politics. Dynasties mock the election, which in principle is an accountability mechanism bestowing positions only to those with unblemished public service records while ensuring an even playing field where nondynastic candidates win.

While in recent years political dynasties have faced increasing scrutiny because of their dominance, practice of patronage politics and links to big-time corruption, they toughened up under President Duterte. After prolonged hospital detention, former president and Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo piloted the railroading of Resolution of Both Houses No. 15. The pro-Charter resolution was roundly condemned as a scheme to perpetuate political dynasties; it swept away the present Charter’s antidynasty provision along with the term limits of elective officials. Yet Mr. Duterte sees nothing wrong with clientelism, as his own family members now occupy executive, legislative and local government positions. His recent declaration against pushing federalism brings closure to the Puno committee’s core Charter provision making the ban on political dynasties self-executing.

The chronic power monopoly by the elite suggests that the people’s fair representation in government that enables the country’s claimed democracy to work is nil. This is evinced, for instance, by Congress’ failure to enact landmark institutional reforms like genuine land redistribution, minimum wage increase and other pro-labor laws, and an implementing law on the constitutional ban of dynasties.

The dynasty system is antidevelopment, as has been validated by scholars, including former National Economic and Development Authority officials and UNDP and AIM academics. Not only does it hurt growth and poverty reduction programs, it also worsens social inequality in regions like Bicol and BARMM, where clans are well-entrenched.

Targeting economic growth is aimless without ending the perpetual power of a few families.

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Bobby M. Tuazon is director for Policy Studies of CenPEG. He used to head UP Manila’s political science program.

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