Political dynasties galore
ACCORDING TO this paper’s latest count, at least 542 candidates in the May 9 elections are considered sure winners. Not because of superior odds against their opponent—the result of a better program of governance, perhaps, or a more effective grassroots campaign—but simply by default: They are, in fact, running unopposed.
One may argue, as reelectionist congressman Arthur Defensor of Iloilo does, that the lack of any adversary in what ought to be an exercise in choosing from a healthy plurality of options is, of and by itself, a win for democracy. “In a way, it is a validation from my constituents that what I have been doing for them is satisfactory,” he said.
Is it? Is it really a popular validation, or the pernicious effect of the concentration of power and influence in the hands of an individual, and the family or clan behind him or her, working in earnest to exclude any others from the fiefdom they have created? Out of the 542 unopposed candidates in the May elections, 14 are running for governor, 14 for vice governor, 220 for mayor, 255 for vice mayor, and 39 for district representative. One or two running uncontested as such might be seen as the people acclaiming in advance an overwhelming favorite, but more than 500 across the country tells you something is plain rotten in the state of Philippine politics, with “democratic elections” actually leaving voters no choice but a smorgasbord of preordained—and recycled—faces.
Blame political dynasties for the mess. Scratch any of the unopposed candidates and, chances are you’d find members of a political family working full-time to ensure that not even a semblance of a contest threatens their standing as the ultimate gatekeeper and wielder of power in their bailiwicks. A look at the candidates’ surnames reveals that many are members of families that have held positions or are incumbents in government, and now apparently see it as their birthright to “inherit” such positions, passed on from one family member to the next as in a monarchy. Running unopposed in an election—a situation they are able to machinate by virtue of their grip on their constituency—then becomes, as in the realm of kings and queens, an exercise in virtual anointment.
A study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center has noted that, from 2004 to 2013, the portions of the country lost to the rule of yet another political dynasty have grown at an alarming rate—47 percent in only 10 years. The story is similar whether set in the Ilocos or Samar or Lanao: A candidate gets elected, consolidates his or her hold on power by building advantage through influence and patronage, starts a dynasty by fielding a family member or members in various positions in the next elections, and eventually entrenches the clan by basically refusing to yield to others the reins of government. The lopsided power structure then leaves voters hostage to the warped situation of having to elect only the candidate imposed on them by their political overlords.
This is exactly the unhealthy circumstance foreseen in the 1987 Constitution: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” Unfortunately, about two-thirds of Congress, the body tasked to define the law, are themselves the products of political dynasties. The heirs of such patent privilege would be the last to draw a sword against their class by authoring a law that would force their families to give up their political advantage by submitting to a level playing field.
Like the ill-fated freedom of information bill, banning political dynasties was another campaign promise on which President Aquino failed to follow through. After a lengthy silence on the issue, the Palace gave belated support to an antidynasty bill. But at this late stage, it has no hope of passing, let alone making the slightest bit of difference in the perverted circumstances of the May elections, where a vast number of candidates from dominant families are set to get their positions and sinecures in government with no sweat—and the voters with no genuine, discerning hand in their victories.
An antidynasty bill has been filed, and consistently rejected, in Congress since 1987. The next president needs to commit to honoring the Constitution, and the Filipino electorate, by getting one finally passed.
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