Demand more from local dynasties
Family dynasties have been a main feature in local politics for a very long time. This sociopolitical phenomenon can be traced back to precolonial society because the power structure of the communities then tended to be built around blood relations.
According to historians, the datu was expected to preserve the solidarity of the barangay and protect its way of life. And in return his family received labor and tribute from the rest of the community.
Significantly, however, a datu’s ability to retain his high station depended heavily on his performance as a community leader. Meaning, when warranted by circumstances, he could be replaced by the barangay with a challenger proven to be more capable of meeting the community’s needs.
It is thus a peculiar feature of our precolonial history that powerful clans emerged in leadership roles underpinned by a social contract. They enjoyed the advantage of an elevated social status but also assumed the role of protector of the community. More critically, it was incumbent upon them to exercise good leadership for to do otherwise may cause their removal from their privileged position.
Nostalgia over this indigenous power arrangement is timely because the campaign period for local elections is in full swing. And sadly, the local dynasties of modern times have proven to be the stark contrast of their noble progenitors.
The vital role that local governance plays in nation-building is well-established. Per the International Guidelines on Decentralization and Strengthening of Local Authorities, issued by UN-Habitat, “political decentralization to the local level is an essential component of democratization, good governance and citizen engagement.”
Unfortunately, the Philippines paints a strikingly different picture. A respected political commentator notes: “In the 1970s, there was only one dictatorship in the country: the Marcos dictatorship. Today, we have many ‘small dictatorships’ in the form of political dynasties.”
The plain truth is political elites in the Philippines are so entrenched in their positions of power that they have become essentially insulated from electoral competition. Being in a privileged station for so long has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance mindset.
Inept community leadership is clearly demonstrated by local politicos who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact, and that are simply a knee-jerk response to the clamor of the day from their supporters. Worse, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can and are willing to push for reforms but have no inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to seek public office because of the monarchical nature of local government.
Accordingly, Filipinos who are qualified, passionate and patriotic are deprived of the opportunity to establish clean and effective local governance.
This is precisely the reason socioeconomic progress eludes many local communities in the country. Per the groundbreaking study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012, lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local dynasts.
But a more alarming development is that the “fattest” dynasties—those with the biggest number of family members in office—govern the poorest parts of the country. The long and unchallenged reign of these “small dictatorships” has pushed the Philippine political system to rock bottom, at the expense of the vast majority.
We can no longer take local elections for granted. While we patiently work for the enactment of legislation to regulate, if not prohibit, political dynasties, voters must assume a critical approach in dealing with gubernatorial and mayoral aspirants. We should ensure they can be effective and potent community leaders regardless of their political pedigree.
For instance, all local candidates should be reminded that a main task of the local government is to facilitate a vibrant local economy. They should be made aware that the demands of globalization necessitate strategies and techniques that enable investors to easily set up shop within the community itself.
Offering livelihood seminars and opening a credit line for small entrepreneurs are very good proposals. But the concurrence of fierce international competition and the vast number of greenfield business opportunities require more audacity and innovation from local leaders.
Additionally, the local government must also ensure a high liveability standard while it pursues economic progress for the community. An enlightened body politic, as well as an overwhelmed Mother Nature, now expect development to be sustainable and socially responsible.
Tree-planting and maintaining green spaces are very good proposals as well. But the demands of climate change require bolder and far-reaching measures. For example, for flood-prone areas the modification of topography to create new waterways, rainwater catchments and reservoirs may be the only effective long-term solution.
Whether we like or not, our chances of living the good life depends highly on what we write on our ballot. Thus, it will be in our best interest to internalize these two indigenous political traditions: the fundamental belief that rulers have the duty to exercise good leadership in order to keep their privileged position in the community, and the core principle that it is the community that holds the power to choose its ruler.
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.
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