Are all political dynasties that bad?

Published November 20, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



I had an insightful discussion the other day in my DZMM teleradyo program Sagot Ko ‘Yan  (8 to 9 am, Sundays) with Ateneo School of Government Dean Ronald Mendoza, one of the foremost experts on political dynasties.

Amid the general belief that governance by members of a political family holding local political power in simultaneous, successive, or overlapping terms is synonymous with massive poverty and underdevelopment, Mendoza believes that there are times, although very rare, when some areas actually progress under political dynasties.

He said progress comes when power – both political and economic – are not absolutely monopolized by family members related by consanguinity or affinity, when other stakeholders are able to significantly contribute to development efforts in the locality, and when the presence of civil society is strong and able to expose anomalies.

Mendoza cited the case of Cebu that has remained progressive under the Osmeña clan which has produced not only local leaders but also political bigwigs in the national level, including the third President of the Philippines, Sergio Osmeña Sr., who led the country from 1944 to 1946.

I tend to agree with Mendoza’s observation regarding the Osmeñas. It is indeed admirable that they did not have the tendency to monopolize political power. When the term of Cebu City Mayor Tommy Osmeña was up, he resisted the temptation of fielding his wife or a close relative to succeed him, unlike the usual practice of many politicians who make a mockery of the intent of the anti-dynasty provision in the 1987 Constitution.

And even when a political family’s grip on power is almost absolute in a certain locality, Mendoza said progress could still be achieved if there is “participatory governance” with other members of such family, especially the young ones, who are able to come up with brilliant ideas that are acted upon to bring about development.

As the 2019 election looms on the horizon, political dynasties are again in focus. Many people are exasperated that political families have become more brazen in fielding more candidates. The brazenness is fueled by what has been obvious all these years: political families have huge chances to be in power because, besides the usual three Gs or the so-called “guns, goons and gold” that play a big role in electing public officials, the other factor—bloodline—provides the strongest grip in our electoral system.

Indeed, the classic description of our political system as “anarchy of families” still holds true, almost three decades after the phrase was coined by US professor Alfred McCoy who had written about Philippine political history.

The seeming obsession of many political dynasties to remain in power, plus the lure to be in power after an individual has tasted and liked the experience, has even made it inevitable for members of the same family to challenge one another for the same elective positions.

The issue of political dynasties is merely the tip of the disastrous iceberg jutting out anew into the national consciousness every election time. And the iceberg bears the full extent of our electoral dysfunction: patronage politics, corruption, election-related violence, alliances of unprincipled opportunists, vote-buying, fraud, and a host of other ills afflicting our political spectrum.

In fact, almost all of such ills may be linked to most political dynasties’ insatiable obsession for power, prompting some anti-dynasty advocates to lash out at its “inherent evil” and tag it as being the “cause and consequence” of our seemingly inferior brand of democracy that perpetuates a political patron-dependent voter symbiotic relationship responsible for underdevelopment of our political system and, consequently, also of our economy.

Although some political dynasties are perceived to be “benevolent, productive, and nurturing a legacy” while having flourished all these years or since American colonialism, almost all have a negative connotation among enlightened voters that see them as perpetrators of a vicious cycle whereby power begets wealth and vice versa. Ill-gotten political power begets ill-gotten economic wealth and vice-versa, to put it bluntly.

With more indigent voters dependent on the vast wealth of political dynasties they patronize, weaning them away from their patrons is difficult if subsistence opportunities are not found elsewhere. Thus, it is imperative for more economic policies to bring about progress and inclusive growth.

Economic progress, however, must go hand in hand with political development as shown in the 2012 World Bank-recommended bestseller, Why Nations Fail, authored by Harvard-based James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu (of MIT), that explains “how sensible economic ideas and policies often achieve little in the absence of fundamental political change.”

The compelling book endorsed by several Nobel Laureates in economics argues that to bring about prosperity, there must be “inclusive pluralistic political institutions” whereby political power is scattered “broadly in society and subject to constraints” on the exercise of such power, in contrast to “extractive political institutions” that are doomed to fail because they “concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the exercise of this power.”

The Ampatuan dynasty’s handling of Maguindanao’s development, or lack of it, validates the thesis espoused in Why Nations Fail. The subsequent Maguindanao massacre on Nov. 23, 2009, described as “the worst episode of election-related violence in our history, the deadliest single assault on the media recorded in the world, the most brutal display of impunity in memory,” is indeed a compelling reason against “fat” political dynasties in this country.

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