The future of political families

The current debate on the propriety of so-called “political dynasties” in a democracy is quite interesting.  While focused on the prospective senatorial candidacies of Alan Peter Cayetano, J. V. Ejercito, and Aquilino Pimentel III — who all have close kin in the present Senate – the issue is bound to affect many others at different levels of the political hierarchy.  The criticism of the role of kinship in Philippine politics has never been more pronounced. We can take it as a positive sign of the growing assertion of modern values in the nation’s political life.

Candidates from the political families are, of course, correct in saying they cannot choose their families, that there is no law against it at the moment, and that in the end it is the voters who will decide.  Yet it is one thing to recognize the reality of the Filipino family as a powerful generator of political careers.  It is another to accept this as a fact of life that should not bother anyone.  It does bother many Filipinos.  It bothers even a few decent candidates who, even as they justify their candidacies as standing firmly on personal achievement and merit, also apologetically admit they are riding on name-recall and family identification.

Is the coupling of politics and family in our society unshakeable?  It may seem so for now.  But I think it is becoming increasingly difficult for members of political clans to explain why they are running by simply pointing to their family’s supposed tradition of public service. Though we may be far from being a modern democracy, the values by which we seek to justify inequalities today are changing.  I like to think they are no longer feudal. This is true for power as it is for wealth. The same process is slowly working its way in the realm of the economy.  Many large family corporations are already realizing they must broaden their field of recruitment and hire professional managers from outside the family circle if they are to survive in the modern world economy.

The shift from inherited sinecures to earned positions will happen not because of any specific legislation banning dynasties but because of changes in the circumstances of our people.  More and more of our people are better educated and richer in outlook because of travel; their sources of information more varied because of modern media. These are factors that create a vibrant middle class.  This is happening, however, without a meaningful decline in mass poverty. This paradox is at the heart of the impatient assertion of modern political values (sometimes exploding as people power) in the face of a tenacious system of patronage that feeds on poverty and dependence.

Much has changed in our society in the last 50 years.  While it is true that political clans have persisted, it is also undeniable that many old families that used to dominate the political landscape at the provincial level have lost much of their power or have vanished from politics altogether. There was a time when Ilocos politics was inconceivable without the Crisologos, Pampanga politics without the Lazatins and Nepomucenos, Zambales politics without the Barrettos, Cavite politics without the Montanos, Batangas politics without the Laurels, etc.  That is no longer the case today.  If a careful accounting of political families nationwide were to be undertaken, we are likely to find not an unbroken pattern of dynastic continuity but of decline.

It is not to say that no new political families have arisen, or that, given the chance, today’s politicians will not try to establish their own dynasties.  It’s almost certain they will, but their shelf life will be much shorter.  New players are emerging every election year, bringing with them the patina of public recognition earned elsewhere.  Some of them may even come from the old political families.  If Kris Aquino were to run for senator in the 2007 election, she would surely top the list of winners – not so much because she is an Aquino, but because she is the host of the popular TV game show “Deal or No Deal.”  This is the same medium that catapulted Loren Legarda and Noli de Castro, both without any political pedigree.

TV celebrities like them who have made a mark on free television will continue for some time to wield a decisive advantage in our political life.  They will be sought out by parties to stand as candidates or as political endorsers.  This is a reflection of the current dominance of television in the daily life of the average Filipino, a development that has been largely underwritten by overseas work.  It is this centrality of television in the shaping of public consciousness that is also shifting the center of gravity of electoral campaigns from face-to-face sorties to media appearances and costly advertisements.

Are we then looking into a future political system dominated by TV hosts, actors, sports heroes, and the like?  As traditional politicians lose their influence, media celebrities may be tempted to follow Erap’s example and spin their popularity into a political career.  But even this will end when platform-based political parties are formed that can gather enough political clout to be able to rationalize the leadership recruitment process.

Every society is unique in its development.  But the trajectory of political development in the modern world is decidedly toward the formation of autonomous political systems that are not merely adjuncts of clans, churches, or corporations.  There is no other way to run a modern state in an increasingly complex world environment.


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