What’s wrong with political dynasties?

What’s wrong with having a father and son (Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and candidate Jack Ponce Enrile), or a brother and sister (Senators Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano), or two brothers (Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and candidate JV Ejercito) sitting together as senators in a 24-member chamber? What’s wrong with having the wife succeed her husband for the same position (candidate Cynthia Villar and outgoing senator Manny Villar)? Or a son his father (candidate Juan Edgardo Angara and outgoing senator Edgardo Angara)? A lot.

The use of the family as a platform for political recruitment goes against an explicit state policy. Section 26 of Article II of the 1987 Philippine Constitution declares: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” The failure of Congress to pass a law defining the terms and scope of this constitutional mandate is not an excuse for ignoring it. The language and intent are clear. If the nation’s legislators cannot be deterred by the ethical principle behind this provision, why do we expect public officials at the lower levels of government to abide by it?

Indeed, a glance at the local electoral landscape would instantly reveal this distressing feature of our current political reality. Political families no longer bother to disguise their vise-like grip on entire towns, cities, and provinces by nominating proxies to public office. They now brazenly allocate government positions to members of their own kin group as if these were part of the family heirloom.

We have all heard the excuses they offer in defense of this premodern practice: one, that their family members are perfectly qualified, and that the younger generation of the same family is often better trained for public service; two, that political leadership is not any different from other professions where parents pass on to their children the same passion and aptitude for their chosen line of work; three, that society is better off when there is continuity in public service than when there is disruption in leadership; four, that the power to install individuals to public office in any case remains with the electorate, not with the family; and lastly, the fact that Congress has been unable all these years to craft a law defining a political dynasty signifies the impracticality of this constitutional provision.

If it expresses anything at all other than the greed and shortsightedness of our politicians, I think the failure of Congress to affirm what the Constitution says merely reminds us of the folly of legislating solutions for which society itself is not ready. The question we ought to ask then is not why our politicians defy the Constitution, but why political clans persist, and what will make them obsolete.

Political clans belong to traditional society.  And ours is very much a traditional society in at least two ways: first, our society remains stratified according to social rank and power; and second, the family still determines to a great extent an individual’s life chances and place in society. It is true that occupations and professions at the top are now more accessible to people born to the middle and lower classes.  But, whether in business or in politics, the economic and political resources that a family member can tap at the starting line often spell the difference between failure and success.

The framers of our Constitution sought to break political monopolies by prescribing term limits and prohibiting political dynasties. Both tools failed to loosen the grip of elite families over the nation’s political life. Why? Because the political system failed to develop an alternative structure that could challenge the existing kinship networks as mechanisms of political recruitment and leadership formation.  That is the work of political parties.

But, instead of functioning as durable tools for aggregating diverse interest groups, our political parties have become no more than family-owned franchises to be sold and transferred like material assets. Bereft of ideological commitment, they have no distinct identity to preserve, and no world view to pass on to a younger generation. Rather than recruit and groom young leaders from a wide pool of talent, these parties have been content to nurture scions of the old political clans and to assimilate celebrities spawned by the mass media.

Not surprisingly, our so-called political parties have no permanent members, no rigid screening of applicants, no finances of their own outside of those provided by their current leaders. But, more importantly, they neither command nor demand from their elected members strict compliance with any party line. Thus, Filipino politicians are never taken to task for switching parties whenever it suits them. Indeed, so insignificant is formal party membership that they have no problem retaining their nominal party affiliations even as they run as “guest” candidates in another party.

These traits may make politics “more fun in the Philippines,” but they are also the reasons why our institutions are weak. We cannot continue to assign to a few families the work that in modern societies belongs to political parties.  A nation’s political system, like its economy, must be able to draw from the best and brightest of its population if it is to survive the growing complexity of the modern world. It can only do this by professionalizing politics. Does the President’s party, the ruling Liberal Party, have the will to achieve this?