Dynasties and democracy

For the second time the other day, the Supreme Court denied a petition asking the high court to compel the Commission on Elections to enforce a constitutional provision that prohibits political dynasties. There is a third petition waiting in the wings. But it is highly unlikely that the high court will change its view on the matter—namely, that the cited provision is a statement of a general principle, that it is “not self-executing,” and thus requires a law to clarify its scope and meaning.

This is not where the issue should end. The reign of a few political families, even if legitimized by elections, goes against the idea of democracy. But, the proper terrain in which to raise and resolve the question is the political arena, not the courts. Doing so may not defeat the dynasties, but it will put them on the defensive. If delicadeza no longer restrains them, and the existing law cannot disqualify them, then those who believe in democracy must try to stop them through the ballot.

The debate over dynasties as a campaign issue could open a productive reappraisal of our patronage-driven political system, and lead voters to reflect on the wellsprings of their political choices. From this discussion, the nation may then draw the outlines of a future law on political dynasties, if we still need one.

The term “political dynasty” has not always carried the negative connotation it has today.  Indeed, in traditional society, it was the favored mode of transferring political authority.  It gave to feudal societies a political stability that was not feasible when the right to rule was decided by the vagaries of personal charisma and military prowess.

I looked up the origin of the word “dynasty” and was taken aback by its positive associations. I discovered that it comes from the same word family as “dynamic”—drawn from the Greek term dunamis, which means strength.  From this come the verb dunasthai (to be strong or to be able) and the noun dunasteia, meaning domination, the source of the English word “dynasty.” This is not mere domination, however, but a self-renewing one—a sense that it shares with the English word “dynamism.” Rulers get old and they die, but their rule is renewed through their descendants.  Like loyal subjects to benevolent patrons, most Filipino voters do not appear bothered by this.  We must keep asking why and what kind of society encourages this mentality.

Viewed against the exigencies of today’s complex societies, political succession on the basis of lineage has got to be one of the biggest sources of societal dysfunction. The most illustrious families can produce idiots, or immature rulers who lack the wisdom of their ancestors, or tyrants who bear no trace of their elders’ legendary instinct for justice. This is not to say that democratic elections may not as often yield the same disastrous results. But, we may argue that the larger field from which voters in a democracy draw their leaders offers a much better chance of producing outcomes suitable to changing times than the restrictive lines of hereditary succession.

No society today that transfers the power to govern through hereditary succession can call itself democratic. Think of North Korea. In a democracy, political leaders have to be chosen by the people themselves through free elections—that is the principle. Our Constitution enshrines this in Section 26, Article II: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

It is difficult to imagine that the intent of this principle is for the state to guarantee equal access to political positions. How does one do that in a highly unequal society like ours?  Speaking as a layman, I suggest that a more realistic interpretation of this constitutional principle is that it is nothing more than a command for the state not to impose unwarranted eligibility requirements on citizens seeking political office—for example, a religious, or economic, or ethnic, or professional requirement.

But, how should one read the prohibition against political dynasties in relation to the constitutional guarantee of equal access to opportunities for public service? I used to think its meaning was self-evident. That no one should be allowed to assume public office as a hereditary right. That one must be elected to public office, or appointed based solely on qualifications. But, along the same lines, it seems to me that it can equally be argued that just as one’s lineage should not confer legal entitlement to public office, so too it must not be used to disqualify one from running for public office—without violating the principle of equal access.

I go back to my point: Political dynasties are inimical to a democracy, but the fight against them must be waged in the political arena where the voting public’s instinctive affinity or loyalty to a few families can be challenged on rational grounds. Those grounds are not easily visible in a hierarchical society like ours. But the same reasons that commit us to the principle of separation of church and state must command us to keep the state free from the control of a handful of families. For, these are social systems that operate by distinct codes.  One need not be a political scientist to imagine what problems can arise when the affairs of government are decided as matters between siblings, or between parents and their children, or between spouses.

Still, the real challenge is how to nurture political parties that can take over the functions presently performed by political families. For only then can we expect dynasties to lose their dynamism and become obsolete.