Families in politics

Now on its second reading in the House of Representatives is a bill that seeks to prohibit “the establishment of political dynasties.” The bill aims to create an enabling law for a state policy that has been in the Philippine Constitution since 1987. Section 26 of the Charter says: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” For the last 27 years, a Congress dominated by the nation’s political families has been unable to agree on a suitable definition of this term.

The absence of a law operationalizing this explicit state policy has made it possible for spouses, parents and their children, and siblings, to succeed one another or serve simultaneously in government. Thus, we have a mother-and-son tandem holding office as governor and vice governor of Pampanga. We also have, at present, two pairs of siblings in a 24-member Senate—the Estradas and the Cayetanos.

But, easily the most controversial of all political households at the moment is the family of Vice President Jejomar Binay. Appointed mayor of Makati by President Cory Aquino soon after the 1986 Edsa Revolution, Binay won the same position in the first post-Edsa election. He was then reelected twice, making it possible for him to hold the position continuously for 11 years. In 1998, the law limiting local officials to three terms prevented him from seeking reelection. Instead of allowing his vice mayor to succeed him, he promptly fielded his wife, Elenita Binay, for the position he was vacating.

After serving one term, Mrs. Binay stepped down, paving the way for her husband’s return as mayor in the 2001 election. Unbeatable in Makati, Binay went on to complete three more terms, ending his long and unprecedented reign as political kingpin of the country’s premier city in 2010, the year he ran for vice president and won. Still, he would not let go of Makati. In that same election, he asked his son and namesake, Jejomar “Junjun” Binay Jr., a three-term city councilor of Makati, to run as mayor—instead of supporting the mayoralty bid of his then vice mayor, Ernesto Mercado.

In 2007, Binay also fielded his daughter, lawyer Mar-Len Abigail Binay, for the congressional seat of Makati’s second district. She won and is now on her third term as district representative. In the 2013 midterm election, Vice President Binay tested his political clout once more by tapping another daughter, Maria Lourdes Nancy Binay, to run for the Senate. As proof of the enduring Binay political machinery, now clearly national in scope, Nancy, who had had no previous national exposure, won handily over political veterans. She ran on the sheer popularity and connections of her father, who is a breath away from the presidency.

This kind of political deployment of close kin for public office may strike modern observers as excessive and cynical, but there is no law against it. The Vice President’s historically high ratings at the polls, though they have recently dropped steeply, attest to a disturbing public tolerance of political dynasties. But, on the other hand, Binay’s decades-long monopoly of politics in Makati, which suggests the absence of any meaningful system of checks and balances in the administration of the city’s affairs, also makes it easy to believe the allegations of massive corruption in the city government under his watch.

All this makes one wonder how the draft law in question, House Bill No. 3587, will fare in Congress. It will surely be opposed for a variety of reasons. If, by some miracle, it is not killed early and is allowed to advance to the higher stages of the legislative process, we should expect a determined effort to dilute it by limiting the scope of its application.

I have seen a copy of the bill, and I find its definition of a political dynasty reasonable. “A political dynasty exists when two or more individuals who are related within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity hold or run for national or local office in successive, simultaneous or overlapping terms.” Those belonging to the second degree of consanguinity or affinity “shall include the relatives of a person who may be the latter’s brother or sister, direct ascendant or direct descendant, whether legitimate or illegitimate, full or half blood, including their spouses.” Such relatives are likewise banned from immediately succeeding their incumbent kin. The only exceptions are positions at the barangay level, which are, in any case, too insignificant to engage the attention of political clans. If this bill becomes a law, the Binay empire would be pared down to one person.

Perhaps if we had remained a traditional society, there would be no need for such a law. A dose of “delicadeza” might be sufficient to deter any wish to perpetuate the rule of one family. On the other hand, if we were half as modern as we think we are, people would not assume that being heir to a political name automatically entitles one to run for public office. Children might also feel freer to choose their careers; they would not think they owed it to their ancestors to continue what they began.

But, we are stuck in the transition from one society to another. To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, the old is dying but the new cannot be born. We find ourselves having to institute restrictive laws to regulate key areas of our national life that have remained stunted despite our long years of tutelage in the ways of modern democracy. A law banning political dynasties may not democratize access to public service, but it will go a long way toward ending the scourge of official corruption in our society.

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