Thursday, August 22, 2019

Amante: Political dynasties

SEVEN out of 10 governors in the Philippines belonged to a political dynasty in 2007. Nine years or three elections later, the proportion went up to eight governors out of 10. The same rising trend held true for mayors and members of Congress.

Dean Ronald Mendoza of the Ateneo School of Government brought up this observation in a Senate committee hearing last Thursday on a proposed law against political dynasties. He also commented, according to the Inquirer’s report on the hearing, that thin dynasties or political families who succeed one another instead of holding several elective offices at the same time are less damaging than fat ones. Fat dynasties are those who have more than two family members holding office at the same time.

The Constitution that took effect 31 years ago was meant to limit political dynasties. That has never happened because the Constitution left it up to Congress to pass the law that would make the ban real, which was a mistake. How could Congress be trusted to stop political dynasties when more than half of its members belonged to dynasties themselves?

Yet we are not alone in this predicament. The pervasiveness of political dynasties is that rare political trait shared by countries “with otherwise very different systems of government,” Siddhart Eapen George and Dominic Ponattu of Harvard University said in an August 2017 paper.

Focusing on India, George and Ponattu found that districts where dynasts won grew 6.5 percentage points slower, on average, than those where members of political dynasties had lost. They used, among others, data on health services, transport, financial services, and welfare programs. They also used voter assessments of politicians’ performance and something quite cool: night-time luminosity. That’s the level of brightness of communities at night, based on images from NASA satellites, as a measure of local economic activity.

Not all politicians who belong to dynasties are bad, to be fair. Families bent on holding on to political office might even be said to be under greater pressure to do well, because poor performance can damage not only one person’s but potentially the whole clan’s political survival. George and Ponattu cited in their paper some studies that show how established dynasties can “use their political clout to secure state resources—programs, funds, attention—for their constituents. This may distort the allocation of public goods, but may well yield private benefits for local residents.”

One can argue—and some, like President Rodrigo Duterte, already have—that enacting a law against political dynasties would be anti-democratic as it would restrict people’s choices. Going by their signals, leaders of the Lower House probably agree. President Duterte’s allies in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, are prioritizing the shift to a federal form of government over any measures to check the expansion of political dynasties.

Which leaves those of us with little political power in a pickle, doesn’t it? We can probably agree that it would be good to have stronger political parties and no incentives for turncoats, and that these could make elections more competitive. We can probably agree that there ought to be an honest mechanism to allow qualified individuals to compete for public office, so that we would have more to choose from than the current pool of spouses, sons, daughters or siblings of entrenched politicians.

How do we get there? How do we push for campaign finance and other electoral reforms when most of the people we’ve chosen to represent us in Congress don’t seem to think these are important? After generations of political dynasties, most of us would prefer to back off from “the dirty game” of politics, because pretending to be helpless takes less effort.

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