EDITORIAL NOTES

Political dynasties galore: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Senator BongBong Marcos is one of the many candidates running in the upcoming Philippine elections coming from a family with a background in politics.
Senator BongBong Marcos is one of the many candidates running in the upcoming Philippine elections coming from a family with a background in politics.PHOTO: REUTERS

At least 542 candidates in the Philippine elections on May 9 are sure winners. Not because of superior odds over their opponent - the result of vote-winning pledges, perhaps, or a more effective grass-roots campaign - but simply by default: They are, in fact, running unopposed.

One may argue, as congressman Arthur Defensor of Iloilo does, that the lack of opposition in what ought to be an exercise in choosing from a healthy variety of options is in fact a win for democracy.

"In a way, it is a validation from my constituents that what I have been doing for them is satisfactory," he said.

But is it really a popular validation, or actually the pernicious effect of a concentration of power and influence in the hands of an individual and his clan, working in earnest to exclude all others from the fiefdom they have created? 

Out of the 542 unopposed candidates in the May elections, 14 are running for governor, 14 for vice governor, 220 for mayor, 255 for vice mayor, and 39 for district representative. 

If merely one or two were running uncontested, we could view it as an expression of the popular will for an overwhelming political favourite, but more than 500 across the country tells you something is plain rotten in the state of Philippine politics. 

So-called democratic elections actually leave voters no choice but a smorgasbord of preordained - and recycled - faces.

Blame political dynasties for the mess. Scratch the surface of any of the unopposed candidates and chances are you'll find a political family working full-time to ensure that not even a semblance of political rivalry exists to threaten their status as the ultimate gatekeeper and power wielder in their realm. 

A glance at the candidates' surnames reveals that many come from families with a history in government. 

This status has become birthright to "inherit", passed from one family generation to the next as in a feudal monarchy. Running unopposed in an election - a situation they are able to contrive by virtue of their grip on their constituency - is then a virtual anointing to power.

A study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Centre notes that, between 2004 and 2013, the portions of the country lost to the rule of political dynasties grew at an alarming rate - 47 per cent in only 10 years. 

This is exactly the unhealthy circumstance foreseen in the 1987 Constitution: "The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law." Unfortunately, about two-thirds of Congress, the body tasked to define the law, are themselves the products of political dynasties. 

The heirs of such privilege would be the last to draw a sword against their class by authoring a law that would force their families to give up their political entitlement by submitting to a level playing field.

Like the ill-fated freedom of information bill, banning political dynasties was another campaign promise on which President Benigno Aquino failed to follow through. 

After a lengthy silence on the issue, the Palace gave belated support to an anti-dynasty bill. But at this late stage, it has no hope of passing, let alone making the slightest bit of difference in the perverted circumstances of the May elections, where a vast number of candidates from dominant families are a shoo-in for government regardless of what the voters may desire.

Anti-dynasty bills have been filed and consistently rejected in Congress since 1987. The next president needs to commit to honouring the constitution, democracy and the electorate by getting one passed.
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The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.