Anak ng… do something better

(Published in the Dumaguete MetroPost 1st June 2014)
Political dynasties. Perhaps the oldest issue in Philippine politics once again takes the political spotlight with two bills in both houses of Congress passed to quell our age-old tendency to make government look like a family business.
The Senate version, authored by senator JV Ejercito, exemplifies the provisions of the two bills: individuals related to at least two degrees of consanguinity with an incumbent public official seeking re-election will be barred from being elected to public office in the same province in the same election as the incumbent in question.
True to his father’s populist legacy, JV has passed a bill that will surely please the masses. But it will pay for the more sensible portion of the population to reflect on this fresh attempt at anti-dynasty legislation and see if there’s any meat in it.
For one thing, the scopes of the bills are evidently limited: just on the provincial level, just on the same election. A precedent that exemplifies the failure of this limitation is perhaps one of the most notoriously successful political dynasties in recent times, the Ampatuans of Maguindanao. The clan, an archetypal Mindanao political family, spread out their sphere of influence first from within the province across different cities, then to different provinces to dominate the ARMM. Political clans will not limit their franchise to their own baluartes: on the microcosm, just our own Teveses here in NegOr expanded from Tanjay to other parts of the province. If anything, this bill might even compel clans to seek more influence by spreading out. At the very least it will only weaken small-time clans while leaving the bigwigs unscathed.
And that leads me to the second problem in the province limitation: what of the National players? Mindanao being largely in the Cebuano-sphere now, political dynasties of Cebuano origin have gone on to dominate Mindanao politics (remember that Vicente Duterte, progenitor of the present Duterte magic in Davao, was originally outsourced by then Mindanao big man Alejandro Almendras, himself a transplant, from Cebu). And that is not saying anything of the big players from Luzon. The Senate, a good litmus paper for the country’s political acidity, is filled with scions (if not founders) of clans that dominate the national landscape. And Malacanang, we must remember, is currently occupied by the fifth in his line to be on the national spotlight.
And its limitation to incumbent officials in the same election is even more limiting. Shrewd political players intent on prolonging their hold on a province will bide their time, take turns in seeking office, and even exert influence out of office – heck, the time between one anak ng succeeding his daddy could well be one long campaign period for anak ng in question. ‘The mayor is dead, long live the son/wife/brother’ is not compulsory in Philippine politics. Exhibit A: Grace Poe.
Our generation would call these bills halfassery.
But ultimately, my problem with this bill is what it’s against: political dynasties themselves. If we are to be morally utilitarian, we can argue that measures to bar political scions from seeking office is more evil than leaving the status quo be, for they will compromise the constitutional rights of said scions to participate in public activity, and all to let hypothetical non-scions get a chance to take part. In Britain, Tony Benn had to campaign against such ‘discrimination of the privileged.’ Further exclusion is no answer to removing exclusion.
And we must remember that any form of exclusion is detrimental in the long run because it limits our options to get capable people in office. And yes, we must admit, the pool of political skill among princelings is formidable. History is full of successful leaders who came to the democratic fore as scions: Pitt the Younger and Lord Salisbury in Britain, Quincy Adams and FDR in the US, and the incumbents Shinzo Abe and Lee Hsien Loong. Our own Chief of Staff himself isn’t doing too bad. The argument that members of Kamag-anak Inc. have an advantage for having first hand exposure to their incumbent relative’s office, if not having been groomed to succeed, has never been adequately refuted. Additionally, the arrogance we often associate with them may be advantageous too. ‘A princeling,’ writes Cheng Li of the Brooklyns Institute in Washington on China’s Xi Jinping and his ‘Crown Prince Party’ of CPC-dynastic scions, ‘has a sense of ownership of the country…the “owners” of the system finds it easier to fix the country’s problems.’ The sense of entitlement, along with the network of connections, may make it easier for them to exert their will.
The problem underlying all this, really, is not people from the same family being elected, but we Filipinos continuing to elect people from the same family. The problem of exclusivity is not caused by dynasties, dynasties are simply symptomatic of it, our voting culture is ultimately to blame for this. We Filipinos are so used to voting familiar names that we don’t care if said names have become trapos, and it’s getting in the way of us choosing better cloth. The same masses whom surveys consistently show are fed up with political clans are the same masses who keep said clans in power.
In Ancient China, the Song Dynasty significantly diminished the influence of a millennia-old nobility in public administration when they greatly expanded the Imperial Examinations. By choosing officials based on their merit (as judged by the rigorous civil service exams), a poor farmer’s son can, and often did, outrank a Duke.
If we can similarly focus our efforts on increasing the qualifications of our options for office (say making sure they at least pass the civil service exam), then we can be assured of qualified and capable officials. The problem of exclusivity on the ballot – of people electing based on family name – needs a change of culture, one which administrative emphasis on merit can help with. If the government stops favouring anak ng’s just because, we will stop electing them just because.
Of course attention also has to be paid to the other factors (and ultimately problems) behind the strength of Kamag-anak Inc: intimidation by private armies, vote buying, padrino-motivated voting. Political dynasties are only the bloom above the wasteland, we need to uproot the weeds by the roots.
We need to do better than this. As the cliché goes, we owe our descendants a better country than what we inherited from our forefathers. That thread of democratic inheritance at least we can all agree with.

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