Political dynasties: bane or boon?

The committee on suffrage and electoral reforms of the House of Representatives recently approved a bill prohibiting political dynasties. Titled “Anti-Political Dynasty Act,” the bill seeks to enforce Art. II, Sec. 28 of the Constitution: “The State shall guarantee equal opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

To be defined by law. The ban is undoubtedly a constitutional policy, but it is neither absolute or self-executory because it is qualified by the phrase “as may be defined by law.” The consolidated bill of several representatives, including Teddy Casiño, Neri Colmenares, Antonio Tinio and Oscar Rodriguez, aims precisely to define the meaning of “political dynasty.”

A big surprise in the upper chamber is Sen. JV Ejercito, who filed his antidynasty bill just prior to the House committee’s approval. I say “surprise” because Ejercito is ringed by political relatives, like his father Joseph Estrada (mayor of Manila and former president), his mother Guia Gomez (mayor of San Juan City), his half brother Jinggoy (a senator), his first cousin ER Ejercito (governor of Laguna), and his niece Janella (a councilor of San Juan).

Most Filipino politicians support, in principle, the antidynasty bill. After all, who would be against a constitutional policy? But as in all matters, whether constitutional or otherwise, the devil is in the details, for example:

1. Who are the relatives to be banned? Only direct ascendant-descendants (parents, children and grandchildren)? Or also brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces? Only relatives by blood or also by marriage, like spouses and in-laws? Only legitimate relations, or also illegitimate ones like mistresses and out-of-wedlock children/grandchildren? Only full-blood or also half-blood and adopted relations?

2. What offices are included? Elective and/or appointive? National or provincial, city, town and barangay positions, or all of them? Only within the same office like in the Senate, the House, the Cabinet or all offices?

3. What geographical limits should be included? Only within the same province, city, town or barangay? What time limitations, if any? Can relatives succeed retiring or term-limited officials? Should the ban be for relations running in the same election, or should it include future elections?

Philippine dynasties. While the House may have passed the bill at the committee level, it will still have to hurdle the plenary debates. So, too, the Senate will have to approve its counterpart measure. Historic as the House action may have been, the antidynasty bill is still far from final victory. Very far. Most members of Congress are related to other public officials, and therefore would be hesitant to define the nature, scope and penalty for the violation of the ban.

Aside from Ejercito, many legislators belong to entrenched political clans. For instance, Senators Alan and Pia Cayetano and Rep. Lino Cayetano are siblings, while Taguig City Mayor Lani Cayetano is the wife of Senator Alan.

Sen. Bam Aquino is a first cousin of President Aquino (son of former President Cory and Sen. Ninoy Aquino) and a nephew of former Senators Butz and Tessie Aquino-Oreta. Sen. Nancy Binay is a daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay, and a sibling of Rep. Abby Binay and Makati Mayor Junjun Binay.

Indeed, our political firmament is littered with well-known clans, like the Ampatuans, Angaras, Escuderos, Guingonas, Jalosjoses, Macapagals, Marcoses, Ortegas, Osmeñas, Revillas, Villars, etc. To be fair, many of these families have produced some of the best leaders of our country. But some have sired the worst.

Genes and environment play a great part in politics, as it does in the professions and in business. The early exposure of children, grandchildren and relatives to the political careers of their families somehow educate and influence them for good or for bad.

Foreign dynasties. To be fairer, political dynasties are not unique to our country. The United States has its own share of political clans, the most prominent being the Clintons (Bill was president, wife Hillary was a senator and a secretary of state, and may yet be a future president, and their only child Chelsea is an aspiring senator).

Other US political clans are the Bushes (father George and son George Jr. were presidents, and son Jeb was Florida governor) and the Kennedys (John was president, brother Robert was attorney general, brother Edward was a multiterm senator, and daughter Caroline is the new US envoy to Japan). Note, however, that the US Constitution does not ban dynasties.

Elsewhere, in Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner is the widow of her predecessor, President Nestor Kirchner; in Korea, President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former President Park Cheung-hee; in Malaysia, Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak is the son of former PM Abdul Razak; in Singapore, PM Lee Hsien Loong is the son of former PM Lee Kuan Yew. Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of former PM Aung San.

These examples show that a political dynasty is not necessarily evil. It can be a bane or a boon, depending on how it is defined, regulated and used. Indeed, many institutions and inventions, like electricity, mining, nongovernment organizations, guns and political dynasties are not evil per se. They are in themselves neutral.

Thus, the challenge to Congress is to define and regulate dynasties so these can be used only for good, not for evil.

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