Why we need career politicians

Edmund Tayao

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New legislation might work, but the best alternative is a better system because it is the only means to institutionalize this reform

Edmund S. TayaoA random check on those who filed their candidacies for various positions will yield similar family names. This reminded me that for the nth time, we have pending bills in the 15th Congress proposing an anti-dynasty law—Sen Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s Senate Bill 2649 and Bayan Muna’s House Bill 3413.

Apparently, the reason why the constitutional guarantee of “equal access to opportunities for public service” and the prohibition of political dynasties (Article II Section 26) have yet to be implemented is the absence of an enabling law.

As if a single law will banish a complex problem.

In a public hearing for Senator Santiago’s bill, we learned that the proposal was to ban relatives of an incumbent official of up to 4th degree of consanguinity (relationship by descent from a common ancestor) from running for public office. The interesting part was, it would be applicable only to local positions. Whatever the reason, I cannot recall any explanation made.

My reply was simple: In principle, political dynasty is bad in a democracy, especially for a supposed already advanced society that we are, where a good majority is educated and therefore able to understand important issues in society. It is in principle bad not only because it is a throwback, but more importantly because it shows a very weak system of representation, if, at all, we can still even consider it representation. 

In any organization, there will always be a minority that will lead. There could probably be no organization (by the term itself, it means “organized”) that is not characterized by a hierarchy. But even in a family corporation, the heir does not and cannot run the company on his or her own even if he or she prepared for the position and therefore qualified. The management will always include individuals who are not related but qualified to be in the management.

And this is the whole point—relative or not, the primordial consideration should be qualification, and not just the name and or personal connections. In the case of politics in this country, in elective positions, there are those who actually prepare, especially in terms of education before they run for office. Then again, in most cases, a relative runs out of exigency and expediency; and this is what makes political dynasty bad.

Push for bigger LGUs

Now let’s look at the implication of prohibiting relatives of up to 4th degree of consanguinity of incumbent officials to run for public office. 

If you come from a province, remain familiar with your hometown, and are aware of your genealogy, would you say that you have relatives in most of the sitios or barangays? You would. In fact, this is the reason, when a person goes to a province and look for a particular individual, he can ask someone and chances are he will be easily told where that person could be found. 

Do a survey of political families and you’ll find out that even those competing against each other are blood relatives—brothers versus sons versus fathers, etc.—they come from the same place and, chances are, belong to the same ancestry.

In essence, a political dynasty is a product of the nature of a local community. There will always be a dominant family, especially in a small town. There will always be a dominant family in a place where there is not much social and economic development. 

We can, and in fact we should, push for bigger constituencies—that is, bigger local government units. A bigger constituency will have a bigger chance of having several well-to-do families that can compete for elected positions. Now even if a single family remains dominant in a bigger constituency, there will definitely be other families of influence who they will have to share or work with. The point is if we intend to at the very least moderate the presence of political dynasties, we should stop creating more and more constituencies.

We need career politicians

Let’s say we now have bigger constituencies. On top of that, we changed the system of representation—because of bigger constituencies, representation is now multi-member, requiring significant political party involvement, thereby creating incentives for real political parties to flourish and deliver. What could happen?

There will still be political dynasties. But perhaps of better quality.

In advanced democracies with all these institutional features, there are still political dynasties. In the US, apart from the popular Kennedys, you have the Bush family and the Clinton family, and, yes, even the Republican nominee Mitt Romney comes from a political dynasty. 

In Canada, you have the Trudeaus that dominate the liberal party, the Mackenzies, Laytons, Martins, Mannings, and so many more. Japan, the most advanced democracy in Asia, is also not free from political dynasties, with familiar names like Koizumi, Abe, Fukuda, and others.

What is common in these 3 advanced democracies is the electoral system.

With the exception of the presidential election in the US which is done by and through an Electoral College, and 37% of the total membership in Japan’s House of Representatives elected by proportional representation, all 3 commonly use the first-past-the-post system, plurality system. They elect a representative per electoral district and the one who gets the most votes wins, just like how we do it here. 

In this system, name recall matters only to one who is qualified. This means that name recall is an advantage only if the choice is between two who are both qualified; because both candidates are qualified, name recall serves as the tiebreaker. 

In our case, in most instances—that is, unfortunately about 8 out of 10—name recall is the only thing that matters. 

Families of dentists, medical doctors, or lawyers are not called dynasties. This is not unusual considering the environment in the family exposes the next of kin to what the parents do. A family of politicians, on the other hand, is called a dynasty because, as discussed above, politics is seen as every man’s business in our country and therefore everyone should be able to run for office. It’s not supposed to be a monopoly.

In other countries, a familiar name is seen more as a brand and politics is seen just like any profession, as a career. The operational factor here is the political party, a system of politics that gives premium more to qualification. A family of politicians is possible only because the party recognizes the capacity of every individual member more than just the name and the family background. 

In our case, the name is everything because it is everything needed to be successful in politics. The name determines popularity and the name is the key to the needed logistics to run a campaign. There are no processes that subject individuals’ capacity, and therefore fitness, other than whether one is popular.

Voters can make it an issue

Qualification becomes a factor only during elections as voters could consider it. On the other hand, the choices, especially for some local positions, may not offer much in these terms so in the end it goes back to name recall again.

All these explain why many now are taking a good look at political dynasty.

We hate it, we condemn it, but the best we could do so far is just to express this displeasure and blame our legislators for not coming up with the law that our Constitution specifically requires to operationalize the provision against political dynasty. 

New legislation might work, but the best alternative is a better system because it is the only means to institutionalize this reform. Then again, this is going to happen only if we elect leaders who will make this change happen.

In the end, we have the power to change not only our leaders or type of leaders but also the system. 

We are voters and we can start by making this issue—the issue of changing the system—a key discussion in this election. Let’s hear from the candidates what they have to say, what concrete position and plans they have when elected, then let’s take it from there. Then we might finally put an end to what we have always been hating but just feeling exasperated about in our democracy. – Rappler.com

(Edmund S. Tayao is a professor at the University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science, and is executive director of the Local Government Development Foundation.)

More on #PHVote, Rappler’s coverage of the 2013 elections:

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