The anti-dynasty law: A cosmetic measure

Carmina Yu Untalan
The anti-dynasty law: A cosmetic measure
As long as we focus on dynasties as the main political bane, we are masking our inability to admit that we still adhere to the one law that rules above all: the iron law of oligarchy

Filipinos have a strong penchant for passing laws. The drawback is these laws are often skin-deep treatments, where the act of legislating is more important than the substance and its consequences.

Given this, what the anti-dynasty bill offers is another cosmetic surgery to hide severe deformities of our political system. The current buzz on its benefits is understandable to the extent that a number of studies link dynastic rule to poverty and corruption, especially in local governments. The commonplace assumption in passing the bill is that if we limit the number of government officials with similar surnames in office, then there is a high probability that governance could improve. 

While it is difficult to dismiss this view, we cannot deny what we already know: with or without the anti-dynasty law, those who want to preserve their political stronghold will find means to do so. Philippine dynasties, after all, are mere faces of a deeper malaise of the country’s oligarch mentality.

Bigger picture 

Our customary understanding of political dynasty dates back to its Greek origin, dynasteia, a term used to characterize a chiefdom where a handful of individuals have unlimited power, and are often shielded from questions of legitimacy. Power, in this sense, is defined in terms of “power over” the people, not from the people, or what we would identify today with illegitimate power. From this strict perspective, we can see that dynasties cannot exist in a modern political system where, albeit the weakness of institutions, the people’s “power” to  contest the legitimacy of the ruler is recognized and sometimes compelling. 

Taking political dynasties purely in its negative form may lead us further away from addressing the real problem. 

Like any other political concepts, political dynasty is situated in what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “language games” wherein a group or an individual’s usage of language adheres to a particular context and “rules of the game.”

For example, when PNoy claimed in his SONA that it is time to have an Anti-Dynasty Law, perhaps mainly targeting the Binays, he was clearly choosing to play a specific game that defines “dynasty” as a source of our political decay. Five years ago, he could not get caught saying these words for his triumph at the polls was highly contingent upon the legacy of his parents.

While dynasties have always been a target of condemnation, there have also been those who support them. In other words, how we understand a political dynasty depends on the kind of narrative that dominates our idea of socio-political order. 

Thus, presenting a different language game through counterfactuals is necessary to see a picture bigger than what we are used to or allowed to see.

PH LAWMAKERS. The opening of the 16th Congress. File photo by Egay G. Aguilar

One of the biggest criticisms against political dynasties is that they are anti-democratic: they rig elections through violence and “name recall” instead of proposing genuine political reforms. Political dynasties tend to get the upper hand in elections. Their competitors have to work extra hard just because they are not kin to previously elected officials.

Since money speaks in campaigns, dynasties are already at an advantage because they have more funds in their coffers, either from inheritance or outright corruption, than their opponents. 

Then there are the dynasties that operate like the mafia. They adopt intimidation tactics to protect their positions. They are guilty of electoral violence, bribery, and even murder. Although the people know that the dynastic leader is corrupt, they prefer not to challenge him out of fear.

These are realities of Filipino politics, but to assign less democracy and bad governance to dynasties only tells part of the story. 

The other reality

Because of our selective way of tackling political dynasties, we have sidestepped the reality that surnames have served a purpose for reforming politics in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping, the son of a former vice premier indispensible in building modern China, is known domestically as the leader who broke the long-standing rule of the Chinese Communist Party through his anti-corruption policies. 

In postwar Japan, dynasties represent the Asian emphasis on predictability and stability, where politics for some families is treated like a “career” passed on to generations. It wouldn’t hurt to mention here that the late Lee Kwan Yew – perhaps the quintessential “ideal” Asian leader especially for the Philippines – was able to build Singapore through consolidating a political dynasty.

In the Philippines, dynasties for brief periods have also been a bastion of hope. Filipinos felt it when Aquino ran for the presidency. There are also dynasties that have performed well in their respective localities. 

When I was doing field work in Balanga, Bataan, I met the Mayor Jose Enrique III, son of Bataan governor Enrique Garcia Jr. During his term, Balanga City received the DILG’s Good Housekeeping Seal, was recognized by the international community for its anti-tobacco efforts, and has been working on an  ambitious project to become a university town by 2020.

Former Negros Oriental governor George Arnaiz, who comes from a political clan, was awarded as Most Outstanding Governor at the 2006 Local Government Leadership Awards. Several years ago, prominent political analyst Alex Brillantes noted the younger generation in political clans who emerged as capable local leaders in the national effort to decentralize governance. 

The point, which has been reiterated over and over again, is that bad governance is not a problem of dynasty but a lack of political will and of greed. Sons, daughters, and relatives should not be deterred from running just because they are kin to incumbent or former public officials. There is nothing criminal about it. Existing laws already sanction what is truly criminal.

Regardless of their family tree, once public officials commit graft and corruption, murder, fraud and harassment, they should be punished. While manufacturing laws gives an impression of a working state, adding another law on top of the existing ones only proves the weakness of our authorities to implement them indiscriminately. 

Once we move into another language game that views dynasties differently, then an anti-dynasty law, instead of improving democracy, might close the doors to future potential reformers just because of their surname. The argument for democracy is therefore not mutually exclusive to dynasties alone. 

Why bad dynasties are here to stay

It is difficult to find the right prescription if we are treating the symptom as the real disease. In this sense, an anti-dynasty law is obviously not the solution. Despite Section 26, Article II of the 1987 Philippine Constitution providing us with a legal guarantee against political dynasties, they still exist in various phases and forms, which when taken altogether nourish the roots of the real problem: oligarchy. 

Oligarchy stems from the beginnings of being a tutelary state to the United States and beyond. According to Professor Julian Go, Filipino leaders during the American colonial period managed to “domesticate” the colonial attempts to reform the country to serve their interests. They operated on the logic that a mature Philippine society is structured based on a “directing class” – a class of educated and well-off individuals – “blessed” with the privilege to rule over the obedient “popular mass.” 

The former’s privileged status automatically legitimizes them to rule. The latter, having internalized this mentality, follow their role of a dutiful herd and perpetually vote for them. This is the crux of our political problem. Unfortunately, this reality has been obscured by our insistence that we are an “equal” society.

Political dynasties become a complication only when we look at it in a chain of concepts that define oligarchy. It is easy to target dynasties because their negative types are the most visible of all oligarchic forms. They are usually rich, educated with the privileged “directing class” mentality. Yet we must be reminded that the lesser visible power is, the more effective it becomes.

History repeatedly tells us that our oligarchs are trained to domesticate opposing energies and turn them to their advantage. Dynastic leaders that operate in the backdoors can morph into cronyism – if not families, then friends. Greedy dynasties can hold power in more insidious forms. They can finance a seemingly innocuous candidate, train a non-family member into its crooked ways, or endorse people for office. 

In this case, talking about political dynasties warrants a different kind of imagination: what would Philippine politics be without them?

Nevertheless, bad political dynasties are here to stay, with or without the anti-dynasty law, because they operate on the embedded logic of oligarchy. It is this logic that truly allows the concentration of power and wealth among small groups of people, and that prevents us from having proper land reform and wealth redistribution initiatives.

As long as there are groups, familial or not, who still claim entitlement to rule based on a privileged social and economic class, as long as we still believe that there is a special class who should think and speak on our behalf, any law is a cosmetic surgery that makes us feel beautiful. The anti-dynasty law will just compel us to forget that we are temporarily turning falsities into truths. 

Indeed, as long as we focus on dynasties as the main political bane, we are masking our inability to admit that we still adhere to the one law that rules above all: the iron law of oligarchy. –

Carmina Yu Untalan is a student of Politics and International Relations at Osaka University.

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