[OPINION] The pols in our stars... and in SALNs too

This is a #PHVote newsletter sent to Rappler subscribers on April 30, 2019.

April 30 was the last day for all government officials to submit their Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) for 2018.

SALNs have proved powerful in the nation's recent history, for better or for worse. For instance, "misdeclarations" of assets in SALNs were among the reasons behind the ouster of two chief justices: Renato Corona in 2012 and Maria Lourdes Sereno in 2018.

It can also hold into account public officials at every level, from a rank-and-file clerk up to the President of the Philippines. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism recently scrutinized the SALNs of President Rodrigo Duterte and his family since 1998, much to his chagrin.

Through these SALNs, Filipinos get to find out the wealth of every government official, and how it changes every year. But one low-key section in this document is just as telling.

Besides their properties and liabilities, public officers also have to list down their relatives up to the 4th degree of consanguinity or affinity who also are in the government service.

These track not only elected politicians from the same family but also those who are appointed or hired in national or local offices, including the armed forces and the police.

This part of the SALN is a solid way to track the reach of political dynasties in the country.

For instance, in their 2017 SALNs, 13 of the 23 incumbent senators have relatives elected to various posts. Fourteen of them have relatives appointed as heads or directors of agencies, or hired as employees or staff members. On the other hand, 4 senators did not list down any relative in government: Leila de Lima, Gregorio Honasan II, Loren Legarda, and Francis Pangilinan.

Here's that section of the SALN in the one submitted by Senator Cynthia Villar for 2017. It shows that she has relatives appointed to the Cabinet, and elected to Congress, the city hall and city council, as well as two barangay halls.

Screenshot of Senator Cynthia Villar's 2017 SALN showing her relatives in government service

Of course, it's unfair to say that the more relatives an official has in government, the more sinister or greedy he or she is. There are still genuine public servants around, it just so happened that they are related to a politician. Some may have also obtained properties through legitimate means, too.

However, it's sad that until now, only certain families hold political power in almost every town or city. For next month's midterm elections, I counted at least 86 political clans with candidates for provincial governor or House representative that also fielded bets for other elective posts. There could be more, definitely, but it's already more than the number of provinces in the country!

Dynasties extend or even expand their power through different means: running for reelection, switching positions to go around term limits, fielding more relatives to other positions (especially in newly-created districts or provinces), or a combination of these tactics at the same time.

There are also cases of dynasties battling each other, like the Singsons vs Zaragozas in Ilocos Sur, and the Villafuertes vs Andayas in Camarines Sur.

Even when dynasties implode – like in my home city Makati where two Binay siblings are duking it out – however interesting the battles are and despite the presence of other candidates, a dynasty member still wins in the end most of the time.

These political clans argue they are the best ones to solve local problems because they're already "familiar" with them, but for many areas, the socioeconomic situation seems to remain stagnant.

The questions remain, though: Why do Filipinos still elect political dynasties to power?

Are there no strong alternatives to battle these bigwigs? If there are, what prevents them from actually bringing the fight to them? Are voters desensitized already, that as long as these families do their jobs, they'll continue electing them, however bad some of them are?

Does the political setup need to change? Should we force the issue and compel our lawmakers to pass a long-demanded anti-dynasty law, or will this forever remain a pipe dream?

Until things change, this will be the forever gripe of mine, and perhaps of many other voters, too: 2019 na, pero sila-sila pa rin ang nasa pwesto. Lagi na lang bang "no choice"? Ano ang kailangang magbago? Rappler.com

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Michael Bueza

Michael Bueza is a researcher and data curator under Rappler's Research Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.