[OPINION] Why federalism won’t work with political dynasties in power

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M, Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco

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[OPINION] Why federalism won’t work with political dynasties in power
Dynastic politicians will not hesitate to hijack the federalism agenda to perpetuate themselves in their positions of power


The serious anxiety many Filipinos have with charter change and federalism is caused by the reality that traditional political families control the Philippine political system.

Simply looking at the composition of the House of Representatives, with its unprecedented 14 deputy speakers, validates the fear that feudal masters will lord over the potential constituent states of the new federal republic.

Sadly, such uneasiness is aggravated by one of the key findings of the study conducted by the Ateneo School of Government, Dynasties Thrive under Decentralization in the Philippines (Working Paper 17-003), to wit:

“All of the top positions in each major local government unit appear to be dominated by dynasties (over 81% of governors and vice governors, and around 78% of representatives).”

Indeed, political dynasties have made local governance a family enterprise. This phenomenon is summed up perfectly by respected Mindanao civil society activist, Guiamel Alim, asclan-inclusive government.” And because political elites in the Philippines are so firmly entrenched in their positions of power, political competition at the local level is essentially a farce.

This reign of dynastic politicians has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance mindset. Very clearly demonstrated by incumbent local politicos who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact (i.e., basketball courts and waiting sheds).

However, there are a few notable exceptions who have displayed genuine leadership. There are up and coming politicians who are members of political dynasties but have stayed true to the tenets of good governance – even at the expense of their family’s political interests.

Nonetheless, political power concentrated in select families has meant accountability in local government is no longer a standard for public service. Obviously, when this happens, unabated graft and corruption infects local governance itself. It is worthy to note that a significant percentage of complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman are against local officials.

This lack of leadership accountability has then led to the current pathology in Philippine local politics, appropriately described by political commentator Alex Lacson as “small dictatorships.”

Economic monopoly

Worth noting that the monopoly of political power leads to a monopoly of economic opportunities. Case in point is the difficulty of a very popular fast-food franchise to secure a business permit in a city in the Visayas. Some residents there say this is because the current family in power owns the franchise for the more popular competitor. Admittedly anecdotal only, but stories like this one are told all over the country.

Correspondingly, studies show that lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty. A more alarming development is that the “fattest” dynasties – those with the most family members in office – are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.

And worse, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to run for public office because of the monarchical nature of local government. 

Federalism will work only if…

Pertinently, President Rodrigo Duterte’s very own Consultative Committee on constitutional reform sees political dynasties as a bane in a federal system. They reaped public approval when they voted to institute a self-executory provision regulating political dynasties in their proposed federal constitution.

And the chairman of the committee, former chief justice Reynato Puno, was absolutely correct when he declared that such a provision is a condition “sine qua non” in establishing a federal system in the Philippines. Without it, any kind of federal system established in the Philippines will fail.

But incumbent lawmakers have ignored Puno’s warning. Immediately after the submission of the Consultative Committee’s Bayanihan Federalism draft, some members of the House of Representatives openly expressed serious apprehension about the self-executory provision regulating political dynasties.

They even predicted that this will be the first provision removed if ever they convene as a constituent assembly. And their prophesy has come true in the form of Resolution of both Houses (RBH) No. 15, a draft constitution where there is not only an absence of a self-executory prescription regulating political dynasties, but the provision setting a term limit for lawmakers has also been removed!

Therefore, federalism advocates, specifically the Inter-agency Task Force on Federalism (IATF) organized by President Duterte, face a huge challenge – how to convince Filipinos that federalism will not further strengthen the grip of political dynasties on local governance.

A good starting point for the IATF is to openly admit that a transition to a federal system cannot be bound by a constricting timetable (i.e., within the term of President Duterte). The administration must rethink plans of “fast-tracking” charter change. Imposing their will on the people will only elicit stronger resistance to federalism as many will see this only as a ploy of dynastic politicians to further strengthen their hold on power.

In this regard, the transition plan proposed by Dr Jose Abueva’s “A Ten-Year Transition Action Plan” should be revisited. The 15-year roadmap for the federalism shift suggested by the National Economic Development Authority should also be considered. The key point here is that the transition schedule must be clearly laid out in the federal charter itself. This is the only way to put the transition process under judicial oversight.

The IATF must also bring Filipinos together to rally behind the federalism initiative. For whatever the final federal design turns out to be, it is the responsibility of the IATF to ensure that there is among the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to making the new system work.

There is that real danger of course, that the IATF’s work will simply be ignored by Congress just like what they did to the Consultative Committee’s Bayanihan Federalism draft charter.

Indeed, RBH No. 15 is clear proof that dynastic politicians will not hesitate to hijack the federalism agenda to perpetuate themselves in their positions of power. And can we really expect things to change in a federal system with political dynasties lording it over the regions? – Rappler.com

Atty Yusingco is a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.

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