[OPINION] Term limits: Should we abolish them?

JC Punongbayan
[OPINION] Term limits: Should we abolish them?
Tinkering with the formal rules isn’t nearly enough to see lasting political reforms. We need to revamp as well the informal norms that pervade our political culture.

Citing academic papers is not a surefire way to win debates. It might even backfire.

Last Sunday’s talk of the town was GMA-7’s senatorial debate (#Debate2019), particularly the memorable sparring between Chel Diokno and Imee Marcos.

Both candidates were asked about their positions on proposals to abolish term limits. 

Imee took the affirmative stance, and in an attempt to bolster her argument she cited an academic economics paper, “Political reform and elite persistence: term limits and political dynasties in the Philippines,” that dwelled on the ineffectiveness of term limits to break up political dynasties. 

Diokno, meanwhile, bemoaned that we seem to have forgotten that the martial law declaration of Ferdinand Marcos (Imee’s father) was itself a way to circumvent term limits and perpetuate himself and his family in power. 

In this article, I want to highlight the academic study that Imee cited and explain how she misconstrued its nuanced findings.

Misconstrued 

The study’s author, NYU economist Pablo Querubin, studied the impact of Philippine political reforms post-EDSA. In particular, he focused on the introduction of term limits as a way to dismantle political dynasties.

Dynasties loom large in our political landscape. The Ateneo School of Government estimates that as of 2016 about 80% of governors and 78% of representatives belonged to political dynasties.

Although term limits are certainly well-meaning, it’s not difficult to see how they may be ineffective in curbing dynasties.

For instance, some congressmen like to serve for a full 3 terms (9 years in total) only to be replaced by their brother or wife or son for one term, then go back for another 3 terms. 

Other families, meanwhile, swap different positions over time: a “term-limited” congressman becomes a provincial governor while being replaced by a relative, and later they exchange places when term-limited once more.

Still others use their current position as congressmen to catapult themselves to even higher offices (like senator), while being replaced by relatives in their old local post.

Such strategies are widespread in Philippine politics, so much so that Querubin found no statistically significant impact of term limits on removing from office the families of incumbent representatives and governors.

This key result seemingly lends support to Imee’s position of abolishing term limits altogether. But this reasoning is problematic for two main reasons. 

First, the author of the paper did not at all recommend or prescribe removing term limits. He even said that term limits may be effective in removing individual incumbents from office at least:

“While term limits do not succeed in increasing the turnover of families in power, the empirical evidence in this paper suggests that term limits may have been partially effective in increasing the turnover of individual incumbents.” 

Second, the author even cited the Marcoses as a perfect case study of how politicians routinely flout term limits: 

“The Marcos family, despite binding term limits, managed to keep both offices in the family by rotating offices and having other relatives replace them.”

This glaring omission betrays Imee’s dishonest and self-serving motive in citing the paper.

Root causes

More importantly, Imee glossed over the study’s key finding: that political reforms such as term limits may be ineffective in shaking up the political status quo of our society if they do not address the “fundamental sources of dynastic political power,” or the “underlying sources and distribution of political power.”

What are these? The author suggested some, including “control over land, access to state resources, employment, and violence in their respective provinces.”

You can argue, indeed, that the preponderance and robustness of political dynasties may merely be symptoms of an illness rather than the illness itself.

In the words of Emmanuel de Dios of the UP School of Economics, “Philippine politics…is not broken because dynasties are strong; rather, dynasties are strong because politics is broken.” 

To wit, some experts say that dynasties would not be as predominant in our politics if only political parties – driven primarily by platforms and ideas – are strong and mature like in other countries.

Sadly, personalities continue to trump parties in Philippine politics, and this makes it especially challenging for rookies – no matter how smart and competent – to challenge incumbents. Such barriers to entry thus allow ever deeper entrenchment of political dynasties.

In a later paper, Querubin also showed empirical evidence that incumbent Filipino officials (like congressmen and governors) who barely won in elections are about 5 times as likely to have their relatives serve in office vis-à-vis their losing opponents.

This familial advantage is particularly present if relatives run while the incumbent is still in office (and still has control over public resources). 

Organizing our political structure around strong political parties is one way to rein in dynasties. 

But it’s an altogether different issue whether the political dynasties are generally good or bad.

Previous papers have shown a correlation between the incidence of dynasties and the incidence of poverty in the regions. But correlation is not causation, and other studies suggest a slight if negligible causal link. 

Teasing out the true impact of political dynasties is tricky. But it’s perhaps the only way to discern which types of reform we need to impose on them.

Change is coming? 

It’s easy to give up and grow cynical of Philippine politics because reforms are devilishly complex and, hence, utterly frustrating.

Even the most well-meaning policies – like term limits and bans on political dynasties – may turn out to be inefficient at best, or even backfire at worst. 

This is not to say, of course, that we should abolish all such policies just because they’re flawed. Disturbingly, though, that’s precisely what Congress aims to do with their draft federal constitution, already approved by the House on third and final reading.

Tinkering with the formal rules isn’t nearly enough to see lasting political reforms. We need to revamp as well the informal norms that pervade our political culture. 

But can we reasonably expect the Duterte government to initiate such changes? Or are they themselves agents of the status quo? – Rappler.com

The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Thanks to Cleve Robert Arguelles for useful comments and insights. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.