Political dynasties are present in many countries, even those that identify as democracies. But traditional political families in the Philippines are so notorious that in 2012 a Sydney Morning Herald piece documented a “dynasty on steroids.”

Notably, political dynasties in the Philippines continue to expand. A paper published by an academic think-tank, the Ateneo Policy Center, “From Fat to Obese: Political Dynasties after the 2019 Midterm Elections,” asserts that “over the past 30 years (or 10 election periods), political dynasties have become fatter.”

According to the paper, a “thin” dynasty is one where political families the mantle of public office on to other members sequentially. Elections are used by family members to succeed one another in holding a particular political post.

On the other hand, the term “fat dynasty” refers to a family of politicians simultaneously holding public office. Multiple members of the clan all participate in elections at the same time, running for different posts.

Correspondingly, the paper raises this alarm: “The results of the 2019 midterm elections demonstrated the capability of political dynasties to stay in power as fat dynasties remain entrenched in many parts of the country. While some prominent political dynasties lost, the overall picture shows that fat dynasties continue to grow both on the intensive (ie, size of political clans among the fat dynasties) as well as the extensive (ie, number of political clans that are fat dynasties) margins.”

Threat to democracy

The continuing domination of particular families in elections has in essence distorted this political exercise to favor only a special caste of politicians. Inevitably, this expansion of fat dynasties must be treated as a very grave threat to democracy because it heralds a steady deterioration of the entire democratic system itself.

In a democracy, suffrage is the people’s means to choose the right persons to manage their government. If incumbent officials are not performing up to par, the polity always has a chance to replace them in the next election.

The electoral cycle should be the way for the electorate to weed out the undesirables among the political class. More critically, however, an election is also the avenue through which the true leaders from the community can emerge.

In the Philippines, the over-dominance of political dynasties has undermined the electoral process by making genuine political competition virtually impossible. Equity of the incumbent, name recall, and patronage politics all make the hold of dynastic politicians on power almost unbreakable.

More critically, the unabated expansion of political dynasties augurs the decay of democracy in the Philippines because their domination of the electoral cycle stifles the general public’s access to opportunities for public service. Citizens who do not have political pedigrees are severely disadvantaged when competing in electoral contests.

Democratic decay

The notion of democratic decay is explained broadly as “the incremental degradation of the structures and substance of liberal constitutional democracy.” And according to the resource website Dem-Dec, “Where the democratic system fails to be responsive to the public, is captured by elite interests, or tolerates extreme inequality, democracy as an idea is tarnished.”

The reality now is that many local communities in the Philippines continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders because those who can push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are in effect denied the right to run for public office because of the monarchical nature of local politics.

The lack of genuine political competition indeed equates to bad governance, exemplified by the myopic and parochial mindset indicative of dynastic politicians in the Philippines. This is very clearly demonstrated by incumbent local politicos who can only be bothered with short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact, such as basketball courts and bus shelters.

Previous studies on political dynasties in the Philippines show that lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by dynastic politicians. But the more alarming development is that the fat dynasties are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.

Notably, ability to run for public office is a political right guaranteed by international law, particularly by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 21) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 25). Hence the undermining of this right is clearly an egregious assault on democracy. But the expansion of political dynasties in the Philippines is a slow and systematic undercutting of this right.

And it is far more dangerous because the weakening of democracy is gradual and shrouded by the regularity and necessity of holding periodic elections. Therefore, the decay of democracy in the country can easily go unnoticed.

Regulating dynasties

The Ateneo Policy Center paper is a timely caveat that the expansion of fat dynasties is a grave concern for all Filipinos. It presents a clear argument that genuine political contestation must be revived to prevent the decline of Philippine democracy.

The entry of more alternative candidates, meaning non-dynastic politicians, will restore true and fair competition in elections. This could then increase the chances of voters electing only the most deserving candidate, which could then dramatically improve the quality of governance and public-sector management.

The paper suggests that to rejuvenate political competition in the Philippines, legislation regulating political dynasties and strengthening political parties have to be passed by Congress.

While this is truly an excellent proposition, it faces a huge challenge: the fact that the majority of the members of both chambers of Congress belong to political dynasties.

This harsh reality raises the question of whether the very same politicians could be motivated to enact measures that will weaken their hold on political power. Ostensibly, dynastic lawmakers would likely hesitate to pass laws that could challenge the political advantages they have enjoyed for such a long time. So the onus is really on Filipinos to persuade as many lawmakers as needed to enact the necessary political reform measures in Congress.

Obviously, this is a huge ask, but the expansion of political dynasties simply cannot be left unchecked. If they become morbidly obese, this could be fatal to democracy in the Philippines.