These are personal learnings and reflections from an Executive Course on Governance and Democracy with the Ateneo School of Government under the Youth Leadership for Democracy’s (YouthLed) 2021 Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) fellowship.
On June 12th of 1898, revolutionary leaders of the Philippines declared the country as an independent and sovereign state, making it one of Asia’s oldest constitutional democracies. However, time has not been kind to the old and weary political system. Many factors contribute to this, but the main problem is rooted in two interlinked issues: the increasing power of political dynasties and their goons, guns, and gold.
Malfunctioning Democracy and Weak Institutions
The promise of democracy is that the power lies in the hands of the majority, but there is a striking discrepancy when instead, power is concentrated in the hands of various elites. Moreover, addressing the problems of democracy is even more challenging with the weak political parties in the country.
As mentioned in the book, “Building Inclusive Democracies in ASEAN,” a weak and malfunctioning democracy hinders inclusive growth. While the fundamental aspects of democracy continue to rule Philippine society, there is growing frustration over the inability of institutions to respond to the needs of the majority of the population.
The weakness of these institutions results in the lack of the rule of law and accountability, thereby paving the way for political clans to perpetuate in power. This also allows government officials from political dynasties to continuously stifle with competition and, in effect, denying the opportunity for other leaders to serve in elected offices.
Politics have become a family enterprise
Political Dynasties are among the most persistent features of Philippine Democracy. In the last 2019 Midterm Elections, at least 163 political families have secured seats as Governors, Senators and House Representatives. Despite explicit prohibition in the 1987 Philippine Constitution of Political Dynasties, congress is unable to pass a law that would enforce the Anti-Dynasty provision. Families entrenched in the political system continue to block attempts to institutionalize reforms that would increase political competition and accountability.
Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is part of a political clan. Before vying for the presidency, he served for 22 years (7 terms) as Mayor of Davao, a post now held by his daughter, Sara Duterte. His sons, Paulo and Sebastian, also currently serve as government officials. The Dutertes are just among the many political families who have perpetuated their stay in power. Data shows that after the 2019 elections, 14 of the 24 senators belong to a political clan, while in the Lower House, 162 of the 300 representatives belong to political families.
Allowing the concentration of power to be in the hands of a few families is corrosive to a functional and genuinely inclusive democracy. This dynastic presence also negatively affects the economic conditions of the Filipinos. Not only does it exacerbate poverty, but it is also directly linked to corruption. A study revealed that sub-national governments controlled by political dynasties are less likely to experience good governance in infrastructure development, curbing crime prevalence, and providing employment opportunities.
Persistence of Guns, Goons, and Gold
Another element that enables the perpetuation of dynasties is their possession of guns and goons. The continued existence of goons in some parts of the country is used to intimidate voters and harass opponents. These gun-wielding goons or private militias, usually maintained by warlords and political dynasties, are linked to election-related violence, which seems to have become a normalized narrative every election day, especially in parts of Mindanao.
Having access to gold or wealth also keeps these political families in power, resulting in the prevalence of vote-buying during Philippine elections, whether with money or with goods. Low-income families are usually the target of vote-buying tactics, but studies show that politicians use this to build loyalty and patronage among constituents beyond election-related support.
Political dynasties and their guns, goons, and gold continue to plague Philippine elections, resulting in a democracy that is flawed, weak, and frail.
2022 Elections: How it can be a turning point
The 2022 Elections poses a challenge for Filipinos to come together and fight back against the prevalence of political dynasties. Therefore, the mobilization of support for alternative candidates is crucial in this election. Alternative candidates have ended political dynasties in the country before, like the governor of Dinagat Islands or the mayors who defeated political dynasties in Manila, Pasig and San Juan. These leaders with a strong purpose of serving in a transparent and honest way require our support, especially since going against powerful political families will prove to be an insurmountable challenge that only a few can achieve.
Besides voting out political dynasties, a long-term solution is to change the underlying conditions that strengthen their establishment, including demanding inclusive education and health services. Without inclusive development, people will remain vulnerable to patronage arrangements with those in power.
Youth mobilization to register and vote for the 2022 elections is also a critical area that needs focus. Several youth-led initiatives have emerged to persuade more young people to register for the upcoming elections, explaining why exercising this right is important. We The Youth Vote, Kabilang Ka sa 2022, and Proyekto Parehistro are vital platforms to mobilize electoral participation and raise awareness of the deleterious effects of political dynasties and vote-buying. Leadership programs, such as the Leadership and Democracy Fellowship of the Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed), are also helpful in training young people to advocate for democracy, participatory governance, and civic engagement.
To save the ill-ridden democracy of the Philippines, we need to go beyond electoral participation and act as counterweights to keep politicians and government officials in check. Our responsibility as citizens is to safeguard our country’s independence, and that includes fighting for a democracy free from the clutches of political dynasties.
Happy Independence Day to all Filipinos! Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!