FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 11, 2019 - 12:00am

For years, we have tried passing an Anti-Dynasty Law with no success to speak of. In this election, it seems the “dynasties” are asserting themselves with a vengeance.

The effort to legislate the so-called “political dynasties” into extinction reflects the attitude of the 1987 Constitution. That document attempts to change the social order by sheer constitutional dictate.

Constitutional dictate often produces unintended consequences. For instance, one major reason dynasties now proliferate is the term limits imposed by the 1987 Constitution on holding elective office.

Term limits were imposed to broaden the base of participation in the political system. Instead of one kingpin holding public office for years, however, term limits encourages rotation of public offices among members of a political clan. That meant more members of a family become involved in politics. Elections become a family business.

Instead of undermining political clans, term limits made them necessary. Instead of dispersing public offices to a larger number of participants, term limits further concentrated political power. What term limits tried to avoid, it actually abetted.

The attempt to legislate “political dynasties” to extinction, on the other hand, fell into a semantic quagmire. No legislator was ever able to define what a “dynasty” was to everyone’s satisfaction.

Those who opposed such legislation, for their part, argued that there could be no such things as “dynasties” in an electoral democracy. Every member of a powerful political clan was freely elected to public office. They were the choice of the people who voted for them.

How can one argue against freely elected dynasts?

Opponents of anti-dynasty legislation go further. They argue that a law banning other family members from seeking public office is intrinsically anti-democratic. It sets new qualifications beyond what the Constitution sets. It amounts to class legislation, running counter to the principle of equal standing before the law.

These are strong legal arguments. Thirty-two years after the current Constitution was ratified, its command to restrict “dynasties” remains unheeded.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution must have done on the matter of political dynasties what they did on the matter of economic provisions. They should have “constitutionalized” the restrictions in the same manner these framers elbowed out Congress and imposed restrictive conditions for investments in our economy.

The restrictive economic conditions in our Constitution, derived from ancient orthodoxies, could not be remedied by legislation. To change the restrictions, the Charter needs to be amended or rewritten. This has proven nearly impossible to do. Therefore, we all labor under the unhealthy effects of “constitutionalized” economic provisions that hamper our competitiveness.

The constitutional demand to outlaw “dynasties” will probably remain unheeded for many years to come. Meanwhile, we must live with this spectacle of numerous candidates from the same family seeking their places of power under the aegis of electoral democracy.

They could not be banned in democracy’s name, even if they are in fact injurious to the democracy we seek to build.

Political economy

If political clans proliferate, it is because they make eminent sense from the point of view of political economy.

The best way to understand this phenomenon is not by the language of lawyers. They are best understood using the categories of business and economics.

Every political family benefits from the marketing advantages of branding. A recognizable family name is political capital. Any new politician using an old and familiar family name enjoys an advantage over rivals. That advantage may, in fact, be quantified in terms of the money saved building name-recall.

This is why children of prominent political parentage predominate that Senate. They enjoy the advantage of name-recall and brand loyalty.

The only way to break into this exclusive circle of children of the famous is to achieve very high name-recall doing other things in comedy, sports or the movies. This is why Nancy Binay and Manny Pacquiao sit together in that chamber. This is why two of Erap Estrada’s sons are seeking to reclaim seats in the Senate.

At the local level, political families invest a lot building a network of support and investing in debt of gratitude through patronage. Making friends and recruiting support is a full-time activity. The homes of politicians constantly host a stream of visitors daily, mostly seeking favors.

Having invested much in building a recognizable brand and a network of supporters, it is to the political clan’s advantage to field more clansmen in elections. That multiplies the utility of the asset, be that branding or network. That, in turn, multiplies the returns.

Every businessman understands the logic and the lure of optimizing investments, of using fixed costs to acquire more returns.

It is this logic and this lure that explain why all the Cayetanos are running in Taguig, why an army of Crisologos are candidates in Quezon City and why descendants of Joseph Estrada are all over the place.

They are hardly to be blamed. They are merely seeking optimal returns on sunk costs. They are really behaving as rational economic beings.

Politics, after all, is an enterprise. Where political power is not brokered by an effective political party system, where rivalries are not really about contrasting programs of government and where voter choices are made on the basis of personal relations (real or imagined) with the candidates, expect the political clans to dominate.

They take their just deserts. They worked hard to cultivate their brand and court supporters.

To break the grip of the political clans, we will have to build an impersonal electoral system. That requires culture change we are not ready for.

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