Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Political Dynasties

"The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men" ─PLATO

Now that election is just around the corner, the clamour to wipe out political dynasties from the face of Philippine politics re-emerges, this time with a forceful vengeance. Over the years, we have seen the proliferation and resilience of political dynasties in local fiefdoms where competition is not as stiff as in the national arena. But the winds have changed. Today, political dynasties are no longer a parochial concern because its sordid tentacles have already reached the hallowed halls of an otherwise impervious political citadel─ the Philippine Senate.

The issue against political dynasties has always been the popular sentiment of well-informed citizens who are fed up, if not disgusted, with our political culture. But savvy politicos, vanguards of dynastic rule in this country, belittle the issue by shrugging it off saying “There is nothing wrong with political dynasties, the problem is corruption.” Say what? The cop-out response, the well-crafted sophistry employed in defence of political dynasties does not only belittle the fertile minds of the masses, in essence it captures the “lesser evil” mind-set of those who tried to perpetuate themselves in power using kinship affiliation. It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with political dynasties as long as it is the Cayetanos, Angaras, Pimentels, Estradas, Binays, Enriles, etc., the perceived crème de la crème of Philippine politics rule the day. That may be so. But then, what happens if majority of the populace, the poor and the homeless, lack discernment or simply apathetic towards public affairs, would that justify the morality of political dynasties? The heart of the question is not whether they are the nicer people who by sheer coincidence happen to be born with a silver spoon. Rather, it is an issue of the masses- which comprises an enormous chunk of the voting population being blinded, if not ignorant of what political dynasties and its time-tested repercussions are. I guess what it all comes down to is this: the masses are stupid anyway why bother, duh? Pardon the pun but this is how I look at the political landscape, if you want to stay in power the best way to do it is to keep exploiting the poor and the unlettered. And it would be best to keep them poor at all times.

But there is a considerable improvement among Filipinos today. Unlike the old days, the trend of public opposition against political dynasties has shifted dramatically from apathy to political maturity. Gone are the days when the hoi polloi would unwittingly stand on the side-lines of the political spectrum, waiting in vain for their messiah to come. Just the other day, I saw educators descended from the ivory towers of the academe talked about current political issues with ordinary folks. It was a bucolic scene reminiscent of small town meetings where dialogues were stripped down to the level of simplicity. I could only wish that that we could see more of them doing rounds in the grassroots level, facilitating talks with the masses on political issues.

The unstated power of the academe to change society cannot be underestimated. In provinces where political education is at a ground zero with no civil society organizations to cling on, the academe should be at the forefront of the battle versus political ignorance. If we could only increase public awareness of the issue against political dynasties, then we could reverse the trend of political reticence among our people.

Contrary to the contemptuous remark of a young solon, a political lackey and the sole heir of his father’s throne in the senate, the issue against political dynasties has never been, and will never be an elitist issue. We all hear them say it. Their answers are perfunctory. Underneath the sophistry we could at least sense that apologists of political dynasties employ common response by equating apathy with assent. Just because the great majority is relatively silent on the issue doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree with it. With the kind of callow political buffoons we have in public office, silence is definitely not consent! The fact of the matter is, public awareness of the issue on political dynasties is at the lowest level for the longest time. How could the people be conversant about political dynasties if they are not aware of its damaging repercussions in our society? Are they aware that political dynasties encourage patronage politics, nepotism, favouritism and corruption in government? It doesn’t make sense to say that political dynasties and corruption are mutually exclusive issues. Those who claim otherwise have nothing in their heads but hubris.

A fundamental factor that must be kept in mind is that the power and resilience of political dynasties stemmed from the kind of values, attitudes and political orientations of Filipinos as members of society. These norms have been an integral part of our political culture. Philippine politics, along with other aspects of society, rely heavily on kinship and other personal relationships. It is a sad reality that elections in this country which is supposed to be the cornerstone of democracy, is often seen as a popularity contest. Because our political parties are merely nominal political institutions, majority of the voting population gauge candidates based on surnames rather than principles. To win a local election, one must assemble a coalition of families. To win a provincial election, the important families in each town must be drawn into a wider structure. To win a national election, the most prominent aristocratic clans from each region must temporarily come together. A family's power is not necessarily precisely correlated with wealth--numbers of followers matters more--but the middle class and the poor are sought mainly for the votes that they can deliver. Generally, however, the country's political system has become so parochial and expensive that only the economic elite and traditional politicians (with very few exceptions) have clear and effective advantage of becoming successful politicians. As a result, our system of politics is but a hodgepodge of an elitist ideology. Rarely will we, the masses, be candidates ourselves.

x x x

I often hear people argue that the Constitution is the ultimate solution to end political dynasties in this country. I’m not quite sure whether the crux of the argument espouses constitutional amendment via people’s initiative or that the Constitution as presently worded has already prohibited political dynasties since day one. Either way, I submit that our present Constitution offers more problems than solutions.

Part of the strong public reaction against political dynasties has something to do with the confusion that 1987 Constitution has engendered. Twenty five years have passed (and still counting), the anti-political dynasty provision languishes in the dark and remains a dead letter law. Article II (Declaration of Principles and State Policies) sec. 26 of the 1987 Constitution states: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” As a general rule, the state as a matter of policy is mandated to prohibit monopoly of political power. Fresh from the experiences of martial rule where concentration of political power was very much the rule rather than an exception, the framers of the 1987 Constitution sought to cure this malady by democratizing political power from top to bottom. For those of us who studied political law under the 1987 Constitution would surely agree that the term limits of public officials and their corresponding accountability to the people are written in this light. The 1987 Constitution, unlike the previous ones, exacts much higher standards for public officials and provides a mechanism to check, limit and equalize access to public office.

The 1987 Constitution has been taunted as a talkative document because of its unprecedented length. For the record, it has fifty-eight (58) pages, 39,000 words and punctuation marks with ninety-seven open ended and ambiguous provisions that were addressed to Congress. The phrase “as may be defined by law” in the anti-political dynasty provision is only among the fifty (50) provisions under the present Constitution which required enabling laws before they can be implemented. Bear in mind that the 1987 Constitution was framed in the wake of EDSA revolution, most of its provisions are knee-jerk reactions to the abuses of the Marcos regime. Thus, at the insistence of Constitutional Commissioner Jose Nolledo, one of the distinguished members of the 1986 Con-Com, the anti-political dynasty provision was included in the 1987 Constitution but only to be neutralized by a seemingly innocent phrase, “as may be provided by law.” But since Congress is the principal playground of self-perpetuating politicians, logically they will deliberately disregard this constitutional policy, as if it is a ghost provision. Obviously, members of Congress will be directly affected if they will activate the anti-political dynasty provision, it will work against their selfish interest to wit: perpetuation of political power; and likewise it will definitely affect their relatives and friends who are dominating the local scene. Indeed, absolute power corrupts absolutely!

All is not hopeless. The problem with most of us is that we rely too much on that seemingly inutile constitutional provision just because it looks pretty darn good on paper. In life, constitutionality is not everything. Like it or not, we cannot solve our problems with political dynasties if we keep on mumbling constitutional incantations hoping that our lawmakers would one day experience some moral epiphany of sorts. “What are we in power for?” is still, and will always be the rule in Philippine politics.

I submit that when the Constitution enunciates principles and state policies the same should be self-executing without the need for an enabling law. At least that’s what my feisty law professor taught us in constitutional law. Note that what is at issue here is not that the present Constitution failed to correct the misdeeds of the past, but, for reasons of urgency, the framers did not include a clear-cut definition of political dynasties. How then should we enforce the spirit from which the Constitution has been formulated? The answer is quite obvious. But voters opt to be oblivious- a rather sad story to the aspirations of the 1987 Constitution. In the end, the Constitution is nothing without us. We demand highly from our supreme law democratic safeguards, but on hindsight, have anyone of us thought highly of what we can do to achieve these safeguards? Let me end my discourse by echoing the words of Manuel L. Quezon, he said: Constitutions are not worth the paper they are written on, if people do not live as they should in a democracy.

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