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The limits of imposing term limits and banning political dynasties

THE 1987 Constitution, which imposed term limits on public officials, had the tacit intent to ban political dynasties, except that this was left for Congress to legislate. Unfortunately, Congress failed to pass an anti-dynasty law.

This is a lesson which the members of the Consultative Committee (ConCom) formed by President Duterte took to heart when they proposed a self-executing anti-political dynasty provision in the draft constitution that they prepared, even as they limited terms of office to four years with only one reelection for all elected officials, which now also include the President.

The ConCom’s draft allows only up to two people from the same family who are related up to the second degree of consanguinity or affinity, whether such relations are legitimate or illegitimate, half or full-blood, to run in a given election, provided that one is running for a national position and the other for a local position. Furthermore, no person related to an incumbent official from the same family as defined would be allowed to run in the same position to succeed the relative.

The main principle behind the proposal to ban political dynasties, as defined, is to “guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service” and to “prevent the concentration, consolidation, or perpetuation of political power in persons related to one another.” The imposition of term limits, on the other hand, is also with the intent of preventing the perpetuation of incumbent political power.

Aside from the equality to access argument, there are also those who argue that banning political dynasties would be good for economic development. But as the team of Ronald Mendoza from the Ateneo School of Government has found, while poverty entrenches political dynasties, there is less evidence to support the claim that political dynasties exacerbate poverty.

There are also problems with how to operationalize the provisions. For one, the inclusion of illegitimate relations of affinity will prove a challenge, considering that we do not require politicians to register their “kabit” and “kerida” for the state to be able to monitor them. Furthermore, the definition is limited to relations in the context of families, when a closer analysis of Philippine society reveals that there are other domains of affinities, such as fraternities and friendships, that can prove to be as influential and could even be stronger. The sibling rivalries between Jinggoy Estrada and JV Ejercito, and between Abby and Junjun Binay, clearly illustrate that political families may not always be a stable ground for harmonious and monolithic political consolidation.

While it is tempting to paint democracy as simply about equality of access to political power, one should also be reminded that democracy is less about being directly involved in governance as elected officials, but more in widening the base and the quality of political participation. An active, mature, fully informed citizenry is as important to democracy as the elected politicians. The view that everyone has an equal right to govern may have been true during the times of the Greek city-states, where direct democracy was possible. But the increasing complexity of modern political communities, and taking a leaf from Plato’s argument about justice being that where only those who are fit to rule are allowed, would render as a misreading of democratic theory the argument that the interest of the political community is served by allowing everyone equal opportunity to run without due regard to their capabilities.

Political leadership is not a free commodity. It is one that is acquired not only because of passion or popularity, but also because of training and experience. It is infuriating, for example, to hear Bato de la Rosa make light of the responsibility of a senator by having no qualms about declaring publicly that he is running because the President told him to, and that he will just rely on consultants to do his job for him when the going gets tough. There is no doubt that de la Rosa is a capable policeman, but not all people who are capable in their fields have the temperament, the disposition and the capacity for lawmaking. But there he is, running because he can win. And he is not alone. This is now the season of people to file certificates to run simply because they can, and claiming to be doing it to be the voice of the people, even if they do not have a clue as to how they would go about doing it should they win.

And this is what is ailing the system, an electorate that is complicit with the dumbing down of governance simply because they translate election to public office as a popularity contest. What is depressing is that even the President seems to have fallen into committing this blunder. His promise of being a harbinger of change, which in this case demands that he demonstrate to the electorate that there is more to elections than “winnability,” seems to have been set aside when he frankly told Harry Roque Jr., a more credible candidate with the required record and expertise, not to run because he will not win, even as he supports de la Rosa because he is more “winnable” even if he publicly admitted that he doesn’t know anything about inflation.

The intention of limiting the terms of incumbents and of banning political dynasties, upon closer analysis, is clearly a misplaced fetter to a malfunctioning democracy. If the intent is to strengthen democracy, the push should be to enable mechanisms to ensure the quality of political participation, that only those candidates with the necessary knowledge and skills are voted by citizens who are equipped with the necessary information and rational capacities to choose. In imposing term limits and banning political dynasties, we are in effect turning our political landscape into a revolving door of short-termers, without any assurance that these are of quality. We may end up with a political landscape dominated by rookies and without any seasoned veteran.

What will certainly assure quality of political participation from the supply side of politics is to strengthen political parties to enable them to be domains of competition that can produce the most qualified candidates, even as they provide a necessary structural check on the concentration of power in just one family or a few families. We also need to reconsider allowing the proliferation of smaller regional parties, as these become the bearers of localistic, parochial, family-based political ambitions.

What will ensure quality of democracy on the demand side will be a fully informed, mature citizenry who will be the necessary check to the election of unqualified candidates or reelection of lousy incumbents. This would be more effective compared to limiting the terms of able and experienced politicians or banning them from running simply because they have a relative who also wants to serve.


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