The cycle of political dynasties

By Kert

(Image via Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Yesterday I posted a link to Prof. Jose Abueva’s column about the political dynasties in the Philippines. It’s a really good read. Filipinos and anyone interested in Philippine/Southeast Asian politics should go and read it.

Prof. Abueva writes about how these centuries-long dynasties have been very detrimental to the social and political structure of our country. The existence of political dynasties undermines our claim to be a democratic country and continues the cycle of the manipulation of the poor and powerless.

Political dynasty members are seen to use their superior wealth, following and access to public resources to favor themselves. They attract their followers and keep them loyal with patronage.

Some of them even resort to unfair if not illegal means to keep their political rivals out of office: corruption, fraud, violence, vote-buying and intimidation.

Prof. Abueva reminds us that political dynasties aren’t supposed to be allowed according to our 1987 constitution. However, as always, politicians are amazing at circumnavigating the laws (the opposite can be said about their ability to actually help their constituents). They didn’t define political dynasty — so there really is no way that families running together in the elections can be persecuted. Because there’s nothing in there that says what constitutes political dynasties.

However, these political dynasties aren’t as deeply-rooted as they may seem. They may have a certain grip on the people for quite some time, but that grip isn’t necessarily eternal.

In general, however, political dynasties rise and fall. A political dynasty can be challenged and defeated, then rise again; or fade away when the people are dissatisfied and turn to other leaders.

I find this interesting because this is exactly how Laura Lee Junker describes the Philippine political system in the Pre-Hispanic times (which is similar to the political system of other Southeast Asian countries during the time) — kinship-oriented and ephemeral. Does this mean that nothing much has changed in our society since hundreds or maybe thousands of years ago?

However, it is clear from the contact period Spanich documentation that chiefly authority, particularly at the regional level, was frequently weak, ineffective, and ephemeral. It was clearly undermined by relatively diffuse rules of chiefly succession, by a power base centered on tenuous alliance networks rather than more stable territorial units, by the lack of institutionalized mechanisms for wielding true coercive power against subordinates, and by the perpetual threat of usurpation by competing political leaders. While the historical records suggest a strong hereditary component to leadership positions, inheritance of the chieftainship was complicated by nonunilinear descent rules and multiple spouses as in other Southeast Asian complex societis. (Junker 2000:75)

This pretty much sums up the kind of political structure that we have today. Political parties (mostly composed of kin groups, now much easier to discern as there are no longer multiple spouses) are kept alive by alliances, and people in power are constantly in threat from opposing political alliances. The success of this alliances depends on how they can win (or manipulate) the sympathies of the people. Political power, therefore, seems strong in its facade but it is easily breakable. The only one who never ever gets to win are the people because they are juggled by opposing groups whose goals don’t concern the betterment of the entire society.

Junker and Abueva’s statements are also reminiscent of the exchange of power from the Marcoses to the Aquinos/Cojuancos. The Marcos family was, for a time, powerful and seemingly unbreakable with their vast network of alliance (consisting mainly of their friends and kin) and large control of the country. However, the people grew dissatisfied with them (what with the martial law and oppressive orders). At the peak of the people’s dissatisfaction, another political alliance arose consisting of its own set of alliance who were not getting any benefits during the rule of Ferdinand Marcos. The Aquinos/Cojuancos (except maybe Ninoy Aquino) were not necessarily fighting for the rights of every Filipino except their own, but they found a good timing and seized it. Thus, there is a change of power from one political dynasty to another. Presently, we are still seeing the Aquino/Cojuanco family in power, but I wonder what will happen five, ten, twenty years from now?

Lastly, Abueva calls for structural change and reforms to save our political system. Even if the political dynasty is a “benevolent political dynasty”, it is still an abuse of power.

To be sustainable, fighting corruption and developing the country cannot depend on our President’s charisma alone, however well-meaning and popular and trusted he is. These require dynamic, functional institutions and a critical mass of transforming leaders gradually replacing our political dynasties.

We need inclusive economic growth, population control and a sustainable environment. In a word, we need good democratic governance that will enable us in the long run to “build a just and humane society.”


*Note: All quotes are lifted from Prof. Jose Abueva’s column except stated otherwise.


Abueva, J.(2012, November 3). Dynasties threat to democracy. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved November 4, 2012, from

Junker, L.L. (2000). Raiding, Trading and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s