Keeping Power and Money in the Family: The Economics of Philippine Political Dynasties

Posted on Posted in 2012-2013
By Jaime Zulueta and Miguel Cordero

In the case of the Philippines, winning elections runs in the family.

The Philippine Constitution of 1987 says in Section 26 of the State’s Policies that “the State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” However, it seems that public service in the country remains oligarchic in nature. In 2011, the Supreme Court defined political dynasty as a “phenomenon that concentrates political power and public resources within the control of a few families whose members alternatively hold elective office, deftly skirting term limits.” The term and its description are very familiar, as almost any voting Filipino can name families who have been occupying political office for decades. But, why is the public averse to political dynasties?

They create long-term rule, which in turn can be used to effect long-term plans. The best economic and social programs have been that which lasts years. Then again, long-term rule by the same clan can just translate to political and economic control over the region. This can be used to advance personal interests.

On the other hand, the most glaring critique of political dynasties is the abuses committed as a result of concentrating political authority to a few entrenched families. One of the most controversial and most publicized cases in the country, the so-called “Maguindanao massacre,” is the outcome of the struggle for provincial control between two clans – the Ampatuan’s and Mangudadatu’s.

The formation of Political Dynasties

An article by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in 2013 noted that many political dynasties in the Philippines are highly entrenched with roots dating back to the Spanish era, and were perpetuated by the Americans when they came and installed a commonwealth. The Americans originally allowed only a set number of families, together called the principalia, to run for elections. Perhaps they did this pragmatically to ensure loyalty from the elite, regardless, the scheme perpetuated a concentration of political power.

One may wonder how a dynasty starts now in the contemporary era. This is perhaps best explained by Sheila Coronel of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in her 2007 exposé, “The Seven M’s of Dynasty Building”: money, machine, marriage, media, murder, myth and merger.

One may argue that money makes the world go round, but it is definite that money enables political dynasties to survive each election round. Many politicians are from landed families, or from families with ventures into manufacturing, agriculture, and finance among others. A sustainable economic base is required to finance election campaigns. After all, campaigns can be costly. In 2004, a congressional campaign in Metro Manila costs around Php 30 Million. In the rural areas, it averaged Php 10 Million.

Alongside money comes the machine, the system of mobilizing people and resources which will ensure electoral votes. The network of voters and precincts are vast. Especially in a national election, politicians need to find a way to reach potential votes. A web of men and women are funded to pay voters through cash or kind, to oversee poll watchers and election days, to put up campaign posters, to engage in door to door visits, to provide rides to polls, and to supply competitor information. Coronel calls them “liders”. The term is fitting for they seem to lead candidates to their win.

In recent times, candidates have been able to succeed in elections due to their exposure in movies and or media. One calls to mind movie stars such as former President Joseph Estrada and Batangas Governor Vilma Santos. Movies and media reach far and wide and the popularity gained serve as instant name recognition during elections. The same popularity ensures that in the next election, the candidate is still known. The movie screen is the campaign.

Dynasties are also established through marriage. This serves to consolidate political power and family resources. While a politician may be influential in his home town or home province, he may not be in the rest of the Philippines. If one is aiming for the national level, then these other regions are vital. Such was the case of Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos, before his marriage to Imelda Romualdez, was already congressman of Ilocos Sur. But his ambitions of presidency could not be fulfilled by Ilocos alone. His entrance into the Romualdez family gave him power over the vote rich Visayas region.

Philippine politics are plagued by violence. Murder and mayhem ensure the elimination of rivals either through killing or through fear. On the other hand, myth-making also sustains a political dynasty. This is more concerned with the story or story created behind a certain candidate. This may be regarding one’s heroisms in war, humble origins, and generosity among others. One calls to mind Joseph Estrada and the popular slogan “Erap para sa mahirap”. The last M is the merger of political parties. Similar to marriage, alliances provide a sharing of resources and influence among parties put together.

The Problems with Political Dynasties

Why does the increase of political power increase the economic influence of a dynasty?

The relationship between power and wealth works two-way. The advantage of political dynasties in terms of election spending ensures the political control over an area. Maintaining political control, on the other hand, sustains economic influence, which in turn, makes it easier to retain control of the government positions, feeding the cycle of a political dynasty.

A politician steps into office with economic factors in mind. And in order to stay in power, economic influence will be needed as well. The incumbent may be doing a good job, may be improving the lives of his constituents, but simple short term moves executed by the opposition may quickly turn the tides. These may include cash gifts or any similar kind. In order to combat this, the incumbent will need to offer more, and this is even more incentive to use his current preferential treatment to retain power.

A single year of political office can grant the incumbent various economic benefits depending on how well the position is exploited. There is preferential access to loans, monopolies, tax exemptions, and donations among others, as noted by a 2007 PCIJ article. And, why the preference? Corporations and organizations know that politicians have the power to reject or approve a project. The gifts and preference are just a way of swinging the decision in their favor.

Now imagine if the economic benefits of a political position are applied over several terms. Political dynasties enable the incumbent to cement economic power over their region. Dynastic politicians who entrench their businesses prevent entrants and entrepreneurs from performing well. Dynastic politicians would have the resources to block and delay competitors from entering the market, driving costs up. A common example is where entrepreneurs wish to set up business but are held up due to red tape while their rivals who may have friends in high places, can breeze through bureaucracy easily. Not many will be willing to invest in a scenario where the market can be intervened by a government whose side is with a competitor.

This is how dynastic politics perpetuate poverty. The lack of entrants and rivals means a monopoly can dictate whatever price or pays they like with no or incapacitated competitors unable to challenge with lower prices or higher pays. Thus, dynastic politics suggest that dynasties do not do perform to maximum efficiency as their goal is to stay and not do the best they can in office.

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. “Political Dynasties in the Philippines.” The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty: Why Nations Fail. Atlantic, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. < philippines .html>

Coronel, Sheila. “The Seven M’s of Dynasty Building.” Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism Special Feature. PCIJ, 14 Mar. 2007. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. < report/2007/dynasty-building.html>

De Leon, Hector S. Textbook on the Philippine Constitution. Quezon City: Rex Printing Company, Inc., 2000. Print.

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