Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Political dynasties and the Constitution

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Political dynasties justify their continued reelection or stay in power as an affirmation of their constituents’ belief in their ability to effectively manage the affairs of their hometowns. Isn’t the voice of the people the voice of God?

Excuses and alibis aside, the existing scenario makes a mockery of the policy statement in our Constitution: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” All past efforts to give meaning to this mandate have gone bust in Congress. None of the bills filed for this purpose ever made it to plenary.

In the course of President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address last July, he urged Congress to enact a law to implement this constitutional policy. Responding to his call, a bill was filed in the House of Representatives to define political dynasties and prohibit members of the same family from holding certain local and national positions at the same time.

Not surprisingly, consideration of this bill has been indefinitely suspended. The House leadership said it has more important legislation to discuss. The bill is expected to remain in the back burners until Congress adjourns.

Entrusting to Congress the task of fleshing out the details on the prohibition of political dynasties was a big mistake of the Constitutional Commission, the body that drafted the Constitution. The records of the commission’s proceedings show that, initially, some commissioners wanted to spell out the measures that will guarantee equal access to public service and ban political dynasties. The move did not prosper because majority of the commissioners felt the matter was better left to the sound judgment of Congress. They assumed that the incoming legislators would be able to rise above their personal or family interests and give meaning to this constitutional provision.

Their expectations proved to be groundless. No way will congressmen and senators who belong to political dynasties themselves agree to enact a law that would diminish their political influence. Political power translates to economic wealth, and our “honorable” lawmakers would rather be dead than voluntarily accept or accede to the reduction of the privileges that accompany political control.

Once political power has been tasted and enjoyed, it would take a miracle for its holder to willingly give it up. He or she will fight tooth and nail to keep it within his or her family or clan. Thus, in some provinces and cities, members of families that used to be political allies or otherwise had close ties are running against each other in a bid to have their own taste of power. Politics can make the closest of relatives bitter political enemies—with sometimes fatal consequences.

It is futile to believe or hope that the members of Congress can set aside their selfish interests and enact a law that would ban political dynasties. That would be going against a grain of human nature peculiar to our lawmakers—self-aggrandizement.

If by some miracle such a law is enacted, it will probably be watered down to make its objective meaningless, or crafted in such a way the Supreme Court will be obliged to declare it as unconstitutional.

Since the legislative route is not viable, the prohibition on political dynasties can only be effected through a constitutional amendment or adoption of a new Constitution. The problem is, given the present state of our political maturity, it is doubtful if either approach will work.

If the amendment is done through congressional action, the lawmakers will, like the bills earlier filed for that purpose, sit on it or shoot it down. If a constitutional convention is called to draft a new Constitution, expect the political dynasties to work hard to have their members elected to that body. With them sitting in the convention, it is a certainty they will resist any attempt to reduce their political influence by constitutional fiat.

The 1986 Constitutional Commission had the singular opportunity to end, if not minimize political dynasties, but blew it. We have to live with its mistake.

With no legal or constitutional remedy in sight, it is up to us voters to decide whether or not we want political dynasties to maintain their stranglehold in our elections.

Raul J. Palabrica ( writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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