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The Teleserye of Political Families in the Philippines, Explained

It runs in the family.
by Erwin Colcol
Sep 1, 2021
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Powerful father leaves his strong-willed daughter and political heiress a note, asking her to consider one of two routes in a crucial election that is months away. She rejects it, and maintaining "unconditional love", advises the patriarch to "stop talking about me".

That's how President Rodrigo Duterte and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio communicated in public in the last weeks of August, providing the public with a glimpse at the workings inside the country's most powerful political family at the moment.

As ruling families in the Philippines climb the political ladder, rivalries emerge. Brothers JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada both want to run for senator in 2022 and both know they could lose, like they did in 2019, unless one of them gives way.

Also in the last election, brother and sister Jejomar Erwin Binay and Abigail Binay battled for the mayorship of Makati City, a position that was held for years by their father, former Vice President Jejomar Binay. The sister won.

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It’s just like a teleserye,” political scientist Gerardo Eusebio told reportr.

Plotlines usually revolve around siblings fighting over inheritance from their parents. Except this time, it involves families occupying several public offices in a town or province, and elective positions are passed from one generation to another.

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Why do political families stay in power? It’s because their members have established a strong hold over the electorate throughout the years, analysts said.

“For the voters, it's still the operation of the super patronage style of politics,” said Eusebio, who teaches political science at the De La Salle University.

“Their criteria in voting have been very personalistic. Nalalapitan ba natin sila? Kapag tayo ba nagkaproblema malalapitan natin sila? All the basic services, yun na lang ang nangyayari,” he added.

In the Philippines, two families successfully elected two presidents: the Macapagals and the Aquinos. Other clans, like the Marcoses, Osmeñas, and Estradas, have maintained constant political presence.

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Should Sara run for president and win, it will mark the first time that the presidency is passed on between relatives.

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How political families became so powerful

While political families seem like they’ve been around for at least a century, they actually became more prevalent after democracy was restored in 1986, Eusebio said. During the 1987 and the 1992 elections, he said about 60% to 70% of those who won public offices were from old political dynasties from the 1960s.

University of the Philippines professors Teresa Encarnacion Tadem and Eduardo Tadem, who wrote a paper on political dynasties, said that while new political actors emerged after the Marcos regime, political clans were able to diversify economically, allowing them to hold on to power.

In 2013, members of political families were elected in all 80 provinces in the country, making up 74% of the House of Representatives, their study showed.

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Today, political families don’t contend with a single challenger anymore. The prevalence of the dynasty system paved the way for a battle among political dynasties in one town or province, Eusebio said.

“Most often, natatalo yung challenger. Another challenger comes again, matatalo. Ngayon, dynasties versus dynasties na. So wala na talagang paraan na mawawala yung dynasties because dynasties are now pitted against dynasties,” he said.

Some political families also resort to making deals with other political clans, which is a more cost-efficient way of winning the elections, Eusebio added.

“For instance, if you run against me, I'm the governor, and I have a dynasty, I'll tell you: Okay, you run for vice governor, I'll support you. I run for governor but next term ikaw naman. It’s a practical deal,” he said.

The Fariñas and Marcos clans of Ilocos Norte made such arrangement for the 2019 elections. But last-minute changes in their respective candidates broke what would have been a “peace deal” between the two rival dynasties.

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Why political families are still here

Political families in the Philippines also thrive because nothing actually stops them from fielding candidates in every election. While there is a provision against political dynasties in the 1987 Constitution, there is no enabling law that would enforce it.

One reason why there is no law against political dynasties is because lawmakers themselves belong to these clans, Tadem and Tadem said in their study.

“Some politicians simply do not see anything wrong with political dynasties,” they added.

In 2014, a bill limiting the number of election candidates from one political clan reached the House plenary, but it eventually died a natural death. In the 18th Congress, at least two House bills have been filed against political dynasties, but are both still pending in the committee level.

What's next for political dynasties?

A new breed of politicians is leading a campaign for fresh brands of leaderships that don't involve a famous surname.

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In 2019, Vico Sotto was elected mayor of Pasig, toppling the Eusebio clan that ruled the city for over 20 years. Francis Zamora also ended the 50-year hold of the Estradas in San Juan City.

While these victories are welcome developments, there is still much to be done, Eusebio, the political scientist, said.

As a law against political dynasties is difficult to be passed in Congress, political families themselves must make sacrifices in order to go beyond the cycle.

“Why not everybody, for the sake of republicanism, bow down and effect the constitutional requirements of forbidding political dynasties? That is, I think, the noble thing to do,” Eusebio said.

“It’s the perennial battle between self-interest versus national interest. Kung mananalo lang sana yung national interest, yun ang talagang sana mangyari. Because we have to abide by the Constitution,” he added.

Empowering voters by giving them economic mobility will also help them make better decisions when election day comes, Eusebio said.

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“As your resources increase, the better the education system will be. And the more educated our citizens will be, the more discerning they will be in choosing candidates. Yun ang key.”

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