COMMENTARY: The most unforgivable gaffe

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews / 14 Oct) – Senator Grace Poe’s statement, even if made during an ambush interview, on the link between federalism and political dynasties has revealed her flip-flopping approach in dealing with dynastic politicians. Sad to say, she is no political maverick after all.

But more critically, such a remark also showed her lack of understanding of federalization. So just to be clear. Federalism does not perpetuate political dynasties. It is actually patronage politics fostered by a highly centralized system of government that does.

The fact is political dynasties are a huge obstacle to federalization because they undermine local governance. According to the International Guidelines on Decentralisation and Strengthening of Local Authorities issued by UN-HABITAT─ “Political decentralization to the local level is an essential component of democratization, good governance and citizen engagement”.

However, the status quo in the Philippines paints the contrary picture. A respected political commentator articulates the dire situation so poignantly this way─ “In the 1970s, there was only one dictatorship in the country: the Marcos dictatorship. Today, we have many ‘small dictatorships’ in the form of political dynasties.”

The concentration of local government authority in a single family has two notable results. First, accountability in office is no longer a standard for public service for blood relations would expectedly trump over the public’s demand for checks-and-balance amongst officials in local government.

Obviously, when this happens unabated graft and corruption infects local governance itself.

The second effect of dynastic dominance in local government is the steady deterioration of the quality of leaders being elected to office. Indeed, Professor Ronald Mendoza, arguably the most avid anti-political dynasty advocate around, bitterly laments that meritocracy in governance is actually “dying at the hands of political dynasties.”

According to Colombian academic, Pablo Querubin, in Political Reform and Elite Persistence: Term Limits and Political Dynasties in the Philippines, political elites in the Philippines are so entrenched in their dominant position they have become essentially insulated from political competition.

Sadly, being in this station of privilege and impunity for so long has led to the inculturation of a myopic and parochial governance frame of mind. Clearly demonstrated by the local politico who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact and most likely simply as a knee-jerk response to the clamor of the day from his or her supporters.

And worse, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can and are willing to push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to run for public office because of the “monarchical” character of local government.

Indeed, Filipinos who are more qualified, passionate and patriotic, including many from the youth ranks, are unfairly deprived of the opportunity to establish clean and effective local governance.

Both these outcomes have become the bane to the socio-economic progress of local communities in the country. According to a groundbreaking study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012—lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty.

The more alarming development is that the fattest dynasties—those with the most number of family members in elective office—are actually ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.

Now such a chokehold of local dynasties on local governance brings to bear serious doubts on our country’s readiness to shift to a federal form of government. There is a very real fear that enhancing local autonomy with political dynasties still having their way in local government will prove disastrous for local communities.

In fact, Senator Poe later on clarified that what she actually meant was that increasing local authority can further entrench these traditional families in their positions of power thereby condemning many Filipinos in perpetual misery.

This belated elucidation does not really improve her position because she has aligned herself with dynastic families. A move which leads to the suspicion that she is against a shift to federalism because the status quo has proven beneficial to her political ambitions. Simply put, dynastic politics which thrives on the current uber centralized structure could be her ticket to Malacañang.

I think many will agree that Senator Poe’s gaffe has shown she has been tutored well in the ways of patronage politics by her Number 1. Senator Chiz Escudero after all carries the flag of the tribe of political dynasties with enviable distinction. Indeed if pundits are to be believed, the road to the top jobs in the land is theirs for the taking.

Unfortunately the good lady senator has fallen in a terrible sinkhole by disrespecting the federalism aspiration shared by millions of Filipinos, most of whom are most likely from Mindanao. Forsaking this popular advocacy to forge dynastic alliances will be her mistake that may never to be forgiven. Nor forgotten.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. The author is an independent legislative and policy consultant. He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization, and constitutionalism.)