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Dynastic rule tightens grip on Philippines

MANILA–Another Benigno Aquino is set to become one of the Philippines’ most powerful politicians next week thanks to his name, part of what analysts warn is an increasingly destructive system of dynastic rule.

The 36-year-old nephew and namesake of the current president is one of the front-runners to be elected to the Senate in mid-term elections, with many other favourites also owing their expected success to bloodlines.

Political dynasties have long been a feature of politics in the Philippines but analysts say that clan rule is becoming more entrenched, with remarkably few families dominating elected posts at national and local levels.

“We say we have a democracy but we don’t actually have many options… power is being effectively monopolized,” Ronald Mendoza, an economist at the Asian Institute of Management who has extensively researched dynasties, told AFP.

While other countries also have famous political dynasties — such as the Kennedys in the United States or the Gandhi family in India — Manila-based Mendoza said dynastic rule was more deeply ingrained in the Philippines.

Seven out of every 10 members of the nation’s lower house belong to a political dynasty — defined as having other relatives in elected positions — with the figure climbing to 80 percent in the Senate, according to Mendoza.

One of the most famous and powerful families is the Aquino clan.

The current president was propelled into office in 2010 with a landslide election victory that was largely due to a sudden surge of emotional support following the death from cancer of his mother, Corazon Aquino

She led the revolution that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, then served as president for six years. Her husband, also named Benigno Aquino, was a wealthy landowner and politician assassinated by Marcos forces in 1983.

The youngest Benigno Aquino emerged from political obscurity — he has no experience in elected office — to become one of the favorites for a Senate seat after similarly campaigning on his family name.

Another political neophyte polling well is Nancy Binay, daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay. Once a human rights lawyer, the patriarch is building his own dynasty, with two other children already holding top political posts.

Other likely new senators will be JV Ejercito, son of ex-president Joseph Estrada, and Jack Enrile, son of current Senate president and former Marcos-era defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

Political activists say the problem is just as bad at the provincial and local levels, where families often rule regions like fiefdoms for generations, controlling the economies as well as political structures.

In Monday’s elections, 18,000 local, provincial and national posts will be up for grabs but critics of dynastic rule say the event is not genuinely democratic because voters will rarely have a genuine range of choices.

“Elections provide the mechanism for conferring legitimacy to elite power and create the illusion once every three years that ‘change’ is possible”, the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a think-tank, wrote in a study on the issue.

Even when someone has the money or celebrity power to break a family’s stranglehold on an electorate, they typically start building their own dynasty.

One current example is boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, a former street kid who used his hero status and wealth from sports to beat an entrenched dynastic ruler of a southern province for a seat in the nation’s lower house in 2010.

For next week’s polls, Pacquiao has deployed his wife, Jinkee, a former shopping mall saleswoman with no political experience, to run for election as vice governor of Sarangani province.

One of Pacquiao’s brothers is also aiming to join him in Congress representing another southern province.

There are immense social and economic impacts for the Philippines as a result of such a monopolization of power at local and national levels, according to analysts.

One study by Mendoza, formerly an economist with the United Nations, shows that poverty levels in areas ruled by dynasties are five percentage points worse than in those that are represented by politicians without family links.

He also warned that, by electing politicians from such a small gene pool, the country is not tapping the potential of countless other talents.

Mendoza and other analysts say the dynastic phenomenon is largely due to poverty, corruption and a historic culture of patronage.

This translates into politicians doling out taxpayers’ money for infrastructure and other projects but claiming personal credit, and also giving cash directly to voters. So the voters become dependent on their patron.

While activist groups are trying to pressure Congress to pass a law that would ban dynasties, Mendoza said the key to breaking elite rule was addressing poverty, a lack of social security and other deep-rooted problems.

“Without a strong social safety net, you will always need the patron,” he said. “Only a person who is secure in his or her economic status can demand of a leader… what is good for our country.”

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