How (not to) Break Political Dynasties  

In the previous post we documented some facts about the political dynasties of the Philippines. Our discussion of the Marcos regime further showed that ranting — and doing next to nothing — about the problems of oligarchs and political dynasties has a long history in the Philippines. After 1986 and the return to democracy the 1987 Philippine Constitution introduced various changes aimed at decreasing the power of political dynasties. For example, Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution included a clause stating:

The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.

However, after 25 years, a dynasty-controlled congress has failed to pass legislation providing a definition of “political dynasty,” so this constitutional ban remains vacuous. Most importantly, the 1987 Constitution introduced term limits for all elected offices. Senators can only be elected to two consecutive 6-year terms while congressmen, governors and all other local officials can only be elected to three consecutive 3-year terms. Some political analysts and scholars were optimistic that these constitutional provisions would open the political system to greater competition. For example, Alfred McCoy, in his book An Anarchy of Families stated:

Aquino’s Constitutional Commission adopted articles designed to break, for all time, the influence of political dynasties through both universal term limits and a specific prohibition on relatives (…) holding any public office. 

Other scholars argue that term limits, de facto, rob the electorate of a meaningful say in who does and does not belong in office.

But did term limits really have the effect of removing the power of dynasties over politics in the Philippines? This question was investigated by Pablo Querubín in his paper “Political Reform and Elite Persistence: Term Limits and Political Dynasties in the Philippines”. Though the idea that term limits can break dynasties is at first appealing, when you think about it, you’ll realize that it might in ractice encounter problems. Remember we pointed out that in many provinces there was a governor and congress-person from the same family. Maybe if they both faced term limits they could just switch jobs? In fact, that is exactly what happened in many cases. For example, in the province of Camiguin the congressman Pedro Romualdo faced a term limit in 1998 after serving for 3 consecutive terms. In response he successfully ran for governor while his son Jurdin Romualdo took his seat in congress. After both served three consecutive terms in their new positions, they swapped. In 2007 Pedro went back to being congressman, while Jurdin became governor. In Camiguin, not only did the term limits not stop dynastic control, they brought another member of the family into politics who might not otherwise have been there. 

As Pablo Querubín shows, this “Alternating Offices” strategy is not the only response that dynasties have formulated to deal with term limits. Another is the “Benchwarmer” strategy. In Cebu City, for example, when Antonio Cuenco faced a congressional term limit in 1998, his wife Nancy Cuenco took over for one term. In 2001 Antonio was back as congressman. 


Term limits are inducing dynasties to bring new members into politics also seems common. Take the situation in Bukidnon province. In 1998 the sitting congressman Jose Zubiri Jr. faced a term limit. He was replaced by his son Juan. Jose switched to Governor in 2001. When Juan hit a term limit in 2007, he switched to the Senate and was replaced by his younger brother Jose Zubiri III. In 2010 Jose senior faced a term limit as Governor but what could he do with his two sons in the Senate and Congress and not yet term limited? No problem, he successfully ran for vice Governor.

An interesting feature of the political system in the Philippines is that people have no problem in running for lesser offices after they have been term limited. In Davao City, for example, crime busting mayor Rodrigo Duterte was term limited in 2010. He switched to vice Mayor and was replaced as Mayor by his daughter Sarah.

Are these isolated examples or do they represent the general pattern? In fact what Pablo Querubín’s research shows is that term limits in the Philippines did not influence the probability that the same family controls a particular political office: if in one period a particular family was Governor, the fact that there was a term limit for Governor had no impact to the probability that the Governor in the future would be from that family, relative to the previous regime without term limits.

So much for easy solutions for breaking the power of political dynasties…

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