“In countries such as North Korea and Syria, families take control of the reins of power and pass them from one generation to the next.” –Law Professor Warren L. Dean, Jr.
The story of Rabri Devi, former chief minister of Bihar, in India, tells an all-too familiar tale of the blight that is political dynasties. Her predecessor, Lalu Prasad Yadav, her husband, first assumed the position in 1990. In 1997, he was served an arrest warrant in connection to corruption claims, wherein he resigned the post and installed his wife, an average housewife with no political experience – and no publicly held ambitions to seek office.
A run-of-the-mill story for many Filipinos, the politician husband is unable to fill a role, so his wife is plucked out of obscurity and minted as a “leader.”
While she did not pursue any position besides chief minister, her husband, despite the allegations, later served as minister of railways under then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Their son Tej Pratap Yadav was the health minister for Bihar up until July of this year; while their other son Tejashwi Yadav currently serves in the Bihar Legislative Assembly, prior to that he was deputy chief minister for the said state.
The father was eventually convicted in 2013 and was released on bail after a couple months.
According to a 2014 report by BBC, Bihar is one of the poorest states in the country, which, much like the Philippines, despite the conditions of the constituency, those within the dynasty still believe they are entitled to run things.
The article pointed out, “More than a third of the members of the outgoing parliament belong to political families and the trend is clearly spreading.” The circumstances lead to an obvious question about these individuals who feel worthy because of their last name: “Will they be truly representative of the world’s largest democracy, or simply resemble a privileged club whose entry is determined by birth?”
It’s the same questions when looking at lists of local elected officials across the country and figuring out which politicians are either married to, the parent of, a cousin of, a sibling of another individual with a different title – all because their last name buys them access. And much like the case in Bihar, the situation on the ground, for the most part, does not suggest the individuals carrying that “esteemed” family name have been doing that great of a job.
Stephen Hess wrote about the history of political dynasties in the United States for the Brookings Institute in 2000, where he tackled that very question of why voters tend to vote for political dynasties.
One of the items he mentions is not currently relevant to the United States, where he states, “America’s political dynasties go back to the colonial period,” but most definitely relates to the case in the Philippines.
“Voters may be inclined to favor political royalists because often – though not always – they are rich enough so as not to be tempted to steal from the public till,” he posed.
Today, it is getting into office that is the ticket to great wealth.
He also mentions the idea of “brand name” identification.
A 2000 piece in The Economist, which cited the same Hess article, talked about the dangers of political dynasties, as it focused on the 2000 United States presidential election, between then-Vice President Al Gore, the son of a former senator; and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, the son of a former president and the brother of a then-governor – the writer even noted, regarding the latter, “The relative, one way or another, of 15 presidents.”
The piece also discusses the ways in which these families (not just the Bushes and Gores) acquire and maintain their positions of power – a seemingly international tactic.
“Many a great feudal name was founded on a great crime and maintained from generation to generation only by exquisite acts of treachery and sycophancy,” the article said. “Bush and Gore have preserved that tradition by proving that they are willing to do whatever it takes, however despicable or duplicitous, to win office.”
The piece surmised, given the trend of low voter turnout in the United States, “They may become more detached still if the highest offices are monopolized by a charmed circle of families.”
“Voters could become not just detached but disgusted if those families succeed in preserving their position because they are willing to descend further into the mud than anyone else,” the article added.
Warren L. Dean, Jr., an adjunct law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, took a similar position in a 2013 piece for The Washington Times, where he speculated the possibility of another Clinton (Hillary) and another Bush (Jeb) in a potential faceoff for the presidency in 2016; which, if that particular race came to fruition, he noted, “Makes one wonder whether there is something terribly wrong here,” added, “It is certainly not what the Founders of our great experiment had in mind.”
“In countries such as North Korea and Syria, families take control of the reins of power and pass them from one generation to the next,” Dean explained. “The consequences are obvious, and their systems are exceptions to the natural laws embraced by free people everywhere.”
An interesting perspective, pointing to dynastic rule being an “exception” to the methods of those in the free world; while the Philippines touts the freedoms enjoyed today and crediting it to a certain Corazon Aquino – a women who assumed the presidency on the coattails of a slain senator and has since spawned numerous elected officials under both her married and maiden names.
“Dynasties, whatever form they may take, all pose the same threat to our political system, the values on which it stands, and its place in the world,” Dean wrote. “[Principles] are tarnished by a game of musical chairs played by a political aristocracy, no matter how competent they may think themselves to be.”
Daniel Wagner wrote a piece for the Huffington post in 2015 arguing against the establishment of political dynasties, which he characterizes support of such traditions as “going the ‘easy’ route.”
“Dynasties have not proven to be a net positive throughout the course of history,” he wrote. “Given the current state of the world, what is clearly needed is some fresh thinking.”
Undoubtedly, something salient in the Philippines – at least from an outsider’s perspective – is decades mired in poverty and yet the country continues to vote for the same people. Like Wagner said, it’s taking the easy route – which may offer an explanation for why many voters tend to follow such a trend.
A recent spaghetti sauce commercial featuring actress Gladys Reyes depicts her making a homemade spaghetti sauce, listing the ingredients and all the work that goes into it; she is contrast with a commercial model using a sauce straight from a bag. The commercial claims the pre-made, bagged spaghetti sauce is better than a homemade sauce and lauds it for being an easier process – it’s likely a similar way in which voters pick their politicians. It is not a matter of picking the qualified candidate, or the one with the best background; it’s easier just picking the familiar name.
Wagner also foresaw a possible Clinton vs. Bush matchup in 2016 and urged Americans to use their “common sense” to avoid political dynasties.
“The voting public has the common sense to become more engaged in the political process and consider the consequences of prolonging the Clinton and Bush dynasties,” he wrote.
Unfortunately, in countries like the Philippines, the process, which lacks common sense and voter engagement, continues to prosper.
Elizabeth Pisani wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2015 that explains why dynasties are so rare in the United States today, explaining, America has “an independent and credible judiciary, to check the active abuse of power both during electoral campaigns and after them.”
She states, for those in these dynasties, they believe “elaborate networks of exchange are the lifeblood of a functional society.”
“When modern democratic politics are grafted onto these networks, the possibilities for patronage are obvious,” Pisani explained. “As long as enough resources trickle down to enough voters, they will continue to vote large ‘name-brand’ clans into office.”
Are voters so easily bought by a “name brand” when it comes to picking an individual to represent a populace? Are voters too lazy to actually look into candidates, instead of just picking a last name? Are voters so willing to overlook their personal circumstances in order to give-in to the desires of an elite family?
There is a reason why these families feel so empowered, and it is not because they win elected office. By virtue of winning, and with nothing to show for it after years in office, they see the voting public, not as their constituents, but as their subjects – people willing to sacrifice their livelihood (maintain a generally impoverished lifestyle) in order to keep a family name in office.
Many say the country has embraced democracy – perhaps they confused it with monarchy./WDJ