Asia's Political Dynasties: Philippines

The Philippines is noted for being a dynastic democratic country. Powerful clans have long played a major role in its politics for centuries. Political dynasty is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. It originated with Spanish colonisation in the sixteenth century and has continued right up until the present day. 

The situation, however, expanded dramatically in recent years, with the rise of "fat dynasties," in which numerous relatives of a politician simultaneously hold public office.

PrincialÍa: The Birth of Indigenous Elites

Prior to colonisation, the archipelago was divided into thousands of "barangays" (settlements), each one ruled by a "datu" (chief).

Eventually, the Spaniards instituted the "reducción" (reduction) system, which centralised authority and destroyed the datus-led barangays.

In exchange for giving up their barangays, the datus were granted positions as "gobernadorcillio" (little governor) and "cabeza de barangay" (barangay head) in the local government.

In addition, they were bestowed "principalÍa" (principality) status as members of the indigenous nobility with significant estates.

Luzon's PrincialÍa in the 19th century. Photo: Esquire Philippines

According to Spanish historian and author, Juan Antonio Inarejos, the datus turned principalÍa were in charge of collecting taxes and enforcing labour. Many exploited their positions and engaged in extortion. They also sold and donated public lands to the friars, enriching themselves while earning political and religious favours.

Alas, the principalÍa status, as well as the government positions held, were hereditary.

If the Spaniards inadvertently produced political dynasties in the country, the Americans codified them.

During the American occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century, suffrage rights and government positions were restricted to Americans and members of the principalÍa. This widened the gap between the rich and poor Filipinos, allowing political nepotism to flourish.

The Last Four Presidents

Since 2001, Filipinos have elected four presidents who were all descendants of political dynasties. These families shaped the Philippines’ political scene in the twenty-first century.

2022 – present: The Marcos family

In May 2022, Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr. assumed the presidency of the Philippines, marking the return of the Marcos family to power.

The Marcoses felt a sense of déjà vu as they entered the Malacañan Palace. It was their residence for 20 years, when their father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., ruled the country from 1965 to 1986.

The regime of Marcos Sr. was notorious for its corruption, cronyism, violations of human rights, and media censorship. In 1972, he proclaimed martial law, suspending constitutional rights and enabling him to maintain a firm grip on power.

Despite the dismal history, Marcos' supporters assert that it was a period of progress in the Philippines. Bongbong's campaign capitalised on this sentiment, which helped him win the presidency and restore the Marcos family's political supremacy in the Philippines, extending beyond their district in Ilocos Norte.

The Marcoses currently occupy positions in both the national and local governments.

Their relatives, the Romualdezes, are primarily engaged in local politics, particularly in the province of Leyte and Tacloban City - the domain of former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. 

President Bongbong Marcos Jr. and his family in the government.

2016 – 2022: The Duterte family

The Duterte family is infamous for their controversial leadership style and strong-arm tactics. Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the family patriarch, served as mayor of Davao City for more than two decades before becoming president of the Philippines in 2016.

The drug war waged by Duterte during his presidency has been criticised for its brutality and disregard for due process. Still, Duterte remains a popular figure in the Philippines, with his supporters applauding his radical approach to government.

Members of the Duterte family are also active in politics. Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the current vice president of the Philippines and was Bongbong Marcos Jr.'s running mate during the 2022 election.

Durterte’s sons, Sebastian and Paulo, both secured local positions.

Sebastian is the current mayor of Davao City, while his brother, Paolo is the representative for Davao's first congressional district.

Duterte may not have inherited the position of chief executive from his parents. But he certainly benefited from his father's influence in local politics, which eventually led him to the presidency.

His father, Vicente Duterte, was the former governor of Davao and a member of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.'s cabinet secretaries.

If his father was pro-Marcos, Duterte's mother, Soledad Duterte, was a leader of Davao's anti-Marcos movement. 

Rodrigo Duterte's political posture changed over the years, from supporting the Aquinos to the Marcoses, presumably due to the fact that his parents held opposing political views.  

The Dutertes in Malacañan Palace, 2016: (L-R) Sebastian Duterte, Veronica Duterte, former President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, Sara Duterte-Carpio, and Paolo Duterte. Photo: Presidential Communications Office

2010 – 2016: The Aquino family

Benigno Simeon 'Noynoy' Aquino III, a former senator and congressman, was the 15th president of the Philippines. He entered politics thanks to his parents' legacy.

His father, Benigno Aquino Jr., was a prominent opposition leader during Ferdinand Marcos Sr.'s dictatorship, and his assassination in 1983 contributed to the People Power Revolution that brought down the Marcos regime.

In 1986, following the demise of Noynoy's father, his mother, Corazon Aquino, became the first female president of the Philippines. Through the 1987 revision of the Philippine Constitution, her presidency was marked by efforts to restore democracy and advance social justice.

Noynoy Aquino III was elected as president in 2010. His administration pursued an aggressive anti-corruption agenda, and he led the Philippines to a historic victory in the South China Sea Arbitration against China.

As a member of the political elite, he was nevertheless criticised for being too sluggish to respond to crises and for perpetuating the same political system he professed to oppose.

Noynoy Aquino III passed away in June 2021. This marked the end of a political era for the Aquino family.

However, their influence inspires a new generation of activists in the Philippines.

Noynoy Aquino III's last day as president, working inside his bare office in Malacañan Palace, 2016. Photo: Gil Nartea/Malacanang Photo Bureau

2001 – 2010: The Macapagal-Arroyo family

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) was the second female president of the Philippines, ruling the country for nine years from 2001 to 2010.

She entered politics in the late 1980s and was elected vice president under former president Joseph Estrada in 1998. When Estrada was impeached in 2001, GMA succeeded the presidency, and got reelected in 2004.

Her interest in politics was significantly influenced by her father, Diosdado Macapagal, who was also a former Philippine president.

During her tenure, GMA managed to maintain the country's GDP growth through foreign investments.

However, her leadership was plagued by controversies, including accusations of electoral fraud in the 2004 presidential poll, and criticism for human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, committed by state security forces.

She was also implicated in multiple high-level malversation scandals, including the NBN-ZTE deal.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's second oath of office as the 14th Philippine president in 2004. Photo: Rolex Dela Pena

GMA's political career persisted after her presidency. She is still an active member of Congress, having served as House Speaker under Duterte's leadership in 2018, and is now the Senior Deputy Speaker under Bongbong Marcos Jr.'s administration.

Her two sons, Dato and Mikey Arroyo, are also involved in politics.

Another prominent political dynasty in the Philippines is the Villar family, led by former Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. He lost the presidential bid to Noynoy Aquino III in 2010, but his family remained a political power in the Philippines.

Cynthia Villar, his wife, and Mark Villar, his son, are both senators. Las Piñas Congresswoman Camille Villar, his daughter, has been the House Deputy Speaker since 2020.

Because of their close alliances with the Marcoses, Dutertes, and Macapagal-Arroyos, the Villar family has enormous political influence in the Philippines. They are also recognised as one of the country's top oligarchs, owing to their multibillion-dollar real estate empire.

The Villar family: (L-R) former Senate President Manuel Villar Jr., Sen. Cynthia Villar, Las Piñas Rep. Camille Villar, Sen. Mark Villar, and Manuel Paolo Villar III. Photo: Philippine Star

Fatter Dynasties, Poorer Communities

Based on the study conducted by Ateneo School of Government, from 1988 to 2019, the percentage of fat dynasties in Philippine politics increased from 19% to 29%, with approximately 170 positions added per election year.

Term limitations were implemented as an institutional change in the 1987 constitution to prevent dynastic dominance after Ferdinand Marcos Sr.'s 15-year tyranny.

Nonetheless, powerful families were able to circumvent restrictions and place more relatives in office, giving them an unfair advantage in politics.

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano of Taguig City's political family argued that term limitation is why fat dynasty thrives. He called the three-year term limit "too short" for local positions. As a result, politician's kin are prompted to run for office to design and implement community projects that will assist the people.

Contrary to Cayetano's statement, another study revealed that political dynasties have a detrimental impact on governance and development, with territories dominated by incumbent powerful clans outside the Luzon region are suffering from extreme poverty.

This circumstance reemphasises the significance of dynasty regulation not only because the Constitution requires it, but also because it promotes equitable political competition and inclusivity, improves governance, and boosts development impact.

The Anti-Political Dynasty bill is frequently touted during campaign seasons in the Philippines, but after elected officials gain power, the bill becomes dormant.

The Philippines' 19th Congress in session. Photo: PTV4

In February 2023, the Advocates for National Interest, a group of retired senior officials, urged the government to pass legislation barring political dynasties before the 2025 election.

In a statement, the group said:

To institutionalize good governance by elected and appointed officials, the constitutional provision on removing political dynasties be legislated as soon as possible, and that electoral reforms to do away with money politics be initiated and implemented in due time, before the next national and local elections in May 2025.”

Such a request, however, is unlikely to be addressed in the current 19th Congress, because approximately 70% of the legislative body is made up of political dynasties that have neither filed nor submitted an anti-political dynasty act.

The 2022 election results, which reinstated powerful families to the government, suggests that the Philippines might not yet be prepared to abandon its status quo on dynastic democracy.  

**Banner image: The Marcos family during President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s inauguration in 2022. Rappler 

-Asia Media Centre