The possibility of a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in the US Presidential polls may have some political pundits salivating, but perhaps many more Americans wondering. Is political power becoming too concentrated in the US? A Bush or a Clinton was President or Vice President in the US for almost 30 years between 1981 and 2009, a dynastic run that may yet be extended by the 2016 elections.
Elected politicians related by blood or by marriage are considered part of political dynasties, and their relevance to democratisation and economic development applies to both developed and developing democracies. Recent efforts to estimate the share of dynasties in various democratic parliaments indicate that they may range from as low as 6% in the US, to as high as 75% Philippines (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Share of dynastic legislators in parliaments for selected countries
Source: Cruz, J F, R U Mendoza, A Unnikrishnan (2015) “Do Socio-Economic Conditions Influence Dynastic Politics? Initial Evidence from the 16th Lok Sabha of India”, AIM Policy Center Working Paper.
Competitiveness and dominance
Dynastic politicians often point to their families’ strong track record as the main reason for their staying power in office. “Let the people decide!” as one well known dynastic politician in the Philippines retorted. Many have also noted how dynasties are able to secure policy continuity, by turning over reform agendas to the younger generation within the same family.
For instance, Lee Kyan Yew, one of the longest serving heads of state in the democratic world managed this for his own son, Lee Hsien Loong, now Prime Minister of Singapore. Yet, there is also growing evidence that the dominance of political clans concentrates too much political power, crowds out alternative leaders and debilitates political parties.
For example, research on congressional elections in Argentina from 1983 to 2008 finds evidence that five more years in a typical Argentinian legislator’s term increases the likelihood of him/her having a relative in future congresses by eight percentage-points.
In addition, political scientists from UC Berkeley and UCLA examined the staying power of members of the US Congress from 1789 to 1996. They found evidence that Congressmen who won were more likely to have relatives elected into future legislatures. Being in power (and not simply being skilled) was a strong factor behind dynastic perpetuation.
Additional research also links political dynasties to stunted political and economic development. In the case of the Philippines, studies trace many of the dynastic politicians in Congress to land-owning families that accumulated their agrarian properties during the Spanish and American colonial periods. These early patterns have since evolved into new forms of economic holdings, with dynastic politicians across many developing countries involved in construction, banking, telecommunications and mining among other rent-rich sectors. In many cases, dominance in the political sphere translates into dominance in the economic sphere (and vice versa).
In the Philippines, political analysts observe that dynastic politicians invest in family members to continue their policies, rather than strengthening political parties. Fielding relatives appears to be cheaper, as it offers economies of scale due to family name recall and, in some cases, strong historical patron-client relationships that serve to secure the dynastic advantage in the polls. With more relatives in office, many have begun to question whether checks and balances in government are eventually eroded. If so, what could be the development impact?
Political and economic inequality
Recent research on dynasties in the parliaments of India and the Philippines turn to extensive data on political clans at the local government level, enabling an empirical analysis of the links across dynastic patterns on the one hand, and development indicators on the other.
First, the share of dynasties in the Indian Lok Sahba is around 24%, compared to 75% in the Philippine Congress. When one examines how dynastic incidence at the state level (for India) or provincial level (for the Philippines) is linked to socio-economic indicators, the results seem to confirm a negative correlation between political dynasties and economic development.
The dynastic share at the state level in India is negatively correlated with annualised state-level economic growth. Moreover, in India, the dynastic concentration is smaller in states where citizens are relatively better off and where the socio-economic standing of the average person is rising.
A similar analysis focused on political dynasties in the Philippines’ local government confirms similar patterns. There is also a negative correlation between Philippine provincial real per capita income and dynastic incidence among local government officials.
Hence, in both India and the Philippines the dynastic share indicator is positively correlated with a rising poor population. In other words, dynastic legislators persist in states where there is low human development and a large poor and vulnerable population.
There are various possible explanations here. Rising living standards could weaken patron-client relations that tend to sustain political dynasties. The more economically independent the typical voter is, the less reliant he or she might be to a local patron. Furthermore, rising incomes may also result in a growing middle class, more competitive options for candidates, and more resources that can be tapped for political campaigns by different groups.
In the end, political dynasties in today’s modern and developing democracies are a reminder of how personalities still dominate the political landscape, be it in Washington, DC or in Bombay and Manila. Democracies do not necessarily reflect a level playing field, when certain political clans wield disproportionately large influence and control over public resources. And in the worst cases, all that political power is not wielded to advance development or reduce poverty. They appear, instead, to be linked to underdevelopment and rising inequality, particularly in countries and regions with relatively weaker democratic institutions.
Whoever said that during elections is the only time the vote of the richest citizen is equivalent to that of the poorest needs to start rethinking whether this still holds true in many democracies.
This article was originally published on VoxEU.org.