By Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
POLITICS IN THE Philippines has become largely an exercise in which the rich, the privileged and the elite vie among themselves to capture positions of power, retain them for themselves, and expand them. It is more than a mile removed from the Jeffersonian ideal. By and large, it scarcely has the advantage of the majority who are poor and the common good for its primary purpose, however lofty might what holders of power trumpet otherwise. On the contrary, the majority are shut out, for those who do politics represent not the poor but themselves and their interest. And because power, as Lord Acton puts it, tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, corruption tends to inhere in its exercise. The greater the power and privilege, the more extensive the corruption, or the opportunities for it. As practiced in this country, politics is the art of governance of the rich, by the powerful, and for the privileged.
To begin with, those who dominate national and even local politics belong to the privileged class—mostly big landlords, big businessmen, or their agents. (Of course, that a good number of all the 90 million Filipinos can qualify for elective positions, is enshrined in the law; but that they can actually run for elections is enshrined in the ocean.)
If these privileged people run for office, one is tempted to say that it is not primarily to serve the majority, though political advertisements may argue the contrary. In reality, they run in order to capture political power. Why so? The reason is that it is the single most important power in the country. Political power enables them to control people, pass laws and make policies that are to their advantage, even legitimize their control, and dominate others. Even more significant, political power, as we shall mention shortly, can be converted to economic power. Hardly would they pass a bill that would be contrary to their interest, although it would be beneficial for the many. That is why, for instance, land reform program has not been successful—that clashes with the stake of the landed gentry. Anti-dynasty provision is found in the constitution, but one can be almost sure that until the second coming of Christ, no enabling law would be enacted.
Once power is captured, they are able to convert political power into economic power. Understandably enough, as can be seen, they become richer once they are comfortably ensconced in positions of power. In some, their accumulated wealth may increase in geometric proportions. Even an honest statement of assets of many of them would show that their income fantastically increased. This leaves one with a question whether they could have amassed such wealth if they were far removed from the seats of power.
Power and privileged, however, are difficult to give up. It is within their inherent logic to perpetuate. Which is why, politics is dominated by the same families election after election. After the man is through with his term, the wife succeeds him, or his son. In some municipalities, it happens that once one finishes 3 consecutive terms, all of 9 years, as mayor, he runs for vice mayor in the hope that in the next election, he will run again for the post he was no longer qualified to hold. Political dynasty has its own logic for being.
But power tends to last indefinitely not only in the same family; it tends to perpetuate in the same class. The pre-martial law oligarchs were succeeded by rich and powerful cronies. After two EDSA revolutions, what obtained was that one set of powerful and privileged class was simply replaced by another. Yet, almost everything remained the same. The shift in government never had any effect on the price of galunggong that would be to the delight of the poor. Only faces of people within the same economic tier changed.
If people power did not alter the landscape of politics, neither do elections. Elections are only partially an exercise where voters choose their leaders to represent them. In reality, it is an activity that enables the privileged to capture political power. And sometimes, the ultimate object is to concentrate this power preferably in the hands of members of one’s own family and relatives. In the country, politics is probably the best family business, which gives enormous returns that could hardly be acquired in other enterprises. Not surprisingly, one finds that in a certain place, the husband is a governor, the wife is a mayor, an uncle is a councilor, an in-law is a board member, and the grandfather is an ex-congressman. It would be far fetched to assume that only their family had the monopoly of talents related to governance, but voters still allow them to rule over them.
It has to be said that elections have little to do with an exercise in which people are enabled to choose the best men to govern them. For one thing, the choice is limited—it is an exclusive club of the moneyed and the powerful. What qualifies one is not so much one’s honesty, integrity, capacity for governance, or talent. The single most important qualification is wealth; if one is not wealthy, one is most likely to be thrown into the dustbin of nuisance candidates. After all, only the rich and the powerful can engage in nationwide campaign. For another, many of the best have the common sense not to run for government positions, knowing that in the final result, the system would engulf them. They cannot escape from eventually becoming a part of a corrupt system. Election, then, is an activity in which the people choose who among the rich and privileged will control them. In practice, it is not then a choice for the principled, for people of competence and knowledge. Voters are not given real alternatives. Who among politicians have ever talked, assuming they have the wisdom to do it, about the problem of globalization, or trade liberalization or of democratization of wealth? Truth is, given the ignorance of people, and under a culture of money, people vote not on the basis of issues and programs, but, with a few exceptions, on the basis of popularity and, especially in local elections, on the basis of the amount of money that politicians give them in exchange for their support.
In this case, election is simply an exclusive intramurals among the wealthy. The election of 1986 could be looked at as a fight between rich and the privileged who belonged to the Marcos camp and the rich and the privileged who sided with the Aquino camp. The same may be said of the 2010 elections. The infighting among the privileged is all about who among them would take control of the state. Practically, all the presidential, vice-presidential and senatorial candidates come from wealthy families. Provincial elections are often a rivalry between two families that dominated politics in the province for many years. Mayoralty bets oftentimes merely represent two warring families in a particular municipality. Indeed, for the hoi polloi, elections are “their’ [the elite’s] fight; it has little to do with a contest of those who would really embody the interest of the constituents.
In view of this, it is easy to understand why, when they run for office, they represent not the people, but themselves and their families as well as their own concerns. Quite the contrary, political office is looked upon as if it were a feudal title which father and mother pass on to their children from generation to generation. It is estimated that there are about 250 political families; majority of those in congress come from these families. If it is difficult to change the political landscape, it is because they simply continue the vision of their families for generation, and they are well entrenched. Under such a system, a newly elected official easily becomes like a traditional politician, if in fact he is not already one. After all, what can he do, other than follow the politics of his own family? One would have to wait a Damascus experience to alter the course.
As a result, in many cases, one is given the impression that for these politicians, they are actually the government. That they use public funds as if these were their own personal property is a common conclusion. One might consider, for example, government projects. Whenever roads are constructed, few are the exceptions among them who would not make sure that notices are posted to call people’s attention that it is their project, as if their own money, and not people’s taxes, were being spent for it. Streamers are put up that say “Thank you, Governor, for this project.” Is not this a sheer effrontery?
Precisely because they represent almost no one else save their families and interests, it becomes logical why in Philippine politics, political parties are in practice devoid of meaning. In theory, parties are means through which ideology, vision and programs for running the government are made. In reality, parties are convenient structure that candidates use to capture power. One switches party affiliation as family or personal interest demands. Turncoatism is as easy as changing shoes. During the 1987 elections, the Laban ng Democratikong Pilipino (LDP) was the ruling party, which won the majority seats in Congress, but because Ramos won, the LDP lost most of its members before one could say abracadabra. Oh yes, even such a good entity as party list has been used to further one’s self-interest.
Since they have to capture the seat of power by means of the majority vote of electors, politicians use practically all means, foul and legal, to persuade people to support them and eventually vote for them. During election campaign, they not only present their plans, but oftentimes many misrepresent themselves, use unethical advertisement, provide entertainment circuses, and get media exposures. During election time, they buy votes and use flying voters. If these are not enough, they employ intimidation, bribery, violence, and defraud their opponents, change election results, if not assassinate them.
Once they are elected, the main task now is to control the whole system, if not perpetuate their stay in power. To cinch their continuance in office, it is important to influence not only the executive but all the other branches of the government. Sometimes, the courts are not immune to influence. During the Marcos years, the Supreme Court was, for obvious reasons, called the Marcos Court which lasted until President Aquino disbanded it. The executive does everything in its power to place the legislative under its influence. As we shall see below, this is done by patronage politics. One glaring example is how the executive dangles the pork barrel. Sure enough, if the judiciary and the legislative are weakened, the politician-executive has nothing to fear—all he wants, he gets. He can always hope that the law or its interpretation can bend. If the law sets limits on one’s term, for instance, somebody can be trusted to initiate a move to change the law. With branches of the government under one’s influence, one can always make the educated guess that impeachment complaints against him can never prosper. Small wonder then that, at the local level, a congressman would be tempted to influence, if not intervene even in the mere appointments of teachers, janitors, and other workers. This is to ensure that his power and control extend to all parts of his fiefdom.
To perpetuate their control of the people, they reinforce the patron-client culture that obtains in the country. Under this system, politicians perform various functions and favor for their favorites. In the national scene, probably the worst expression of this was the crony capitalism of Marcos years. According to Aquilino Pimentel, Marcos “sort of legitimized and institutionalized crony capitalism in the country. Many businesses changed hands due to various reasons, but always, these enterprises wound up in the hands of a favored few. For those were dangerous times to be out of favor with Marcos and his in-laws, the Romualdezes and their close circle of friends and cronies.”
In local politics, these could take the form of money for burial, being a godfather at baptism or a sponsor at weddings, employment, scholarship, sponsorship of basketball teams, prizes, etc, all meant to make clients dependent on their patron. Because they feel indebted to them, the clients cultivate loyalty to their patron-politicians, especially during elections. At the same time, these favors cement their relationship with each other. These make the former lords, while the latter are made to feel they are dependents. That is why, instead of implementing policies to deliver services, it works better for corrupt politicians if they perpetuate the patron-client arrangement, because it creates an utang na loob among the constituents.
At the same time, that while perpetuating themselves in office they amass great wealth seems to be a given, at least if one judges it from people’s expectation. Money, of course, can come from various sources. But many critics think that most notorious is the pork barrel, rebaptized in 2000 as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The head of the executive department has of course the biggest share, but those of the senators and congressmen are not paltry. With pork barrel, one has great opportunities to beef up his wealth. Some observers say that almost half of the appropriated funds for projects ends up in the pocket of corrupt politicians in cahoots with businessmen. Hence, even if he does not receive his salary—and some flaunt to make sure that people know they do not—the corrupt official can still dip his finger into his PDAF. No wonder, many infrastructures are substandard, and are easily ruined. On the other hand, despite the corruption involved, people are still grateful to them for being allowed to work in the project. Politicians have their cake, and are able to eat it, too. Can one be blamed for demanding that the PDAF be abolished?
It is easy to see, then, how corruption becomes part of the political system; but that is another story.
Jealous of their power, politicians make sure that no one else would grab their seat of power. There are many ways of doing this, but its ultimate expression is violence—killing the opposition or the challenger. We know how Stalin eliminated his enemies, and later, even those whom he perceived to be. The death of Benigno Aquino was for many people a political murder. The massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao last November 2009 has to do with vying for power. But ensuring that no one grabs one’s seat need not be violent. At the national scene, it happens that people at the top would allow warlords to maintain their fiefdom on the understanding that when election time comes, the latter assures them of the delivery of winning votes. One, then, need not be surprised why warlordism cannot be eliminated, despite the fact that the executive, with the police and armed forces, is very powerful, and has enough logistics to scuttle it. The set-up is profitable for those at the top. It is part of patronage politics. “I protect you; you assure me.”
If the Philippines, therefore, is in such a sad state, if it is a society in which the majority are poor and disenfranchised and only a minority who hold much power and enjoy privilege are rich, it is largely because of its current political system which is rotten. Politicians might blame other factors. One remembers that shortly before martial law, a newspaper headlined that the Church was an obstacle to national progress. Poverty of the nation may be conveniently imputed on overpopulation. Politicians may charge that the current presidential system is the root cause of all misery; that a parliamentary one can cure the sick man of Asia. Some might propose the need of a strong man—as if we have never been there. But these are simply a mirage. They represent an effort to divert the blame that should be laid on the door of our lopsided political system.
Such a political system creates a culture in which people, especially the majority who are poor, think and act as if they are not the government, or part of it. In practice, for the many who are disadvantaged, the government is of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. The former feel and remain outsiders. As a consequence, it has become natural for these people that services to them are hardly more than crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. And they tend to accept it. Thus, they sell their votes, they ask donations, and even act as their agents during elections. Ultimately, of course, people get officials they deserve. The corruption of the people is matched by the corruption of politicians. Indeed, if Filipinos are passive to what politically happens to them, it is because the system makes them subservient and dependent. Although the Constitution says that power emanates from the people, what comes up is that power emanates from the elite, the powerful and the privileged. They are the one who make things happen, not the people. If some would insist that people really participate in governance, that participation can be found only in political-science textbooks.
Logically enough, it is situation in which the majority cannot do anything. They are not part of the decision making, to begin with. If they whine against the system, devices are there to make sure that that the elite cannot be dislodged. If they do not have some military men, corrupt officials have their private army and battery of lawyers of high caliber to secure their ground. It might be worth repeating to say that, as years go by, what happens is that one set of politicians who belong to the aristocracy is replaced by another that comes from the privileged class, but everything remains the same. The system, one is tempted to think, is almost incapable of change. Under the sun of the power and privilege of the elite, nothing is really new. What has been is what will be. If there is change—well, what does one really anticipate, an improvement of the lot of the majority who are poor?
In the end, one may not say that Philippine politics is hopelessly rotten, but just the same, it remains rotten to the core.*