by Lope Coles Robredillo, SThD
IN THEORY, it is taught that in governance, all power derives from the people and the goal of politics is the common good. Because, by themselves, individuals, families and groups, cannot achieve full development in order to live a truly human life, it is the task of politics to make available to them the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods. Consequently, office holders are placed in power by the people not only to reconcile the particular goods of groups and individuals, but also to interpret common goods according to the guidelines of the majority and the effective good of all people. In view of the enormity of this responsibility, one cannot but admire politicians—those who choose to undertake the heavy burden of this task.
Politics: A Struggle for Power among the Elite
But if the Philippine experience has anything to tell us, it is that politics is essentially a power game, played by a few elite, that hardly makes any marked improvement in the lives of the poor, since the common good is scarcely its goal. Of course, one can object that this is a generalization, and to generalize is to falsify, but still, it provides us a pattern, a framework, and a certain viewpoint to understand its workings. It does not, it is to be admitted, offer the whole truth— which is beyond the capacity of an essay as short as this—but it has something truthful to say.
Who play the game? Philippine politics, especially in the national scene, is almost exclusive of the few who are rich, or their agents. Historically, the landowning class dominated politics before World War II, but partly because of the development of commerce and industry, the class of big businessmen and industrialists replaced it after the war. When Ferdinand Marcos ran the country through martial law, he replaced the post-war wealthy class with his own, but after EDSA I, the post-war elite repositioned themselves within the ruling class.
Philippine politics is thus a game of the elite. But it is elitist both because those who play it are the few who are rich, and also because it has historically denied the active participation by the poor in the highest decision-making bodies. Probably not a single person who occupied a chair in the senate or in the house has been known to be poor, even if political aspirants tended to identify themselves with the poor. Diosdado Macapagal, I recall, was known as “the poor boy from Lubao.” Joseph Estrada was perceived to be poor, and made “Erap para sa mahirap” his campaign slogan.
Of course, one might today point to the existence of the party-list system that the post-Marcos constitution instituted, but as the Inquirer editorial (Apr 2, 2007) noted, the mechanism remains imperfect, even though it is impressive: “impressive because it seeks to imbed representatives of the poor and the marginalized in Congress, which remains a bastion of the rich and privileged; imperfect, because party-list nominees sometimes turn out to be as privileged and well-connected as any traditional politician.” Indeed, some of these party-list representatives are connected with the entrenched oligarchy.
A case in point is the first three nominees of the Ahon Pinoy, a party-list group newly accredited by the Comelec, which seeks to represent overseas Filipino workers most of whom are really poor and marginalized. These nominees, according to the editorial, “are not OFWs, and cannot by any stretch of imagination be considered underprivileged”: Ernesto Herrera III is a son of a labor leader and former senator, Bernardo Ople is a brother of a late labor secretary, senator and foreign secretary, and Dante Francis Ang is a son of a publisher and close Arroyo ally. Thus, even what is intended for the underprivileged could be circumvented and used to place the elite in power.
In this game, it is the elite that vie for power among themselves. In a way, our politics could be described as a struggle for power among the rich and privileged who are more concerned with their own advantage and that of their own class than with the advantage of the majority who are poor. If it is not self-interest of the elite that guides politics, history and the present experience do not bear it out. As Juan Sumulong is quoted to have said, the “majority and minority parties represent almost exclusively the intelligentsia and what we call the Philippine plutocracy, and that the needy classes have no representation in these parties and for this reason have no voice nor vote, even only as minorities, in the formulation of government policies.”
Power, Aggrandizement and the Beneficiaries
Why this vying for political power? Probably no one might say it explicitly, but it appears that political power gives the elite opportunities to increase their wealth. Indeed, to capture political power is to self-aggrandize. As Claro M. Recto observed as early as 1958, “ours is essentially a pragmatic and a very simple [political education]. It boils down to opportunism through public office… All the political offices [that is, from president to municipal mayor, from senator to municipal councilor, etc.] are the open sesame to wealth and influence… It is because of this political education that we have… the elite of officials who, after several years of holding public office… have been able to build from nothing handsome fortunes of varying magnitude on the opportunities afforded by the offices they held.”
Political power, in other words, is convertible to economic power. As President Diosdado Macapagal once noted, the president and the members of congress have powers that are “so vast and potent that economic interests enter into a mutually protective alliance with them which results in a concentration of economic benefits in their combined hands.”
But after having built a handsome fortune by occupying the seat of power, it would be almost impossible for the elite to part with it. On the contrary, they are there to protect their own interest. This partly explains why equitable distribution of wealth is almost impossible under a politics of power. A case in point is land reform. Since the Commonwealth, there have been various government efforts to address the problem of unrest through land reform legislation—Government Acts Nos. 538 and 539 in 1940, Republic Act Nos. 1267 and 1400 in 1954 and 1955, and R.A. No. 3844 in 1963, R.A. Nos. 6380 and 6389 and Pres. Decree 27 under Marcos, and R.A. 6657 in 1988 under Aquino. But as Pedro Salgado observes, “all these laws never solved landlessness, for they were never intended to solve the problem in the first place. Congress is peopled by landlords. The legislature thus saw to it that there would be loopholes in the law in order that they and their fellow landlords can escape the law’s provisions.”
The land reform code of 1963 under Macapagal provides a good sample. The legal loopholes favorable to landlords include the exemption of lands producing for export which of course were the big plantations, exemption of fishponds, saltbeds and lands planted to citrus, cacao and other permanent trees, and exemption of landholdings converted to residential, commercial, industrial and other non-agricultural purposes, Though the program was estimated to cost about P200 M within a year of its enactment and P300 M in the next three years to be successful, Congress allotted only about P1 M for its implementation. The lesson is: democratization of wealth, which was one of the centerpieces of Marcos’ New Society, is hardly possible under an elitist politics.
Politics, viewed from our historical experience, appears not to be intended for the benefit of the majority who are poor. Indalecio Soliongco, in one of his columns in the Manila Chronicle, is not far removed from the reality when he compares politics to the IUD (intra-uterine device): “Politics in the Philippines is as involuted as an intra-uterine device, and its purpose, as the experience of the years has shown, is to prevent the conception of ideas or the realization of projects that will benefit the masses. This is why, again, like the operation of the intra-uterine device, Philippine politics works in a secret but rather effective way of accomplishing what it is intended for it to accomplish.”
It would seem, then, that if the elite that control the government do something that benefits the poor, it is, one can make an educated guess, because it coincides with their own interest. Nevertheless, all that is done does not go deeply enough to the fundamental problems of poverty. The benefits seem to be superficial. Probably, among the candidates in our political history, no one has ever stirred hope among the poor more deeply than Joseph Estrada, not only because the hoi polloi perceived him to be one with them, but also because his slogan was pro-poor: Erap para sa mahirap. He really enjoyed the support of the masses. But as Arsenio Balisacan, in his article, “Did the Estrada Administration Benefit the Poor?” in Doronila’s Between Fires, his term ended with a year that witnessed a deterioration of conditions for many of the poor.
How power brings opportunities to wealth is probably a given in our politics. One who was glued to the TV during the impeachment trial of Estrada would recall that the prosecution presented witnesses and evidence on the former president’s involvement in illegal gambling and his maintenance of secret bank accounts, although his defense panel denied these allegations. It was also reported that when Marcos fled the country, the US Customs agents found suitcases of gold bricks and diamond jewelry. It is also alleged that they had certificates for gold bullion valued at billions of dollars. Imelda, of course, pointed out that his husband was already rich even before he became president, because he was already engaged in gold bars business.
The use of public office for self-aggrandizement brings with it graft and corruption. Says David Timberman in his book, A Changeless Land: “The use of public office for personal or highly particularistic purposes causes recurring cycles of scandal or alleged scandal at every level of government. The political ‘outs’ charge the ‘ins’ with corruption and abuse of power, only to have the same charges leveled at them if and when they take office. Indeed, it is a paradox of Philippine politics that corruption is assumed to be endemic to politics and government, but at the same time ‘exposing’ corruption is a time-tested political tactic and guaranteed vote-getter. The prevalence of corruption is a serious problem, but perhaps eve more serious is the widespread presumption that corruption is unavoidable. This perpetuates the problem, reduces the credibility of political leaders and most importantly undermines the legitimacy of political institutions.”
In her book, Christianity Versus Corruption, Miriam Defensor Santiago presents a corruption case study in our country, and goes over various corruption scandals: P35.7 B laundered money scandal, P200 B national debt scandal, P60 B oil firms tax credit scam, P25 B IMPSA power contract scandal, P20 B IMPSA power contract midnight deal, P9.2 B centennial exposition public works scandal, P7.5 B congressional initiative allocation scandal, to mention a few in her enumeration. And yet, one wonders whether, in our history since pre-war politics, there has been a single high official from senator to president convicted of graft and corruption. That these seem to cease to scandalize, still less ignite public outrage simply indicates that people expect leaders to be corrupt. Indeed, although politicians are wont to level charges of corruption against their opponents come election period, yet there has hardly been any record of taking their accusation seriously to the point of bringing them court, most likely because it would undermine the oligarchic class, affecting many people, and because the issue would be divisive.
What about plunder? Plunder is simply a logical consequence of power politics for self-aggrandizement and power perpetuation. One is tempted to think that some of the elite assume the idea, like the kings of the old Europe did, that everything in their kingdom in a way belongs to them. It seems difficult to really distinguish what belongs to the government and what belongs to the ruling elite; otherwise, plunder would not be possible. In our political history, two presidents have been accused of plunder: Marcos and Estrada. According to Amando Doronila, in his book, The Fall of Joseph Estrada, “as indicated by the evidence introduced during the impeachment trial and that collected by the successor president to back criminal charges of corruption and plunder, the deposed president allegedly amassed at least P10 billion in cash and other assets within two and a half years. If these charges were true, Estrada would rival the scale of Marcos’ own plunder. At the time of his flight to Hawaii in 1986, Marcos’ assets were estimated at US$10 billion.”
Elections as Tool to Gain and Preserve Power
If politics is viewed as politics of power, elections must be seen not just as a political exercise in which people choose those who will hold public office. Rather, they constitute a struggle among the elite to capture the power of the state. Elections, in other words, are a form of war in which opposing wealthy individuals seek to place themselves in a political advantage. Elections thus resolve the question as to who among the elite should have control over the country’s wealth and resources.
Today’s conduct of elections has reinforced the elite’s control of the wealth and resources because it costs a fortune to be elected to government positions. Since only the moneyed can afford to buy votes, give substantial donations, provide entertainment, engage in nationwide campaign, bribe officials, and use other means, fair or foul, it is logical why only the elite can run for public office. Many towns suffer a dearth of candidates, not because no one is intellectually qualified, but because few have the capacity to finance their candidacy. So, even at the local level, governance is becoming dominated by the local elite. Elections are therefore not opportunities for people to choose the best who can govern them, but not infrequently to choose who among the elite will have access to power. The result is that, elections have become an instrument for the continued dominance of the elite.
Equally important, elections also function as a legitimization of that dominance, even if it is less than just. To lend credibility to his martial law regime that has been under attack from foreign observers and to appease restive citizens, Marcos allowed elections to be held in 1978. The result, which was condemned by the opposition as fraudulent, legitimized the Marcosian dominance, since his party, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), won 151 out of 161 seats. To legitimize his long tenure in office as president, Marcos called for presidential elections in 1981, in which he won by a margin of over 16 M votes or 91.4% against Alejo Santos of the Nationalista Party who got 8.6% only. Of course, the largest opposition party at that time, Ninoy Aquino’s Laban, seeing through the farce, did not field any candidate.
At the same time, it is needless to say that the conduct of elections practically disenfranchises the poor. While it is true that theoretically, a poor man can run for president or senator, in practice, only the rich have the capacity to do so, for reasons we have noted above.
Political parties have a somewhat parallel function. Because the primary intent is to gain power, it is not surprising that political parties in the Philippines are merely nominal. In theory, political parties are organized in order to direct the policies of the government; therefore, they should have a coherent ideology and programs that concretize it. In the country, however, these parties do not have distinctive ideologies and programs, for they serve as vehicles of factional and personal ambition—to capture power. They have no coherent philosophy. It is difficult to see how the Partido Nationalista ng Pilipinas of Blas Ople is ideologically different from the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan that Nicano Iñiguez tried to reorganize. Consequently, once one is not nominated in the party he is affiliated with, it can happen that he will organize his own.
One’s party affiliation hardly indicates the ideology and principles that he believes in. No wonder, a politician easily changes his political allegiance on the pragmatic basis of whether or not his party can help him achieve his ambition or not. Though Marcos was a member of the Liberal Party for a long time, he joined the Nationalista Party when his original party nominated the incumbent president Diosdado Macapagal for re-election. If the phenomenon of allegiance switching remains a political practice to date, it is also partly because people generally never give damn about it. What is of prime importance to them is not whether a particular candidate makes important stand on issue of concern to the nation, but whether he can provide gifts, employment, funds and other benefits.
Because our political parties lacked substance, no wonder politics degenerated into a politics of personalities. “This is a system,” goes the CBCP Catechism on the Church and Politics, “where popularity of political candidates rather than issues count more than knowledge and competence. The popularity of personalities, and the ‘connection’ of personalities to the powers that be are more often than not the main criteria for judging who should be elected. Thus, candidates for public office who are popular in movies, sports or are connected to powerful political families have significant headstart in elections.”
Once ensconced in the seat of power, one expects that politicians would begin not only to recover the expenses incurred during the elections but also to accumulate more wealth. Understandably enough, it would be too much to expect that congressmen, for instance, would take position on the basis of party principles. Politics becomes one of pay-offs. In 2000, Luis Chavit Singzon, governor of Ilocos Sur, alleged that he had personally given Joseph Estrada P400 M as pay-off from illegal gambling profits, and P180 M from the government price subsidy for the tobacco farmers’ marketing cooperative. According to Jovito Salonga, author of Presidential Plunder: the Quest for the Marcos Ill-Gotten Wealth, and Belinda Aquino, author of The Politics of Plunder, Marcos created monopolies and placed them under the control of his cronies, his families becoming owners of big corporations, laundered money, and extracted kickbacks, among others. Not so long ago, the Swiss government returned US$684 M in allegedly ill-gotten Marcos wealth.
Instrument of Elite Dominance and Power Perpetuation
If monopolies are distributed among cronies, it is because, in order to survive and perpetuate themselves in power, the elite must share the benefits of power with their own trusted men. Which is why, ours has been described as politics of patronage. Says the CBCP Catechism: “Derived from the feudal system of master and servant, the politics of patronage considers the relationship between public servant and ordinary citizen as that of patron (master) and client (servant). Rewards or benefits are distributed according to the loyalty of clients to their patrons. Clients or voters depend on their patron or public officials for every development project or assistance, and solutions to community problems. Rewards or development projects are distributed, then, on the basis not of justice due to people but on the basis of the government official’s ‘kindness’ and the loyalty of the people to the public official. Thus political leaders and followers who show support are rewarded with projects, money or jobs. Dependence and subservience, passivity and inaction on the part of citizens is characteristic of such a system. This accounts for the lack of viable organizations among the poor on the one hand, and the concentration of wealth on the other.”
Patronage politics helps the well-entrenched elite perpetuate themselves in office in three ways. First, people are so placed in debt that they have to pay in votes come election time. Second, a network of political relations is built and expanded within their political turf and becomes a machinery to assure victory. Third, it divides people into those who are loyal and those who are not, the better for the politicians to forestall any move by the clients to independently organize themselves into a powerful body.
Pork Barrel, which is part of patronage politics, is one of the instruments of power perpetuation, though, admittedly, it has other uses. In the Philippines, probably because of its not so edifying connotations, it came under different brands—Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) and Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). At present, each senator gets P200 M in pork barrel allocations, while each congressman receives P65 M. Those who benefit from it naturally continue to be indebted to the politician, and therefore could be counted upon for votes in the next elections. It thus serves as an instrument to secure support from the constituents and their loyalty to him. During martial law, Marcos was generous with the pork barrel allotment to the assemblymen to shore up his regime.
Having stayed long in office, some politicians seem to have developed a stance that treats public office as a family title that could be passed on from one generation to the next, That is to say, political power is perpetuated through family dynasty. One is led to conclude that the office practically becomes a family asset that protects its own business and other interests and shields it from political jeopardy. This probably explains why through generations we are familiar with surnames associated with politics, because they come up in almost every election period. Some of these well-known names may be mentioned: Aquinos—Benigno, Sr, Benigno Jr, Noynoy, Tessie, and Herminio. Osmeñas—Sergio Sr, Sergio Jr, Lito, Sergio III. Estradas-—Joseph, Loi, Jinggoy, JV, Emilio Ramon. Marcoses—Ferdinand, Imelda, Ferdinand Jr, Imee. Not so long ago, Francisco Tatad resigned from the opposition because of principles associated with the phenomenon of political dynasty. Of course, Tatad’s arguments based, among others, on the spirit of the Constitution were sound, but the elite would hear none of it. Anyway, what happens is that the longer the politicians stay, the more entrenched they become, and the more difficult they are to remove.
Disenfranchisement of the Poor
Because politics is meant for the continued dominance of the elite, the wealthy never really work for what could fundamentally better the lot of the poor. For one thing, they seem to think that what is good for them is also good for the constituents. If one may not admit that the ruling elite are deliberately blind to the needs of the poor, one has to say that they have a narrow worldview. As Miriam Defensor Santiago puts it, “the biggest problem in our culture is that many among the Metro Manila rich identify their selfish private interests with the general interests of the public; and their narrow social values, with national values. The rich think that what is good for them is necessarily good for the country. This is the root cause of massive poverty in the Third World. Over the decades, the rich have succeeded in identifying their own social organization with the peace and order of society in general. Because of this worldview, the rich consider themselves the apostles of law and order. They support reform, but never a meaningful, even if peaceful, revolution. They will support reform as long as they remain rich, and the poor remain where they are. Their kind of reform is not only incremental, but also self-interested. Their obsession with peace is tied to their privileges under the status quo. This is why the rich must assume responsibility for widespread poverty.”
Indeed, as we have already seen, the poor are removed from the center of power. In fact, those whose interest lies outside what the elite consider as the true good of the state are removed from it. One easily recalls the plebiscite of 1947. To give parity rights to the Americans to the exploitation and development of our natural resources, the Constitution had to be amended. But with the presence in Congress of Luis Taruc and other congressmen who ran and won in the 1946 elections under the Democratic Alliance, and who opposed the proposal on nationalist grounds, it was feared that the parity rights bill might not get the required 2/3 votes. Congress passed a resolution to remove them from the legislature on the ground of election frauds and terrorism!
Indeed, even party-list mechanism, which was crafted into the 1987 Constitution with good intentions, could be used to advance the cause of the dominant power. Though the principle behind the system is lofty, “it has been used, often enough,” says a PDI editorial (Apr 3, 07), “to smuggle political players into Congress, through the party-list backdoor. If Akbayan party-list Rep. Etta Rosales is correct, the Arroyo administration is now in the middle of an attempt to smuggle in its own party-list representative through that same door. Last week, she charged that the Comelec had accredited at least 11 suspect party-list groups, with varying degrees of connection to Malacañang or Palace officials…. The object is clear: The administration has seen the potent role played by a bloc of like-minded party-list representatives in both attempts to impeach the President. Now, it wants to fill the party-list seats with friendly bodies.”
In such a politics where the disenfranchised do not participate in the major decisions of the government, is it any wonder that we have insurgency problem? As Jose Almonte says in his article, “Political Turmoil in the Philippines,” “dissident groups have no resort other than force in their effort to bridge the social cleavages in national society. Hence, the Philippines has the distinction of hosting East Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency—as well as separatist movements among our Muslim communities, and, more recently, a series of mutinies by the middle ranks of the officer corps.” Viewed in this context, it would a fortiori not be enough to solve insurgency by merely fighting against it through arms.
Politics in the Philippines: A History of Power Transfer
It appears that Philippine politics is by and large a history of transfer of political power from one set of elite families to another, or within the same class. From 1946 to 1968, political powers changed hands largely between the two parties—the Liberals and the Nationalistas, which were both peopled by wealthy individuals. Neither of the two parties made any fundamental changes in the system, even though the party in power was always accused by the other of not giving the people a better deal. In the 1970s, Marcos declared martial law to destroy the oligarchic structure of society, but he ended up with “crony capitalism” by distributing monopolies to his own cronies. When Marcos fell from power in 1986, the elite that were removed from the center of power and privilege were restored and repositioned and continued the same elite politics.
Now, in the 2007 elections, we principally have Genuine Opposition vs. Team Unity, but from the point of view of principles and outlook, one has difficulty in finding their marked differences, except in terms of personalities. It is simply a power struggle between two elite groups vying for power, pro-GMA and anti-GMA, but their agenda do not bear fundamental differences. Of course, seasons, personalities and names in our political history change, but the system that the elite ruling class had installed before the war remains the same. The majority, on the other hand, remains mired in poverty and alienated from the center of power and domination. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc 1:8). [February 18, 2008]