Discussion on Philippine Political Culture

By Joharel Escobia
Urios University

Brief Background

The discussion began with A/Prof. Ryan Maboloc giving a passionate lecture on the history of elitism in the Philippines. He mentioned that after Spain relinquished the Philippines as a colony, the Americans instituted its brand of democracy. It was during this period, he said, that political elitism came into total fruition as lands that were acquired by the friars were simply transferred to families who have been very supportive of the American regime. This fact, he said, citing the work of Prof. Joel Rocamora, gave rise to many, if not all, political elites in the provinces, who in turn, supported most oligarchs in the capital Manila.

A/Prof. Maboloc added that after the post-war era, Marcos tried to overhaul the oligarchic structure by taking away the assets of some prominent families. However, this move was ostensibly done. Marcos simply transferred the sequestered wealth to himself through crony capitalism. Marcos used his friends as dummies to hide the wealth he plundered. This devastated the Philippine economy and put democracy on a tailspin. The Philippines, indeed, thus became Asia's wastebasket for democracy.

Well, the dawn of hope emerged with the success of People Power I. When Cory Aquino, the widow of Ninoy Aquino, assumed power in the Palace, she gave an order to draft what is now the 1987 constitution to correct the abuses of the Marcos regime. President Cory tried to bring in a new order, but it was no more than a restoration of the old one where only the top benefits from any progress. A/Prof. Maboloc indicated that history has taught us fully well that only the very few, rich, powerful, landed, and influential families dominate the reign of governance in the country. Around 60 of the country's 70-plus cities are ruled by political dynasties, and some have been in control for decades. This virulent malady has effectively stifled true development as people are rendered powerless. As what Prof. Randy David has written in a column, this type of system makes economic growth possible, but not prosperity.

Article II, Section 26 of the 1987 Constitution

Dr. Romulo Bautista cites Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution says: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” The clause “as may be defined by law” is vague. It does not specify the number of family members, and it does not specify the generation which will prohibit a family member from running for public office. 

The “equal access to opportunities” mandates that public offices should be open under the conditions of fair equality of opportunities. There is no equality of opportunities if only two rival families or two conflicting family members are running for the same position. Public office becomes a family possession, an inheritance which can be handed from one family member to another. Under this kind of set-up, the already powerful becomes even more powerful. The marginalized are even pushed further in the periphery. Political power which is controlled by the few oligarchs leads to unchecked abuses and corruption. Only few benefits while the majority of the populace who are poor suffers even more. Article II, section 26 of the constitution is supposed to preclude abuses and vicious inequality that occlude the country’s progress. In this regard, Mr. Kevin Olmedo, Davao Reader editor, emphasized on the idea of culture and how it influences our brand of politics. Structures are built on our concepts of the family and ties, ergo, blood relations.

Nonetheless, reality would tell us that the contrary is true. Political dynasty persists. Budding politicians like Manny Pacquiao have even started building their own dynasty. Bam Aquino, Nancy Binay, and many others are beneficiaries of this social malady. What allows this phenomenon to continue is clearly the absence of enabling law that will totally curtail it. The reason for this is the fact that our legislators are also members of a political dynasty. Logically, they would not drink their own poison. They would not endorse a law that will end their grip to power.

Many unreconstructed supporters continue to hold on to their political leaders despite their knowledge of their leaders’ corruption. They justify this by pointing out that this is the status quo. It is already ingrained in the consciousness of the people that the candidate who bears the family name of their chosen political dynasty though incompetent will gain their sublime vote.  So even if a conscientious and competent person who is not a member of a dynasty will run for public office, he will still not win. The voters are a slave to their loyalty to these elite politicians to the point that they become subservient to them.

This is contrary to what Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution asserts: “Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them,” noted Dr. Bautista. The political leaders should serve the people’s interest. The supreme authority emanates from the people. Political dynasty only serves the interests of the few oligarchs. The abuses of power and the concomitant corruption that comes from it is the debasement of the people’s welfare. Mr. Peter Elicor, for instance, echoes the feeling of political apathy among disgruntled voters who find elections as non-productive for the poor.

The Dynasty of the People

Fr. Joaquin Bernas has written in a PDI column that nothing will come out of the campaign against political dynasties. Truth to tell, he mentioned that Comm. Jose Nolledo tried to introduce a section outlawing it, but the 1987 Constitutional Commission turned him down. Nolledo's final plea, however, according to Fr. Bernas, allowed the section on political dynasties. But it included the difficult requirement for congress to enact a law to ban it, which will never happen because the two houses of Congress are the playgrounds of our political elites.  

But while nothing can be done legally, the moral realm is a different arena. The people should bear in mind that they constitute the supreme dynasty. The Constitution is clear that political power must serve the public’s interest. Political dynasty is inimical to the welfare of the people. “It destroys competition,” says Dr. Lukas Kaelin of Stanford University. Political dynasty enforces the great division between rich and poor. The ruling class belongs to the elite stratum of society, and it turned out that the elite are the only ones who benefit from this. 

We cannot expect a politician from an illustrious family who has enjoyed the luxury and comfort of opulence to be sympathetic to the abject conditions of the poor. "You just make them richer", Mr. Rodolfo Dumlao quipped at the sidelines of the discussion.  The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would remind us that man has the natural proclivity to pursue his own selfish interest and to seek his own gratification. We cannot expect the oligarchs to be altruistically motivated in running for public office. They have an evil plot in mind which has impeded the country's progress. It is sensible to be critical about our political oligarch’s dissembling intentions for they are not reflective of the public interest.

Politicians may argue that there are good dynasties. But the monopoly of power it creates often leads to corruption and abuses. It is hard to see who is good and who is bad for the latter overshadows the other. Political dynasty has done more harm than good. Although some families argue that they have been chosen by the people, it must be determined if people did really follow their conscience in voting. The people, as we all know, can be influenced by way of trivial goods. This is the very mechanism of the dictatorship of the old order, according to A/Prof. Ryan Maboloc.

There is a need to end the culture of patronage politics. It has to start by not voting for candidates who are building political dynasty. Political dynasty will not flourish if we voters would show our disdain for it. Politicians gained the guts of putting their family members into office because the people support it. The country is experiencing the ill-effects of a politics run only by few families, for instance, the very limited and exclusive type of development. 

There is a need to voice out our dissent by voting only for competent and principle-based candidates who are not members of any political dynasty. Although at present, the people are left with no genuine choices since almost all candidates have their respective dynasties should only prompt us to act against it. Political maturity is still key. However, change is not all too imminent.

We must remember in this sense that political participation does not stop with casting our significant ballots. It also involves pressuring COMELEC and even our legislators to prohibit political dynasty. This is to ensure that the current elite families will not grow further in the future. This is also to level the field so that competent persons who are not wealthy and influential enough will have the chance to run and serve the Filipino nation. Genuine dynasty, according to Dr. Bautista, is the people, and not those few expedient oligarchs.

Note: Discussion participants were Dr. Romulo Bautista (Retired Professor); Kevin Olmedo (Ateneo Faculty); Fr. Edmundo Palomar (Parish Priest); Ryan Maboloc (Ateneo Faculty); Cristian Ramirez (UM Faculty); Rodolfo Dumlao (Government Worker); Peter Elicor (Ateneo Faculty); Joharel Escobia (Urios University Faculty)

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