Families, Not Political Parties Still Reign in the Philippines
May 22, 2013
There has been some controversy about the quality of the May 2013 general elections in the Philippines, during which some 18,000 local and national positions were elected. But the fairest verdict of this exercise in electronic voting would seem to be that, like in May 2010, elections changed, but politics didn’t. As always, discussing the May elections inevitably involves talking about families and personalities but not political parties.
When it comes to the nationally elected upper house of the legislature – the Senate – much has been made of the fact that nine of the 12 winners came from President Aquino’s slate, dubbed “Team PNoy.” It’s important to note that from the start, this was not a group of Liberal Party (LP) members – only three candidates were Liberal Party members (and of those, only one had been a Liberal Party member for more than a few months). The rest are from the LP’s coalition partners, the Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), and Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino.
In the end, the only LP winner was the newly minted member Bam Aquino, a first cousin of President Aquino with a distinguished NGO career. Other newcomers to the Senate were topnotcher Grace Poe (daughter of the late Fernando Poe Jr., defeated 2004 presidential candidate), Nancy Binay (daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay), Sonny Angara (son of outgoing Senator Eduardo Angara), Cynthia Villar (wife of outgoing Senator Manual Villar), and JV Ejercito (son of former president, and newly elected Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada). The pattern is obvious, and replicated throughout the archipelago for many offices – mayors and governors, members of Congress, and local council members.
In a post on this blog last year, I examined the fate of political families in Philippine history. One of those examined was the Dimaporos of Lanao del Norte, which in 2013 continued their unbroken hold on the province with husband Abdullah (the second generation of the dynasty) and wife Imelda being the two elected representatives, and their son Khalid the governor. Another was the Durano clan of Danao City in Cebu, which in 2013 continued their bewildering internecine competition as brother bested brother and nephew defeated uncle.
As witness the Durano imbroglio, being a political family is not necessarily a secure position. Some prominent political clans suffered a more crushing blow in May elections, with only one of the Villafuertes of Carmarines Sur winning a seat, and that winner defeated his grandfather, clan patriarch Luis. In the Zamboanga peninsula, the expansionist Jalosjos clan, which in 2010 spread from Zamboanga Norte to Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga Sibuguey, was rolled back to its one bastion of Dapitan City by allies of the president. Naturally, however, these allies were also established political families, such as the Hofers of Sibuguey and the Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur. One scion of a political clan, General Santos City mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio, lost her re-election bid to a candidate supported by a nascent political force – boxing champion and Congressman Manny Pacquiao. An example of how new political families arise (almost half of all political clans originated after the restoration of electoral democracy in 1986), Pacquiao fielded his brother in another congressional race (the brother lost) and his wife, Jinkee, for vice-governor (she won).
Given this emphasis on families not political parties, on personalities not policy, we should view with skepticism any assertion that these election results, which do indeed demonstrate the continued popularity and drawing power of President Aquino, represent a surge for general reform. The organization of Philippine politics by clans and personalities makes it harder for the president to pursue his central theme of “if there is no corruption there is no poverty.” As explained by corruption scholar Michael Johnston, elections do induce uncertainty in political families (since they are not certain to win) who are appealing to citizens on the basis of favors and personal services. The incentive to accumulate irregular resources is increased since not only do they finance bids for power but they must be accumulated while in power: “make hay while the sun shines,” as the saying goes. In this climate, where almost all politicking is conducted in this fashion, even anti-corruption efforts can be portrayed as “partisan,” as the insincere attempt by one faction to persecute another.
Reform is in fact possible in the Philippines. For example, the recent passage of tobacco tax increases in the teeth of fierce opposition of some in the industry, will allow better financing of health care for average citizens. But the more general question is, if politics is not changing, can governance patterns change in any sustainable fashion? That is the topic of next week’s post.
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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