Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Philippine politics: All in the family

Sometime ago, an article in The Economist posed an interesting query that is so relevant to the politics of our times: “Is politics in the blood, or in the genes?”
Every country in the world has its share of political dynasties, but political families in the Philippines are an anomaly in this age of meritocracy. Instead of a system that gives opportunities and advantages to people on the basis of their ability and achievement, the ascendancy of political families in the Philippines is purely motivated by blood relations and the instinct for self-preservation once they have secured elective offices. Elective positions in government have found their way into the family’s gene pool, as if children of elected politicians have the putative right of succession.
President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III follows the legacy of his parents,  Senator
Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino III and President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino. Photo courtesy
of rickysy. Click link to view
Noynoy Aquino's acceptance speech to run as president of the Philippines in 2010.
Of course, the undertow in the blood compact among members of these families is their privileged economic status. Most political families in the Philippines belong to the propertied class. They own vast agricultural lands and thriving businesses. They are members of the elite, the ilustrados, the rich and the educated. It was no historical accident that the Spanish colonizers favoured these families by appointing them to political positions like the gobernadorcillo or the alcalde mayor whose jobs were primarily to collect taxes and tributes from the people.
When the U.S. colonized the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, they took these ilustrados under their wings and trained them for the practical affairs of popular government. The first American civil governor of the islands, William Howard Taft, believed that the rudiments of self-government would easily be transferable to these ilustrados, the oligarchic elite, because of their social and economic status. So, it was the fault of the American colonizers that spawned the political dynasties we have now.
A new political system was imposed by the Americans but they did not change the Filipino social structure which allowed the oligarchic elite to gain and preserve its political power. During this period, family names such as Cojuangcos, Lopezes, Marcoses, Osmeñas and Aquinos became household names.
Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute the Philippine Assembly in 1907 and Congress in the ensuing years resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuated their hold on political offices. A truly representative democracy failed to flourish, shattering the hopes that the country would now be able to draw upon all classes in Philippine society in electing public officials.
As oligarchic as the government officialdom was in its early years, today it is not that all different. Nothing has changed. With the enactment of term limits, political dynasties have become even more entrenched as family members simply rotate among themselves the opportunity to hold public office. As Brian Fegan, an American anthropologist would later describe in his book An Anarchy of Families, the Filipino family is the most enduring political unit in Philippine society. The transfer of power among family members is now considered normal and natural in order to preserve political continuity.
Take the Aquino family of Tarlac, for example. From 1928 until 20o7, there have been five senators from the Aquino family, which does not include the family’s patriarch, Servillano “Manong” Aquino who served as a delegate to the Malolos Congress. The first senator in the family, Benigno Aquino Sr., served as Speaker of the National Assembly from 1943 to 1944. Ninoy Aquino (Benigno Jr.), elected senator in 1968, was gunned down by his political enemies in 1983 upon his return from exile in the United States. His younger brother and sister, Agapito and Teresita, were elected as senators in 1986 and 1998, respectively. Noynoy Aquino (Benigno III), Ninoy’s son, was elected senator in 2007 and his term was cut short when he ran for President of the Philippines in 2010. The family has also produced two presidents, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, Ninoy’s widow and their son, Noynoy, the current Malacanang occupant.
Now, there is a new and rising bright star of the Aquino dynasty, 2013 senatorial aspirant Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV. Only 36 years old and the youngest candidate in the May 2013 elections, Bam is not shy of his affinity to the Aquino lineage of senators. His father, Paul Aquino, is Ninoy Aquino’s youngest brother who managed Cory Aquino’s snap election that catapulted her to the presidency after the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986.
When asked about his powerful political connections, the young Bam Aquino answered without hesitation: “If people like me are willing to serve, we shouldn’t just stay on the sidelines.” He would be the sixth Aquino family member in the Senate, if elected. Bam Aquino was also alluded to have said in the past that Aquinos don’t have to become President whenever the country is in a political crisis. At this very early stage in his political career, there is already a foreboding sign of what Bam Aquino really hopes to be in the future.
Rep. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito echoed Bam Aquino’s reply to the political dynasty reference when he said that this issue is only invoked by opposing candidates who feared they have no track record to run on. According to JV, anyone who has a distinguished public service track record can win over a member of the so-called political dynasty. Running for senator in this coming May 2013 elections, JV is not ashamed of his familial ties to his father, former senator and President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, with his father’s wife, former senator Luisa Pimentel Estrada, half-brother and currently sitting senator, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and with his mother, Erap’s paramour, Guia Gomez, currently mayor of San Juan City.
Former President  and Senator Joseph "Erap" Estrada who is running for mayor of
Manila with his sons, Senator Jose  Jinggoy" Estrada, left, and Rep. Jose Victor "JV"
 Estrada, 2013 senatorial aspirant, right. Photo courtesy of AFP. Click link to view
" Erap crack a joke about the
 criticism that he was not a "Manilan."
“I cannot help it if the Ejercito-Estrada clan has chalked up a long list of accomplishments in government service, which makes the public appreciative of its members. I have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I'm proud to carry the name,” JV said.
Members of the family of the late and infamous President Ferdinand Marcos have also regained the clan’s former political foothold. The Marcos family shows that holding public office among family members easily trumps the term limits enacted by Congress. Political dynasties are more anomalously prevalent in the local level. Like playing musical chairs, family members of political dynasties in the provinces and towns simply rotate the opportunity to hold public office among themselves when the term of one family member expires.
Although the 1987 Philippine Constitution prohibits political dynasties, Congress has not enacted the enabling law needed to implement this constitutional prohibition. There have been pending bills in Congress that either define the scope of a family dynasty or limit the election of family members to public office within the second degree of consanguinity or affiliation. The proposals in Congress, however, only intend to cover local level elective offices and not those on the national level, which only fuels the skepticism on whether Congress would realistically pass any legislation prohibiting political dynasties because it will be contrary to their natural inclination for survival and self-preservation.
However, until an anti-political dynasty law is passed, a scenario which may not possibly see the light of day, there should be other alternatives through which the people can be included in the political process. In 1989, Congress has passed Republic Act No. 6735, “The Initiative and Referendum Act,” which empowers the people to directly propose amendments to the Constitution, and to enact laws, ordinances or resolutions, through a system of initiative and referendum. The Ang Kapatiran Party (AKP) has already petitioned the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to prescribe the form of a petition for a people’s initiative for the enactment of an Anti-Dynasty Act in accordance with the Initiative and Referendum Act. To date, however, the Comelec is either taking so long or purposely refusing to act on the AKP petition.
The system of initiative and referendum has been a popular tool in advanced democracies in enabling the people to directly enact legislation, especially on issues that are quite urgent but unpopular and controversial, or issues some may find radical in nature. Several states in the United States, for example, have passed through their respective referenda laws allowing same-sex marriage and the use of marijuana. Plebiscites are another form of alternative political method of expressing the voters’ will on matters that are vital to them and to the nation.
R.A. 6735 requires that a certain percentage of the total number of registered voters in a legislative district must sign any petition to enact and approve a law, or to initiate amendments to the Constitution. This is equivalent to a direct political empowerment of the voters instead of waiting for Congress that seems uninterested in passing an anti-political dynasty law. Except that the major stumbling block at present is the continuing failure of Comelec, supposedly an independent constitutional commission, to prescribe the necessary petition forms to proceed with the initiative.
While Comelec continues to delay or neglect to act on the people’s initiative for an anti-political dynasty law, there is one concrete and immediate political action the Filipino people can pledge to do in the coming May 2013 elections. By simply rejecting a candidate whose surname is the same as or related to an incumbent elected official, the voting public can send a message that political dynasties must end now. Beyond that, the Filipino people must persevere in their effort to enact an anti-political dynasty law by people's initiative or referendum, not to trust Congress to pass such law, and in exploring alternative political spaces for engagement and inclusion in the political process.
Since political power is also closely linked with economic power, there is no denying that political dynasties corrupt the political structure and restrict the liberating potential of the democratic process. The Filipino people can no longer allow the anomalous concentration of political power in the hands of a few notable families, and by rejecting candidates from these families in the forthcoming May elections, they would signal the beginning of the end to political dynasties.



1 comment:

  1. If the political dynasty will thrust the Philippines into a 1st world country then I don't think it is such a bad idea, If political dynasties bring political stability, unity and economic activity then by all means let it flourish, if ease of doing business in the Philippines will improved because of political dynasties then let us forget this argument but that is not whats happening now, political dynasties are self serving only to benefit the family of those in power, favoring relatives over others. I believe the only way to change this political set up is to prevent non-tax payers from voting. Politicians will lose appetite to please the marginalize during election seasons and I believe tax payers are more critical in choosing their candidates.