Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bring back power to the people

The Filipino family is the most enduring political unit in Philippine society, according to American anthropologist Brian Fegan in his book, An Anarchy of Families. It is considered almost customary in preserving political continuity to allow the transfer of political power among family members. Rivalry between families is very common during election time and as soon as they get elected, these families tend to entrench upon themselves a permanent right to political office.
Any talk about political theory is one thing, and political reality, another. The 1987 Philippine Constitution prohibits political dynasties to guarantee equal access to opportunities in public service. Obviously, the intent of the framers of the Constitution was to level the playing field. But the Philippine Congress has not enacted the enabling legislation that will define and restrict wealthy politicians and their families in establishing their monopoly of political offices.
We have to look back at our history to fully understand why the wealthy have entrenched a dynasty over political offices. When the Philippine Commission established the national assembly in 1902, William Howard Taft, then Governor-General of the islands who also became U.S. President and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, identified affluent Filipino politicians to become members of this assembly. Taft also wrote a book, Political Parties in the Philippines wherein he concluded that Filipino politicians had yet to learn the idea of individual liberty and the practical elements of a popular government. He wanted the Philippine Assembly as a training ground for self-government. Eventually, this assembly became the Congress of the Philippines and the Jones Act of 1916 created the Senate replacing the Philippine Commission.
The American colonial government planted the roots of oligarchy in the membership of the Philippine Congress. While the Americans trained the Filipinos for self-government, they did not change the Filipino social structure. They merely imposed a political system that allowed the existing social structure to gain political power. Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute Congress resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuate their hold on political offices. Since the oligarchic elite also controls the economic levers of the country, passing political power to and between members of their families became almost as natural as bequeathing their fortune to their heirs.
2013 Senatorial candidates. Guess who's related to who? Click link to view "Political Dynasties in PH."
In the beginning, political dynasties were mostly limited to scions of the wealthy oligarchy. But with the enactment of term-limits, political dynasties have become a family affair. Thus, when a member of Congress is forced to step down after three terms, the wife, husband or child or cousin can run for office as successor while he or she runs for the governor of the province or the city or town mayor. After the end of the three-term limit, the vicious cycle of political succession among family members resumes again and there has been no end to it. The Filipino family, as Fegan has said, is thus the most enduring political unit.
Just look at the composition of today’s Philippine Congress. You see father and son, or mother and daughter, one a senator and the other a member of the lower house. Or siblings sitting together as senators. Or children of their once-famous or infamous father or mother who also sat in Congress before them. Point a finger to an individual member of Congress and you can trace his or her family connections: the Aquino-Cojuangco family, the Macapagal-Arroyos, the Ponce Enriles, the Estradas, the Rectos, the Osmenas, the Marcoses, the Cayetanos, and the Angaras— almost everyone is related to each other, whether as a sibling, a parent or a distant relative. Go down further the government pyramid and you see governors, mayors, and barangay chairmen and their councils who are related to each other, either by blood or affinity.
Even the party-list system, which is supposed to promote proportional representation in the House of Representatives, has been held captive by wealthy and influential families. In fact, party lists are being financed by the already-entrenched political elite to ensure access to Congress by their relatives.
To level the playing field of the political arena and to prevent public office from becoming the monopoly of influential families and clans, there is now in Congress a bill that will give force and effect to the Constitutional prohibition against political dynasties. The proponents of the bill believe that it will remove the damaging effects of the extended Filipino family system on the Philippine political structure or on how the government is run.
But the proposed law will not alter the political landscape. Monopoly of political power and public resources by entrenched political dynasties will continue for as long as they can hold on to their economic power. With their unlimited economic means, they can continue to bankroll their elections or those of their relatives.
The Marcos family - political life after Ferdinand. Click link to view "Dynasties in Democracies:
The Political Side of Inequality."
If serious reform of the political structure is being envisaged to cause dramatic changes that would equalize access to political office by all, then what seems logical to do is to overhaul the entire government. Not by an armed revolution or another EDSA People Power, but through a revision of the Constitution by the initiative of the people. It is unlikely that the present members of Congress would pass any legislation that would curtail their influence and their families’ political succession. That would be like asking them to bang their heads on a stone.
The current Constitution allows amendments through a people’s initiative. A petition must be initiated by at least twelve percent of the total number of registered voters, of which every legislative district must be represented by at least three percent of the registered voters. How this works will depend on Congress which shall enact the enabling legislation for the implementation of the right of the people to amend their Constitution through initiative.
Forget Cha-Cha through a constitutional convention or a constituent assembly. The Filipino people cannot rely on their elected representatives, so they must exercise their initiative to bring out the necessary reforms. So, let’s begin this process by petitioning our representatives and senators in Congress to pass a law that will implement this people’s initiative.
A people’s initiative to amend the Constitution may also be a big blessing in disguise for President Noynoy Aquino if he needs to ensure that the Bangsamoro Agreement he signed with the MILF is constitutionally valid.
What could a people’s initiative to amend the Constitution likely entail? Let’s look at one possible scenario.
First, abolish Congress. Replace it with a unicameral legislative assembly that will be composed of representatives elected directly by their constituents by electoral districts or wards, which shall not be more than 100,000 registered voters. Assuming the total registered voting population is 5o million, the assembly will consist of 500 elected members.
Second, abolish the Senate. The present crop of senators, although directly elected nationally, does not actually represent a natural constituency. Besides, there is no need for an upper house which could be the cause of legislative gridlock. Electing senators nationally gives the advantage to those who have the money and popularity.
Third, limit campaign financing to one peso per registered voter, which by our example would cost 100 thousand pesos. This would make the election more accessible to all. Personal or private donations to campaigns will be strictly required to be disclosed. All donations over and above the limit of 100 thousand pesos per candidate will escheat to the Commission on Elections, which in turn shall equally apportion the total collections to each candidate for additional campaign expenses such as television, radio or print advertising.
Fourth, continue the election of the President and Vice President at large, but no President shall be declared elected without getting the majority of the votes (50 percent plus 1). This may require a second or third run-off election if there are more than two candidates running for office.
And fifth, provide for implementing law for the recall of representatives who fail to meet the expectations of their constituents.
A people’s initiative may sound wistful to many, but why the heck do we have this provision in our Constitution if we cannot avail of it? There is no better time than now to make use of this initiative. Besides, this mode of amending the Constitution seems far more democratic than anything else inasmuch as the people will be directly making the proposed changes. Not our Congress or our elected representatives when the people have obviously lost their trust in them.

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