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Philippines' political families more brazen

There's no hard evidence to confirm it, but the growing perception is that at no other time in the Philippines' political history have political families become more brazen in promoting their interests than in this year's elections. One quickly notes this in the senatorial slates of the two dominant coalitions. The opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) slate is led by the children of the three key figures who formed the coalition, namely the son of former president Joseph Estrada, the daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay, and the son of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. The administration's Team PNoy is no different. Two-thirds of its 12 candidates belong to political families.



It is worse at the local level. The Movement Against Dynasties (MAD) claims that 73 political clans control the country's 80 provinces. That is true as well at the level of congressional districts, cities and municipalities, where it is not unusual to see rival families running against one another for the same key positions. In some instances, as in Pampanga, a mother and son have teamed up to vie for the positions of governor and vice-governor. This has no precedent in the province. Where the same family has ruled in every election, as in the city of Danao in Cebu, it is almost inevitable that members of the same family will challenge one another for the same positions.

The question we must ask is why. Why is the family taking on the function of leadership recruitment that belongs to political parties? Why have we regressed from that era when political parties took centre stage? We must draw from history and sociology to find the answers.

Our modern political system did not evolve from the conditions of our society. Instead, we took all the formal institutions of modern politics from the US, and grafted them onto our basically feudal society. The lack of fit between them has been the major cause of the dysfunctions of our political system.

The dysfunctions were not obvious in the beginning. Modern politics was a novelty to our people. They were in awe of the individuals who came forward to lead a nation that was determined to show the world it was capable of self-rule. Indeed, most of our early leaders were brilliant politicians who were conscious of the requirements of modern governance. They formed durable political parties to consolidate their influence. They debated the key issues crucial to the future of the new nation-state. More than that, they were conscious that they were building a modern nation, not merely seeking to advance the fortunes of their families.

Perhaps I'm romanticising the age of Quezon, Roxas, Aquino, etc., when it was a pleasure and an education to watch our leaders deploy wit and intelligence in the session hall. These leaders were the closest we had to a political nobility. Any of the people mentioned above would have considered it shameful to form a party meant primarily to foster the political careers of their scions.

Philippine society has moved far from that era, and has become more complex in the process. There are more players in the political arena, notably men and women recruited from mass media and business who capitalise on celebrity status and their enormous wealth to gain elective positions.

The old morality of traditional society no longer commands the new generation of politicians. But, neither have the rule of law and institutional governance taken root in our society. We are in transition. The old is dying but the new cannot be born. The reason for this protracted transition, I suspect, is the persistence of absolute poverty and the widening disparity in wealth and power between the few at the top and the masses below. These conditions foster the culture of patronage and dependence that we see in every sphere of our society.

The inescapable conclusion is that, instead of evolving into a functionally differentiated society, where politics is freed from the grip of dynasties, we are going back to the ways of traditional society, minus the ethical restraints that used to regulate rule by the few. It is not difficult to imagine where this road will take us. It will lead us to more patronage and populism, both of which require the concentration of public resources in the hands of persons rather than institutions. This mode of governance, which engenders systemic corruption, has long been out of sync with the conventions of the modern world economy.

Recently, the global economy showed us how it positively responds to a country's visible shift toward modern governance. The strengthening of institutions signals the advent of an autonomous economy that runs by clear and stable rules. Credit must go to President Aquino for decisively choosing this path. Perhaps only time will tell if the strategic political alliances he has forged in the mid-term elections are consistent with the general direction of his "straight path" philosophy. One can't help noting with alarm that he has chosen not to draw a sharp line against political dynasties.


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