Family dynasties bind politics in Philippines

By Carlos H. Conde
The New York Times
International Herald Tribune
Published: May 11, 2007

MANILA: When Julian Resuello, the mayor of San Carlos, a small city in the northern Philippines, was killed by gunmen at a campaign rally on April 28, his brother quickly stepped into his shoes.

Even if Resuello’s brother does not win the election, San Carlos city politics are likely to stay in the hands of the Resuello family – Julian’s son is also running for high office in the city.

Julian Resuello, who was 54 when he was shot while out greeting voters, was running for vice mayor of the city. His son is running for mayor. Such swapping of roles is as common in political families as the violence that has wracked the Philippines in the run up to the elections Monday, when 17,000 national and local positions are at stake, including all 265 House of Representatives seats and half of the 24 Senate seats.

More than 100 people have been killed in the pre-election violence, the police said Friday, according to The Associated Press.

The police, meanwhile, say they have no leads in the Resuello case.

For generations, political dynasties have dominated politics and governance in the Philippines. They are prominent and moneyed clans, like that of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose father was also president and whose son is a congressman. Another son is running for congress.

Experts say that dominance of Philippine politics by such dynasties has grown more pervasive in recent years.

There are an estimated 250 political families nationwide, with at least one in every province, occupying positions in all levels of the bureaucracy, according to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a nonprofit group that advocates more grassroots participation in politics. Of the 265 members of Congress, 160 belong to these clans, the group says.

“These are the same families who belong to the country’s economic elite, some of them acting as rule makers or patrons of politicians who conspire together to amass greater economic power,” said Bobby Tuazon, director of the center.

Analysts say members of the dynasties have developed a sense of entitlement regarding public positions, while many ordinary Filipinos accept the arrangement as inevitable, which makes it difficult to change the situation.

Political dynasties were an offshoot of the country’s colonial experience, in which the Filipino elite was nurtured by Spanish and American colonizers. Even after the country gained independence, in 1946, the largely feudal system persisted, as landed Filipino families sought to protect their interests by occupying public offices.

When he was president in the 1970s and 1980s, Ferdinand Marcos blamed the political dynasties for what was wrong with the country and promised to dismantle them. He did, but then replaced them with new ones that he controlled. These families persist to this day.

Because Filipinos tend not to vote according to class, ethnicity, religion or even ideology, the Filipino family has become “the most enduring political unit and the one into which, failing some wider principle of participation, all other units dissolve,” Brian Fegan, an American anthropologist and historian, wrote in the book “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines.”

Analysts say the dominance of the clans has prevented the flowering of genuine democracy in the Philippines.

“Continuing clan dominance is a product of the seemingly immutable and unequal socioeconomic structure, as well as the failure to develop a truly democratic electoral and party system,” said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

The system is a vicious cycle, one that prevents the expansion of the base of aspirants and candidates for representation, Teehankee said. The result, he added, is a political system dominated by patronage, corruption, violence, and fraud.

Apart from violence, election fraud sparks the most concern during elections. According to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, “fraud recycles the political dynasties and keeps them in power.”

“It breeds generations of cheaters and manipulators, corrupt politicians, mediocre executives, bribe takers, absenteeism in Congress,” the center said.

The Asia Foundation, which has been monitoring elections in the Philippines for decades, said in a report last week that “confusion, inefficiency, corruption and cheating damaged the credibility of elections and cast doubt on the democratic legitimacy of elected officials” in the Philippines.

Apart from contributing to corruption, the rule of political dynasties has other detrimental effects for Filipinos, according to several studies by watchdog groups, including the Center for People Empowerment in Governance.

For example, a family in power might not finance government projects in areas controlled by its rivals. In many cases, those in power would withhold government services, like health care, and offer them only during election periods. The repair of roads and bridges often takes place only during the election season, and a governing politician would make sure that voters know who was behind the repair.

A testament to the enduring power of political clans in the Philippines is the fact that a provision in the Constitution aimed at dismantling the dynasties has not been put into effect with a necessary enabling law. Bills have been proposed that would weaken political dynasties, but they have not been passed by a Congress that is dominated by the people whose access to higher office the Constitution seeks to limit.

Although there is a widespread belief in the Philippines that the political dynasties can never be eliminated, some analysts point to signs of positive change.

Alex Brillantes, who teaches public administration and governance at the University of the Philippines, cited several young politicians from dynasties who had broken with the old ways of running their areas and had shown what he said was a capacity to govern responsibly.

He attributed this in part to the increased devolution of power to local areas in recent years, including the ability to impose taxes.

“Because of local empowerment, good dynasties are becoming more responsive to the call for good governance and to the issue of accountability,” Brillantes said.

But even this growing devolution has its downside, according to analysts, including Tuazon and Brillantes, as provinces, cities and towns have grown richer. The potential spoils mean that local politicians have more to gain personally from public office, fueling the cycle of violence.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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