Philippine democracy under threat

The young man, Jake 22 year old and single laughed when I asked him whom he voted for in the local elections for mayor. He said he abstained, but he went to the house of the mayor and received a payment all the same. “Why not”, he reasoned, “it was for free everyone was going there”.

The mayor was “reelected” and his local family dynasty, linked to a bigger family dynasty became more influential. His father before him had been mayor several times and then became a congressman. The families of the elites are connected by marriage and by political allegiance to candidates for the presidency. Family dynasties have, in reality, replaced political parties; the children of the politician usually succeed the parent in office. In a Philippine democracy, allegiances shift and change with the shift in political power.

That is the way it is in Philippine democracy. Votes are bought and those candidates with the most money and favors to give away will get back into power. They use that power to establish their reign continually through relatives. It is the dance of the dynasties that rule through the so-called democratic process in the country. It is flawed and what remains of the democratic process is under threat from its own inherent weakness.

The top family dynasties are immensely wealthy. In the Philippines, there are eight leading US dollar billionaires and estimates claim that 1% of the populations are super rich and control 70 % of the economy and the wealth. There are ten million in poverty and 5.3 million in extreme poverty. Many of them will sell their “democratic” vote to the highest bidder. Political power is essential for the dynasties to survive. The constitution demands an end to dynastic families but no legislation has been passed banning them.

The power of patronage is nothing new but a hangover of the client-ruler system that dominated the Philippines since the Spanish era. Then the rich families pacified the submissive poor and hungry with handouts of small favors. The poor were so miserable they took what they could get and were docile clients of the ruling families. The Spanish saw that their ruling class owned the land and property and the poor worked it for them. Eventually the poor rebelled and overthrew the Spanish elite but the properties are still controlled by the remaining wealthy elite passed down through the generations.

They ruled and reaped the riches and still go through their successors. They dominate the Philippine Congress where most members are millionaires and they are there to promote and protect the business and political interests of their dynastic backers. The poor and lower middle class of workers are excluded from the political process and many sell their vote. Surveys show that the average approval rating of Philippine democracy is between 60 to 80 percent among Filipinos. In September 2017 it was a 86 percent approval rating of those polled and this has dropped six points.

Although the system of government is based on the US model of elected representatives in two houses and a strong presidency, it is usually the president who gets the Congress to support him by offering financial incentives to the congressional representatives and senators. It’s a reality that payouts win support.

This is the pork barrel system of doling out huge sums to the politicians to buy their support and most swing from opposition to back the president whoever he or she may be. While the Supreme Court ruled that pork barrel payouts are illegal it is still done one way or the other. But the President can also hurt the business interests of those in Congress who oppose him.

However, Filipinos are a very friendly, tolerant, and forgiving people and they have learned to accept and live with reality. They accept the age-old “Golden Rule”, meaning that the rich have the gold, and they rule. The average Filipino does not have any idea how the ruling class or the political oligarchy could be changed or even if it should be changed. The idea of real democracy “For the people, by the people, with the people”, has never been really present in the experience of the people. So-called democracy has been ‘By the rich, for the rich” with the poor excluded.

The ordinary people have no independent ordinary person as an alternative political leader with a structure that could match and beat the family dynasty system to win an election or the money to buy enough votes. The most recent elections typified these contending dynastic family feuds. Five contenders of the elite families backed by various financial vested interests fought each other for the presidency. They divided the vote and dissipated the vote-buying power of the traditional dynasties and their ambition and greed left the door open for a populist outsider from a minority family dynasty. The people saw that it was a chance to break away from the divided feuding traditional politicos and vote for a charismatic newcomer, a mayor from Davao City. He was running as an anti-elitist strongman and he became a celebrity. The close links with his running mate for vice-president being Bong Bong Marcos with the support of the Marcos billions victory was assured. Although Mr. Marcos did not get elected vice-president it was a close call.

Democracy today is challenged by the Congress as they try to form a body to change the constitution and form a federal system as the Presidents wants. This would transfer greater power to the dynastic families ruling in their area of influence. Many proposed changes are self-serving proposals. Democracy flawed as it is will be all the more weakened if they get their way.

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