The Politics of Man-made Poverty

by Fr. Shay Cullen

When Perla Santos, a Filipina professional working in Barcelona heard that the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) had overturned the 2007 election of Ed Panlilio, former Catholic priest and governor of Pampanga province together with two other opposition governors, she snorted in disgust, “What!, they were the few uncorrupted leaders and now they are thrown out?!”. Many people in Spain that I talked to here during a lecture tour and some in the Filipino community are bewildered by the intertwined maneuvering and relationships that allow dynastic political families remain indefinitely in power and determine the outcome of the so-called democratic elections.

Indeed the recent decision by the Commission on Elections to overturn the election victories of the acclaimed three most uncorrupted and progressive governors, incumbent Isabela Governor Grace Padaca and Bulacan Gov. Joselito Mendoza, and Ed Panlilio, all of the opposition Liberal Party (LP) has created a very skeptical impression among many Filipinos here. “Its just too, oh so convenient, right before the elections in May that this happened, it gives the politicos (dynastic politicians) a big power to cheat and steal”, declared Margie, another Filipino who had to migrate to escape dire poverty, to find a decent salary and security for her family in Manila. She has high hopes that Sen. Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III, leader of the LP and the son of the late President Cory Aquino will win and bring about the miracle of a clean government.

That would be, as the dictionary says – “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences”. Indeed corruption has reached an all-time high according to the government itself where many of its highest officials are accused of wrongdoing. The allegations of higher public officials transferring billions of pesos to favored political allies in certain provinces and allegedly getting a pre-agreed percentage returned to private accounts is a widespread perception. The recent discovery of massive hoards of money in the private homes of the president’s allies in Maguindanao, who have been arrested and charged with the massacre of 57 people including 30 journalists gives weight to the unproven allegations.

The Philippines, according to some political analysts, is ruled by some 200, or less powerful families who own or control 70% of the wealth. They use it to elect their relatives to the Congress, staff government departments and the police and army with favored sons and rule as an oligarchy-cum-dictatorship through the all powerful office of the president.

The “election” contest is not between political parties but between the families striving to put down each other, sometimes with violence, to occupy that highest post from which they can then manipulate the Congress by releasing or withholding billions of public funds to the members through the pork barrel system.

The few uncorrupted independents who get elected like the three governors are considered audacious mavericks defying the system by refusing to play along and take bribes. They are ousted one way or the other. Governor Ed Panlilio is now to be replaced by the powerful matriarch who lost to him and happens to be a close friend of the president.

The system survives with the support of the Philippine military. Some top generals have been promoted on the basis of political loyalty, rather than merit. When they withdrew support from beleaguered President Erap Estrada, he fell.

Some patriotic military officers have mounted attempted coups in recent years by way of protest at this state of affairs. Antonio Trillanes IV who is in custody for leading a 2003 mutiny was so popular that he was elected to the Senate while still in prison. An indication of how desperate the people were for a change of government. The reliance of the US on Philippine army officers to exercise political power is best seen in the example of US West Point graduate former President Fidel Ramos. He implemented the Marcos martial law regime but drifted away when the US withdrew support from Marcos and the regime was about to fall. Years later, he was elected president. A crude form of regime change some say but effective.

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