By Ronald U. Mendoza, PhD

An unfinished revolution


Posted on February 25, 2014

THE PHILIPPINE midterm elections held last May could provide important insights into the complexion and probable outcomes of the 2016 national elections. In a soon-to-be-released study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center, we analyzed the data from that election; and what we found raised serious concerns over the legitimacy of the Philippine political process. Some 28 years after the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, the promise to bring power back to the people remains unfulfilled. Without key institutions for inclusiveness and accountability, political and economic inequality will continue to weigh on this country’s future.

Numerous studies provide growing evidence on the links of political dynasties to entrenched poverty in the country. Based on our own research, almost half of the top echelon in our local governments is accounted for by dynastic politicians (or roughly about 42-44% of total positions in 2010 and 2013). As regards the 2013 elections, for most of these local government positions, the share of political dynasties appears to have changed very little -- with the exception of provincial vice-governorships which became even more dynastic (and congress which became slightly less dynastic).

Is this a vindication of dynasties? Not necessarily. With further examination of the election results, the main competitive choices offered to voters involved a large number of uncontested dynasties, and dynasties contested by other dynasties. These two scenarios described 60% of the Gubernatorial and 40% of the Mayoral races in the country. Put simply, even before you cast your ballot, you can already be assured that the winner is from a dynastic clan in many parts of the country.

Why? A large number of dynastic candidates were fielded by the most established (and therefore better financed) political parties. For instance, for Governor, political parties such as the Liberal Party of the administration and UNA of the opposition both fielded roughly 50% dynastic candidates. Further, three-quarters of the Governor candidates of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) were dynastic. These figures help highlight how political parties are dominated by dynasties; and they constitute large shares of candidates fielded in elections by the main political parties.

So when a former President (now turned Mayor) countered to anti-dynasty groups: "Why not let the people decide?," we might throw the question back at him: "Well, did the political parties provide good options?" From the evidence it seems clear that our political parties are failing us.

Vote buying is a reflection of the entrenched patronage in various parts of the country -- as poor and low income people depend on patrons for support, jobs and almost anything else they might need to cope with everyday life. In exchange, patrons secure votes to keep their hold on power. Power which is used, not to promote fundamental change and a more level playing field in our economy and politics, rather to entrench themselves further in both these spheres. In spite of past and ongoing efforts to curb vote buying, our survey reflects very sobering statistics, even in urbanized Metro Manila.

The AIM Policy Center’s vote buying survey implemented several months after the 2013 elections, covered 360 respondents from income classes D and E families (i.e. 4th and 5th income quintiles approximately) living in 17 cities in Metro Manila. It revealed vote-buying incidence of about 20% when a direct question was used (Was there anything offered to you or any member of your family in exchange for your vote in the 2013 elections?); and this doubled to about 40% when an indirect question was used (Was there anything offered to someone you know in exchange for his/her vote in the 2013 elections?).

About 9-16% of respondents reported food, rice and groceries offered in exchange for votes, while another 10-16% noted favors extended in exchange for votes. About 90% of respondents mentioned that the vote-buying offer was accepted; and of this, up to 70% of recipients actually voted for the candidate.

These figures cohere with ongoing tracking of vote buying during elections by Social Weather Stations (SWS), suggesting that serious challenges remain despite important investments in the automation and computerization of elections in the country. In a system so overtly "gamed" by dynastic politicians, it seems unsurprising that many voters may lose hope and opt for the quick "quid pro quo" rather than the long term good of the country.

The emerging evidence suggests that our democracy is ailing. It is a far cry from what we thought the legacy of EDSA People Power would be.

In order to counter this decline, it is critical to continue to expand the reforms that will underpin political inclusion (and thus also economic inclusion to the extent that the people’s voice will be more strongly reflected in both policy and economic governance). These reforms include the abolition of the pork barrel, and in its stead, the strengthening of the social protection system (which includes the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps, and a much more inclusive and accessible health insurance system, PhilHealth). The goal here is to weaken the roots of patronage politics (i.e. the vulnerability of the poor), and replace it with targeted, fair and evidence-based support for poor and low-income families. With these reforms, we are evening the playing field not just for generations of our children who will have a fighting chance to stay in school and complete at least high school -- but also leveling the political playing field by empowering voters who can now entertain new leaders in elections.

In addition, it would also be critical to pass and implement laws on political party reforms and freedom of information. These, in turn, will help tackle the lack of political inclusion and weak accountability that perpetuates the dynastic stranglehold on party politics in our country. With these reforms, we may yet see true political parties emerge, enabling us to select leaders from our best and brightest, and all with the necessary competence and moral integrity to lead us through difficult policy reforms.

Without deeper reforms, extractive politics will continue to dominate, because the political and economic spheres of this country have become entwined in the unhealthiest of ways -- where the dominance of a few families in both spheres continues to plunge us into deeper political and economic inequality that feed off each other. Difficult policy reforms will also likely remain out of reach or poorly implemented, such as land reform (and the dismantling of oligarchies), economic liberalization (and the disassembly of monopolies), more robust social protection (and the end of patron-client relationships) and evidence-guided competition and industrial policy (ultimately leading to more robust job creation). All of these comprise the unfinished revolution that began in EDSA in 1986.

(The author is Associate Professor of Economics and Executive Director of the AIM Policy Center. This full paper on which this article is based could be downloaded at: policy.aim.edu. The views expressed herein are his and are not necessarily those of the Asian Institute of Management.)