By Benjamin R. Punongbayan
FOR THE PAST few days, we have seen once again the spectacle of candidates filing their candidacy for elective posts in the 2019 mid-term elections. The faces and surnames of most of the serious candidates are familiar to us. This spectacle shows the same people who keep on coming back for reelection, including a few of them who had been indicted for misuse of money. It also made manifest the recycling of family members into elective posts: son or daughter in place of a parent or vice versa; a spouse for the other spouse; a sibling in place of another sibling; several members of the family running simultaneously for elective posts. And the most shameful of all: close relatives running for No. 1 and No. 2 positions in the same political jurisdiction.
Some people say there is nothing wrong with that. Any qualified person has an inherent right to run for public office. This kind of thing happens also in highly developed countries.
The situation, in our case, is not a question of right, which should have been modified in the first place as required in the existing Constitution. It is a question of effectiveness in governance over the long term.
It may be true that similar things happen in highly developed countries. But not to the very wide extent that we do. We have allowed political dynasties to be the norm, not the exception. Moreover, our social and economic settings and the scruples of local politicians are far different from those in developed countries.
Let us take the United States, a country familiar to many of us, for example. Edward Kennedy and John McCain were long-serving senators representing their respective states, but I do not think their past record of recurring reelection was brought about by their respective family’s political power. It was brought about by their own effectiveness and outstanding abilities as political leaders. Kennedy was not succeeded by another Kennedy, and I do not think McCain will be succeeded by another McCain. As far as I know, during the last decade or so, no state governor in the 50 states was succeeded by a close relative. Both a father and his son became US presidents in just two instances (Adams, Bush) and these happened far between in time — by about 200 years. Theodore Roosevelt, a famous and respected former president, lost when he ran for president again after four years; former Vice President Richard Nixon lost when he later ran for governor in his native state.
Even in Western Europe, where election is considered highly free, no top political leader was succeeded by a close relative during the last several decades. It is even safe to say that there is no existing political dynasty in Western Europe. There are strong and famous political leaders, of course: Churchill, Thatcher, Adenauer, Kohl, de Gaulle. But they had not created a political dynasty, because doing so was not possible in their respective geographies; not by law, but by the prevalence of a reasonably informed electorate and by their countries’ strong ethical culture.
The situation in the Philippines is far, far different. There is a widespread prevalence of voters made captive by political dynasties through the use of tax money and corruption money. A good example is the so-called pork barrel. No matter how it is described or masked, it represents a very large sum of people’s money identified for each legislator that is used to capture votes for the legislator and, when their election rotation comes, for members of the legislator’s family. In local governments, misuse of public funds and corruption are known to be widespread. These activities are used to accumulate funds, partly or wholly, to acquire votes in the next election. Just look at the poor quality of the infrastructure that had been built, and the lack of very much-needed infrastructure in the rural areas, even low-cost things such as a short pedestrian bridge to span a narrow river that the children can conveniently cross when going to school. All these are happening under a situation where these local governments receive 40 percent of national tax collections, on top of their own local tax revenue.
Political dynasties have cleverly exploited over time the poverty of our people and their lack of informed judgement brought about by insufficient education and inadequate understanding of the language that government and media use in presenting, reporting, and discussing government and political affairs. These dynasties make the poor dependent on them for doleouts. During election time, they buy votes, the price of which, I understand, is now P1,000 per vote. (You ask a vote seller why he sells his vote and the answer that you will usually get is a very candid one: “Kasi ho, maski sa isang araw man lang, fiesta ho kami.” Or something to that effect.)
The presence of political dynasties has been in our political system for a long time now and, sad to say, has continued to expand during the past decades to such a wide extent that we have now. I believe there is a political dynasty in every province and chartered city. If so, we have close to 100 families, mini monarchies, governing us continuously for a very long time now. Occasionally, a dynasty drops out and a new one emerges to replace it. In this respect, we are still living in the Middle Ages.
If the members of these dynasties are the saviors of the people, what exactly have they accomplished to improve the general welfare, especially that of the poor? From my perspective, none. The country just moves on its own momentum along with the rhythm of global development. Politically, we have not matured; the political system has remained mediocre or even primitive. Political parties have become weaker since the time of Quezon to such an extent that they now do not even make any difference at all. A newly elected president, who usually comes from a dynasty, does not have sufficient political following at the time of his election to push his legislative agenda. But by the time he takes his oath of office, suddenly, traditional politicians of all stripes rally around him. When he leaves office, the alliance breaks up and the players surround the new power. This zarzuela goes on every six years. It shows very obviously that almost all our elected officials, if not all, are motivated by self-interest.
Nowadays, no major political party can even field a whole slate of 12 senatorial candidates in an election. The party does not have much say about who its candidates shall be for the House and local government positions. Whoever candidate is more powerful gets his way; if he doesn’t, he switches to another party. There is clearly no intra-party competition that chooses the better candidate.
When the new Senate and House convene, either chamber does not have a majority party. The chamber members have to organize themselves, of course, to elect the chamber leaders. But they do so not based on party alliances, but by the individual member’s choice. The motivation becomes the pursuit of self-interest and not of ideology, which only a better organized, well-meaning political party can embrace and pursue.
Since after Cory Aquino, the declared winning candidate did not carry the people’s majority vote. He/She was declared winner with just a minority vote. We have never been able to require a second presidential election round to elect as president the candidate who carries the people’s majority vote, very much unlike in many countries. It is quite likely that, had we required a second round, the winner would have been a different person in some of the previous five presidential elections.
Any attempt to amend the Constitution creates a ruckus, because vested interests, members of political dynasties, want to be in control of the process. As a result, the likely outcome is either an adoption of an inferior new Constitution or the country remaining to float motionless in time.
Economically, we have continuously slid down the list among our neighbors. We used to be No. 2 in the-Asia Pacific, but now, even among ASEAN countries alone, we are even lower than Thailand and Indonesia in per capita income (GDP), and it appears that we will continue to slide further down. Vietnam and Myanmar are clearly rising economically and are on the path to overtake us.
At the time I became a new professional, the population of the Philippines was 25 million, and the majority of them were not poor by the measurement standards of the time. Now, at least 30% of our people are poor, equivalent to over 30 million people — more than the entire population of 60 years ago. How did this happen? Something is terribly wrong! We have been utterly unable to stop the continuing increase in the number of poor people in our midst. This doesn’t make sense at all.
To make another comparison, China was a very poor country sixty years ago and was struggling hard to recover and emerge from a very devastating civil war. Today, it has two-and-a-half times our per capita income. Its poverty rate is much lower than ours (in fact, its extreme poverty rate is expected to drop to 1 percent in 2018, according to the World Bank).
True, we are currently growing at a respectable rate, driven by OFW remittances and foreign jobs moved to Philippine shores — a global development that matches the Philippine condition of excess labor and low economic value. It is a convergence of global development that does not help the Philippine poor, because they do not possess the appropriate education and skills, and a local condition that ironically, but certainly, we do not want to be stuck in if we want to be a reasonably developed economy.
Political dynasties supply the people who continuously have held the power to carry out the responsibility to steer the course of the country’s development. But they are conflicted to be able to carry out successfully the task to achieve the long-delayed betterment of our country and people. Obviously, we urgently need a change. We need to get rid of the dynasties in our political system or at least limit them to a minimum where they can no longer block the path to progress. Unfortunately, the political dynasties themselves constitute the decision makers who can make that change happen. A change that is absolutely necessary, similar to taking away the political power from the monarchies of old. But a change that, sadly, appears to be an anathema to the decision makers worse than the devil.
We are trapped!
So, what shall we do?
Benjamin R. Punongbayan is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo, one of the Philippines’ leading auditing firms.