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Philippine politics needs to break free of dynasties

Running in the family has an added meaning here

  • Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila
  • Philippines
  • May 20, 2013
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Last week’s proclamation of the top six winners of the Philippines' senatorial race might as well have been the rite of passing the mantle to the next generation. 

Top-notcher Grace Poe came with her mother, the widow of movie star Fernando Poe, a presidential aspirant said to have been robbed of victory almost 10 years ago. Juan Edgardo Angara came with dad, Senator Edgardo Angara. Alan Peter Cayetano, a re-electionist, came with his sister Pia, also a senator. Both are children of the late senator Rene Cayetano. Francis Escudero, son of the late congressman Salvador, came with his partner. 

Because of a controversy involving others in her party, Nancy Binay did not show up. If she had, she probably would have been accompanied by her father, Vice President Jejomar Binay; brother, the re-elected Makati City Mayor Junjun Binay; and sister, Abigail, re-elected representative from the city’s second district. Only former broadcast journalist Loren Legarda came without political family credentials but brought her own as the only woman to have twice topped the senatorial elections.

Surprise front runner, Grace Poe ran as her father’s daughter. In a television interview, she explained that an essential part of her strategy was to introduce herself as the daughter of movie star Fernando Poe Jr. In his movies, the older Poe acted “in defense of the oppressed, the champion of the poor”. A political neophyte, she nevertheless was clear: “I would like measurable, concrete achievements that can be felt by the poor. That is my goal. There are a lot of good lawmakers but I would like to be remembered as somebody who made a difference, specifically for the poor.” In the next breath, she added:  “This is what my dad would have done if he were blessed with the chance to actually assume office.” This family branding and the careful, deliberate delivery of a message were overseen by Poe’s husband.

Nancy Binay, who placed sixth despite her also being a neophyte, is seen as a reflection of her father’s success in making the financial capital, Makati City, the paragon of welfare service delivery. 

Based on the results, the vote seems to have nothing to do with issues or party affiliation. As with elections in Western democracies, polls in the Philippines are about powerful networks, media exposure and narratives that somehow offer a vision for the future. What is different is that in the face of entrenched poverty, votes may be bought for as little as 30 US cents and lives taken in exchange for U$40. 

The Catholic hierarchy, which actively supported “pro-life” candidates and stood against those who favored the Reproductive Health Law, has conceded defeat. More “political catechesis” will be needed, Church leaders say, beating their breasts. 

The success of the drive against political dynasties, the culture of money politics, and vote buying has at best been spotty. NGOs are pledging to intensify awareness building campaigns; even as activists, who attempt a serious distribution of wealth and power, are discredited, arrested or killed. Most of the population survives as best they can. Many are skeptical about elections as the route to change and if they engage choose the personifications of celluloid dreams.

In a country long ruled by elite families both new and old, it is a thin line between family solidarity and nepotism. What is important is that fresh hopes for change are re-ignited and that the space to maneuver is broadened.

With the elections, the president’s party has won unprecedented control of the two chambers of Congress, easing the way for the delivery of reforms for sustainable growth, poverty alleviation and employment opportunities. 

But how to manage populism with real lasting change? Already looming are the 2016 presidential polls and the likely oppositionist tandem of Jejomar Binay and Joseph “Erap” Estrada. Movie star Estrada was impeached as president on corruption charges but has now resurrected himself as Manila City mayor-elect. Estrada’s own son, JV Ejercito has been proclaimed senator and will thus sit with his brother Senator Jinggoy Estrada.

Thus glow the profiles of the winners. They are the faces of the Child who carries on the legacy of parents, patrons who wave promises of salvation. They are the Sto. Nino, the Holy Child who never grows up: but upon whom a multitude of Filipinos depend for miracles. 

Do we see here the magical thinking akin to the kind of faith that hopes only in miracles? Surely, this predominantly Christian country can construct a new code for liberating and mature politics.

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and currently works in lay and continuing education

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