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Philippines

Elites exerting tighter squeeze on Philippine democracy

Introducing federalism will further consolidate and increase power of the ruling dynasties

Elites exerting tighter squeeze on Philippine democracy

A farmer from the central Philippines joins a protest rally in Manila during the observance of the 32nd anniversary of the 1986 People Power revolution that restored democracy. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

The young man, Jake, 22 years old and single, laughed when I asked him whom he voted for in the local elections. He said he abstained but he went to the house of the mayor and received money all the same. "Why not," he reasoned. "It was for free. Everyone was going there."

The mayor was "re-elected" and his dynasty became more influential. His father before him had been mayor several times before becoming a congressman.

Filipino elite families are connected by marriage and by political allegiance. Family dynasties have, in reality, replaced political parties. Children of politicians usually succeed their parents in office. In Philippine democracy, allegiances shift and change with the shift in political power.

That is the way democracy works in the Philippines. Votes are bought and candidates with the most money are elected to power. They then use their power to establish their reign. Dynasties rule the so-called democratic process. It is flawed and is under threat from its inherent weakness.

The top dynasties are immensely wealthy. At least one percent of the population is immensely wealthy. This small percentage of wealthy Filipinos controls at least 70 percent of the Philippines' economy and wealth.

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There are ten million people living in poverty while 5.3 million of the population are living in extreme poverty. Many of them are more than willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder.

The power of patronage is nothing new in the Philippines. It is a hangover of the client-ruler system that dominated the country since the Spanish era when rich families controlled the poor.

The poor were so miserable they took what they could get and became docile clients of the rich until they took up arms and overthrew their Spanish rulers. The properties, however, remained in the hands of the ruling class.

These ruling families continue to rule to this day. They dominate Congress where they pass laws to protect their interests. The poor are excluded from the political process.

Although the system of government is supposedly representative, the ruling elite, through the elected president, controls Congress through the so-called pork barrel system.

The ruling party hands out huge sums to politicians to buy their support for whoever the president is. The president, meanwhile, can hurt the interests of those who oppose him or her.  

Filipinos are supposed to be very friendly, tolerant and forgiving. Many of them have learned to accept and live with what appears to be the reality of Philippine politics.

They accept the age-old "golden rule," which means the rich have the gold so they rule.

The average Filipino does not have any idea how to change the ruling class, or whether it should be changed at all.

The ideal of democracy — a government of the people, for the people, and by the people — has never been present in the people's experiences. What they have witnessed is democracy that is by the rich and for the rich.

Recent elections witnessed the typical family feuds of the elite. The people saw what was coming and decided to break away from what they were used to. They elected a charismatic newcomer, a mayor from the southern Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte ran as an anti-elite strongman. He became an instant celebrity. His victory was assured with the help of his close links with the family of the former strongman, Ferdinand Marcos. With the Marcos billions, victory was assured.

Still the elite controls Congress. They are now trying to change the basic law of the land supposedly under the orders of Duterte who wants a federal system of government.

The move will only give more power to dynasties in the provinces. The new experiment is self-serving. Philippine democracy, flawed as it is, will be all the more weakened if the congressmen get their way.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse. 

 

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