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Philippines' anarchy of families

Publication Date : 04-10-2012


The May 2013 vote is the 10th national Philippine election in the post-Marcos era, and in terms of political dynasties—which the 1987 Constitution expressly prohibits—it is indisputably the worst.

We can plumb the new lows of dynastic politics by looking at the competing Senate slates of the two main political coalitions. A son (untested, despite years in the House of Representatives) is seeking to join his father in the Philippines’ most exclusive club.

Another congressman (not without controversy himself) is seeking to join a stepbrother (a search suddenly made even more feasible through a strategic name change). A former member of the House is seeking to replace her husband, a former presidential candidate. A brother is seeking to join his sister in the Senate a second time (they have spent three years together in the chamber, in which their own father had served). Not least, an aunt and a cousin of the president, who himself served three years in the Senate, are seeking their own six-year mandate.

While we suppose most voting-age Filipinos have a few candidates for the Senate they are genuinely enthused about, we think it is fair to say that many Filipinos, whether they are eligible to vote or not, are dismayed, even distressed, by this turn of events.

Two years after an election gave a new President an overwhelming mandate for “reform,” the use of family connections and resources to pursue limited political purposes—keeping a seat “within the family”, using a seat as stepping-stone to higher political office, retreating to the comfort zone provided by familiar politicians—has reached a new level of brazenness.

This sorry reality is reflected in the local elections, too. Or perhaps it is also accurate to say that national politics is merely the local kind, writ large. The Jalosjos family, for example, is contesting control of the three Zamboanga provinces—a fact even more startling considering that the family patriarch spent years in jail for statutory rape. But like many other “local” political families, the Jalosjoses benefited from the special attention of national officials at certain times, an attentiveness that, again as in the case of other families, has been reciprocated at the local level.

Multiply the Jalosjos example a thousand times, and that is Philippine politics in summary. We wager this is why Manny Pacquiao, the country’s best athlete and the world’s best boxer, has started his own family franchise. He is running for reelection as the gentleman from the lone district of Sarangani; he is fielding his brother to run for congressman in General Santos City; and—the boldest, most brazen venture in his political start-up—he is fielding his wife Jinkee as vice governor of Sarangani.

What, exactly, has his celebrity wife done to prepare herself for an exacting job as local executive? (This is a question that, in variations, currently echoes through cyberspace.)

We do not know the answer, but the real, more relevant question is directed at Pacquiao himself. How did he convince his former rivals, the Chiongbian family, to accept his wife as a running mate? We think Pacquiao is a keen student of power, and knows not only how to go for the jugular but also where the jugular is. (He has certainly become a very Filipino kind of politician, jumping from ship to temporarily convenient ship.) The sudden emergence of his wife as a player in so-called unity politics is telling indeed.

Our disappointment with Pacquiao’s political opportunism is tempered by what we know about the politicians who surround him—hardly the reformist types. But what is President Aquino’s excuse? He is surrounded by some of the current leaders in reformist politics, such as Butch Abad and Neric Acosta. How can he end up with a Senate slate that is only a bit different from the opportunistic slate formed by Vice President Jejomar Binay? Has supposed “winnability” trumped the reform agenda?

The scholar Alfred McCoy edited a path-breaking volume of studies on Philippine political families, with a resonant title: “An Anarchy of Families”. What we have learned since the restoration of democratic political institutions in 1986 is that in fact there is a resilience to the ruling order of political dynasties; their hold on power is anything but anarchic.

But they do make us miserable. Perhaps that is the name for this affliction that has come our way, courtesy of the weeklong period for the filing of certificates of candidacy; we are overcome by a misery of families.


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