PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has again attacked oligarchs. A few days ago, he railed against the politically influential rich—the billionaire big names he said owned the country’s political parties, bankrolled political candidacies, and drove the political machinery that delivered the votes to favored candidates. He vowed his administration would be different. Our Presidents have been saying much the same thing for the Past 30 years at least, and evidently failing. What’s different about Duterte’s pronouncements?
Just in case you didn’t catch his promise the first time, in August 2016, a mere two months into his presidency, Duterte announced with visible contempt, and some dramatic flair, that he would “destroy” the “monster” oligarchs and save the nation from their “clutches”. With his idiosyncratic use of language and grammar, he fumed against the “drooling” rich who prey on the poor and make money at their expense (my translation), the tax-evading rich, and, well, the rich who are plain smug: “the guys who sit in their airplanes, in their mansions all over the place, their money clicking in like a taxi meter.” He then went on to call out Roberto Ongpin as a specific example of the kind of self-satisfied, blood-sucking villain he had in mind. Ongpin, whose declared net worth is $900 million, and is listed by Forbes as the 20th wealthiest man in the country, was, as Duterte kindly reminded us, a strong ally of Ferdinand Marcos, and three more successive Presidents: a “hanger-on” of Fidel Ramos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino III. Duterte is right. That is, as they say, the nub of it. Presidents and rent-seeking families have a symbiotic relationship – they enrich one another and bleed the country dry.
In An Anarchy of Families, the American historian Alfred W. McCoy, argued how the Marcos regime, which set out on a road of social reform ultimately depended on a “coalition of rent-seeking families” composed of the Dictator’s allies – a retinue of cronies and kin who enjoyed extraordinary favors and financial opportunities he provided. When Corazon Aquino came to power in February 1986, she sought to bar relatives from office but quickly moved into an alliance with provincial elites who had suffered under Marcos, the Lopez family being a good example. Fidel Ramos, on his ascension to the presidency in 1992, like his predecessors, came out fiercely against oligarchs and rent-seeking families: “We must make politics serve not the family, faction, or the party – but the nation,” he said with lofty conviction before going on to grant the family of one of his closest confidants a monopoly on cement supplies and production.
McCoy details the way in which members of immensely wealthy families dictated the destiny and fortunes of the country and its people: “The most successful politicians are those who can invest their heirs with the wealth and the good name needed to campaign effectively for office – a factor that blends the individual with the familial, the provincial, and warlordism with rent-seeking.”
We do not yet know how Duterte intends to rid the country of oligarchs, but it sure doesn’t help his credibility when, despite his pronouncements, he cosies up to the country’s wealthiest, allows men like Lucio Tan to be a part of his diplomatic entourage to China, and takes millions of campaign donations from men like Davao del Norte Rep. Antonio Floirendo, who belongs to a family with a past much like Roberto Ongpin’s.
I wonder if the difference in Duterte’s war against oligarchs is simply that there will be no bloodshed.