IN THE BEGINNING WAS FACTION: Nation building still is a work in progress


As another electoral cycle begins, factional strife—which the British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97) defines as the “mean and interested struggle for place and emolument”—will once again drive national politics. From the very beginning, geography and history have combined to make the sense of nationality hard to instill among our people.

Primitive oligarchies
Our country’s physical setting—of 7,000 mountainous islands with short river systems—meant the original settlements were scattered, their populations sparse, and political power fragmented.

Our pre-colonial principalities were primitive local oligarchies—with the bulk of their populations being debt-serfs or household slaves. “In the absence of strong central authority,” Marshall McLennan says in his social history of Central Luzon, “many ordinary families preferred the security inherent in being the follower of a powerful leader to the insecurity of land they could not anyway defend on their own.”

The office of datu was the captaincy of a band of traders and raiders. The Spaniards and the Americans reinforced this domination of local communities by “big people.” They ruled successively through the local notables, the “principalia.” (The Spaniards made datuship hereditary.)

Our archipelago’s location on the margins of Southeast Asia meant it was relatively untouched by the centralizing influences that pervaded other parts of the region. Our primary attachment remained largely focused on the family, the chieftain and the clan.

Our disunity eased colonial control
Both colonizers understood the extent of regional diversity and used it as a mechanism of social control. The Spaniards restricted the movement of people and trade between regions. The Church’s use of local languages for conversion preserved ethnic distinctions. Until now, Cebuanos, Ilocanos and Bicolanos tend to vote as language blocs.

The historian Glenn Anthony May notes that even our economy was fractionalized when it entered the world market in the 1835. It was as “a set of separate regional economies—tobacco in the Cagayan Valley, rice and sugar in Central Luzon, abaca in Bicol, sugar in the West Visayas, sea cucumber, sharks’ fins and birds’ nests in Sulu.”

Differing regional interests    
These regional economies had differing production practices, trading partners and political priorities.

“They generated a strong sense of regional identity; and their political loyalties too may have been directed away from the national center.”

The Capampangan elite, for instance, was more content with the tenure system than Tagalog planters beset by oppressive rentals for the friar lands.

In Cebu City, the revolutionary leadership rose from “minor civil servants, urban artisans, the rural gentry, and non-Cebuanos.” The wealthiest stayed at the margins or supported the regime.

The historian Violeta Lopez Gonzaga says the Negrense elite raised the American flag in Bacolod “although not one American was present.”

Since the late 1700s, the US has been a major market for Philippine sugar.

The electoral ritual
Participation in town politics during the Spanish period was restricted to an elite of some 3% of all the family heads. Every year, 13 electors—presided over by the provincial governor, a Spaniard appointed by Manila—drew up a shortlist of nominees for gobernadorcillo, from which the Governor General made the final selection.

For the principalia, this political ritual was dead serious, since a defeated faction was not just deprived of the potential perks of office. It also became vulnerable to harassment by the winning faction. So that bribes and threats to influence election results became rampant.

In Batangas province, bribes paid reached as high as 500 pesos; and the most effective threat was to deprive a principal of his exemption from forced labor.

May notes that roughly half the municipal elections held under the Americans in 1905 were marred by irregularities and a third of the elections protested were annulled.

In Tiwi, Albay, six successive special elections were held without a clear outcome. (A fire destroyed the ballots the fourth time around.) Finally the provincial board had to appoint a candidate to the vacancy.

The persistence of factions
The tiny electorate—until 1908 it was limited to little more than 2% of the population—enabled municipal factions to flourish for decades.

In Macabebe town (Pampanga), men of the Salonga family were gobernadorcillos 17 times between 1617 and 1759 (John Larkin, The Pampangans, 1972). In our own time, the Ortegas of La Union and the Fuentebellas of Albay have both endured for well over a hundred years.

The UP historian Milagros Guerrero notes that many of the town presidents elected under the Malolos Republic had been municipal captains under Spain. “The municipal elite was essentially unaltered (by the regime change) and local government offices simply rotated within its ranks.”

This kind of superficial contestation has not only given our political life a false sense of stability. It has also prevented us from dealing with real cleavages in national society—the worst of which are income inequality, agrarian dissidence and ethnic separatism.

From factions to parties
In Burke’s definition, the “party” differs from the “faction” in idealistic terms. The faction contends for office and power with other factions in an ignoble and self-serving way. By contrast, the party unites persons seeking to promote the national interest according to some particular principle on which they’re all agreed.

By this measure, we have a long way to go before we can claim to have true political parties.

Until now, nation building remains a work in progress. The corruption and inefficiency persist that Rizal saw, more than a century ago, as a hindrance to the modernization of our country.

We have yet to realize our hero’s imagined community of “one Filipino nation”—ang sambayanang Pilipino—as a grand union transcending ethnicity, religion, language, custom.

Toward one nation
In sum, I believe President Aquino must do more than preside over yet another chapter in our tele-novela of factional politics. He must set out a series of national goals compelling enough to engage our people’s civic spirit. He must point us all toward an overriding national purpose.

And if we are to begin to attain this vision, we must nurture a stronger sense of ourselves as a distinct people: we must develop a stronger sense of who we are. After all, we Filipinos are no longer a cipher in the world: we’re a people a hundred million strong.

We need to create for ourselves a more rounded kind of nationalism—one focused on the effort to account for ourselves as a people and to claim our place of dignity in the global community.

In this effort of national renewal, we must enlist every citizen—and our end-goal must be to give every Filipino a stake in national development.

For if a man has a stake in an outcome, he will move mountains to attain it: but if he does not, he will not care.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. Now, will PNoy and his Cabinet, the AFP generals and the police directors who love to be called generals, and the congressmen and senators work to dismantel th ancient primitive datu-elite control of our society?

    Of course not. Because they are today’s datus.

  2. Edgar G. Festin on

    True. Our country’s situation of factional rivalry of datus in preHispanic times has not changed. A suggestion in Ambeth Ocampo’s column in the Inquirer yesterday could be a practical starting point in changing our intellectual, academic, political and economic decision-makers’ way of looking at our situation. His column was about the much reviled American Governor General Leonard Wood.
    It turns out that President Manuel Quezon (who preferred a Philippines like hell run by Filipinos than a Philippines like heaven run by Americans) was leading our country to today’s perpetual control by his fellow datus when he tirelessly attacked Wood. Wood was instituting US-style/Western-style rules and governance. But Quezon et al were for immediate independence before elite control and factionalism could disappear and true democracy could develop here.
    This is also what, before Quezon and Wood, Jose Rizal saw as the danger in gaining independence from Spain before the Philippines got all that it could learn and got all the material benefits it could get from the colonial master.
    Now Historian Ambeth Ocampo urges us to review our racially biased and nationalistic assessment of Wood. I presume, he also urges us to be more scholarly and scientific — less nationalistically skewed — in appreciating the lessons from our colonial past.

    E. G. Festin

  3. Gloria M. Kuizon on

    Thank you, Mr. Gatbonton, for your excellent analysis of our society.
    My only fear is that the your closing paragraphs, about what President BS Aquino should be doing to continue the work of making Philippine nationhood a reality,
    will not get a hearing. He and the others in the money-power elite who rule this country are too busy attending to THEIR day-to-day problems of THEIR PERSONAL AND FACTIONAL survival as lords against THEIR rival elite personalities and factions.
    Whenever they get busy helping Yolanda supertyphoon victims, say, or reducing the Meralco rate hike, their moves are made with THEIR survival and interests uppermost in mind.
    Kawawang bayan ito, Ginoong Gatbonton. Nevertheless it’s nice to have us Times readers nourished with your articles that make us feel, at least for a while, that we are in America, Europe or Japan and Singapore, where intellectual discourse about their countries’ future matters.

    G. M. Kuizon
    Novaliches, QC