SOME will contend that the Philippines today is already a plutocracy. But we will assume here that we are still a democracy, or at least we are trying our damnedest to become one.
A plutocracy, by definition, is, 1. The rule of society by the wealthy; 2. A state or government characterized by the rule of the wealthy; 3. A class that exercises power by virtue of its wealth.
The election campaign, which reached its denouement on Election Day yesterday, has brought out the issue of plutocracy in a big way, because of the role that the country’s business titans and moneyed families have played in the election.
In an enterprising analysis of the 2016 elections, Agence France-Presse (AFP) brought international focus on the fact that business titans exert a shadowy grip on our national politics.
It traced the problem to the fact that the country has one of “the biggest rich-poor divides in Asia, with poverty rates remaining stuck in recent years despite strong economic growth.” One key reason for the inequality is the debt that politicians owe their secret backers and which they repay through the distortion of laws and public management.
The big problem of the Philippines is that under its current campaign financing laws, there are no caps on how much people or companies can give to candidates.
Although there are strict rules prohibiting companies from making campaign contributions, they are hardly enforced.
Candidates can get as much contributions as they like or need because there are no limits to what can be contributed. Candidates also do not have to reveal their backers until a month after polling day.
The issue was dramatized in the case of candidate Rodrigo Duterte, when he was hit with allegations that millions of dollars had been poured into secret bank accounts in his name.
Although he initially denied the charges, he was forced to admit the existence of the bank accounts. He admitted that about $4.2 million was deposited into the accounts on his birthday two years ago, an amount that is nearly 10 times his declared assets.
To be fair, his presidential opponents were not forthcoming either in disclosing who their business backers are, let alone how much they have been paid by them.
The problem sticks out with all the presidential campaigns, because all the candidates, except for Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, are in the running because of major contributions from business titans and entrenched families. Without sizable campaign donations, they cannot mount a credible campaign. They won‘t be able to buy costly radio-TV advertising, which is now a sine qua non for electoral victory in our country.
Under our election laws, campaign spending is supposed to be capped at P10 per voter, which this year means that a presidential candidate can have a maximum budget of about $11 million.
That is nowhere close to what the real contenders for the top prize have in their budgets and are actually spending.
In contrasting the Philippines’ policies on campaign spending and those of other democracies, AFP acutely observes:
“In some advanced Western democracies the donations are typically limited to relatively small sums to encourage a larger section of the population to put their representative into office.
“However in the Philippines the uncapped donations mean the funding can be provided by big-money donors in hopes of currying favors with an entire government.”
The porous election finance safeguards in the Philippines make the economy vulnerable to being held captive by the personal interests of business titans, who seek control or protection of their interests in the economy.
Because only a few can give large financial contributions to candidates, the candidates become more accountable to the people who finance campaigns, than to the people who actually vote them into office.
It is in this light that we believe the time has surely come for our country to pass a serious campaign finance law, that will set real and enforceable limits on campaign finance donations, and severely punish violators.
In a similar vein, the country, through Congress, needs to take a long, hard look at the way public funds have been used to finance the campaigns of administration candidates through clever budgeting and the exploitation of loopholes in the law.
Business titans now treat their campaign donations in the same way they treat their investments in start-up business ventures. They fully expect to recoup their investments when their horse wins in the elections.
The system must be stopped. Otherwise, we Filipinos must recognize that we live in a plutocracy, and that there is no use pretending that we live in a democracy.