Jake, 22, laughed when I asked him who he voted for in the local elections for mayor. He said he abstained, but he went to the house of the mayor and received money just the same. “Why not? It was free, everyone was going there,” he reasoned.
The mayor was reelected and his local family dynasty, linked to a bigger family dynasty, became more influential. His father had been mayor several times and then he became a congressman. The families of the elites are connected by marriage and political allegiance. Family dynasties have, in reality, replaced political parties; the children of politicians usually succeed their parents. In Philippine democracy, allegiances change with the shift in political power.
That’s how it is in the Philippines. Votes are bought and the candidates with the most money will retain power. They use that power to perpetuate their reign through their relatives. Dynasties rule through the so-called democratic process. The system is flawed, what remains of the democratic process is under threat from it’s own inherent weakness.
The top family dynasties are immensely wealthy. In the Philippines, there are eight leading billionaires. It is estimated that one percent of the population are super rich and control 70 percent of the economy and wealth. There are ten million Filipinos in poverty, and 5.3 million mired in extreme poverty. Many of them will sell their “democratic” vote to the highest bidder. Political power is essential for the dynasties to survive. The constitution demands an end to dynastic families but no legislation has been passed banning them.
The power of patronage is not new since the client-ruler system has dominated the Philippines since the Spanish era. Then, the rich families pacified the submissive poor and hungry by handing them small favors. The poor were so miserable they took what they could get. They were docile clients of the ruling families. The Spanish saw that their ruling class owned the land and property and the poor worked it for them. Eventually the poor rebelled and overthrew the Spanish elite but the properties were still controlled by the remaining wealthy elite and passed down through the generations.
They ruled and reaped the riches and still do through their successors. They dominate the Philippine congress, where most members are millionaires. They are there to promote and protect the business and political interests of their dynastic backers. The poor and the middle class are excluded from the political process, so many sell their vote. Surveys show that the average approval rating of Philippine democracy is between 60 and 80 percent among Filipinos. In September 2017, the score was 86 percent.
Although the system of government is based on the US model, it is usually the president who gets congress to support him by offering financial incentives to the congressional representatives and senators. That’s the reality. Payouts win support.
This is the pork barrel system of doling out huge sums to the politicians to buy their support. The Supreme Court has ruled that pork barrel payouts are illegal, but the system continues, one way or the other.
Filipinos are tolerant and forgiving, and they have learned to accept and live with reality. They accept the age-old “golden rule” – rich families have the gold, and so they rule. The average Filipino does not have any idea how the ruling class or the political oligarchy could be changed or even if it should be changed. The ideal of real democracy — “for the people, by the people, with the people”– has never been really present in the experience of the people. So-called democracy has been ‘by the rich, for the rich” with the poor excluded.
The ordinary people have no independent ordinary person as an alternative political leader. They do not have the money or power to buy enough votes. The recent elections typified these contending dynastic family feuds. Five contenders backed by various financial vested interests fought for the presidency. They divided the vote and dissipated the vote-buying power of the traditional dynasties. The people saw that it was a chance to break away from the divided feuding traditional politicos and voted for a charismatic newcomer, a mayor from Davao City. He was running as an anti-elitist strongman and he became a celebrity.
Democracy today is challenged by congress as it tries to form a body to change the constitution and form a federal system as the President wants. This would transfer greater power to the dynastic families ruling in their area of influence. Many proposed changes are self-serving. Democracy, flawed as it is, will be all the more be weakened if they get their way.