Born to Rule

Wahab Akbar has been governor of the strife-torn island of Basilan in Mindanao for the past nine years. Now he is running for Congress. But that's okay because Jum, his first wife, is running for the position he is vacating. Cherry, his second wife, is running for mayor of Isabela City, the capital of the island province. Nur-in, his third wife is running for mayor of Lamitan, another large city in Basilan. And six other relatives – five nephews and a niece – are all running for mayor in Basilan's other smaller towns.

If they all win in the May 14 mid-term elections, the politics of Basilan will practically be a family monopoly. Akbar boasted recently that this would mean greater harmony for an area routinely beset by Muslim separatist rebels because the local government would be united.

In some places, it might seem odd to have the Akbars controlling things to such an extent, but in the Philippines, the only thing unusual in the situation is that Akbar has exercised his prerogative as a Muslim to have several wives. Other than that, keeping politics all in the family is a Philippine tradition that runs deep.

"The feudal mentality of the Filipinos is the underlying reason for this," says Dan Olivares, executive director of Citizens Antidynasty Movement, a campaign to end the prevalence of political dynasties in the Philippines. When formal government was instituted by the country's colonizers centuries ago, he says, it was natural for the landlords – the ruling elite – to retain the power they exerted over their turf by controlling local politics as well.

Olivares and his brother, Roger, a US-based novelist, have compiled a list of around 120 families controlling political power in more than 75 percent of the country’s 81 provinces. Even worse, according to their list, practically 100 percent of major cities are under the control of one or another political clan that passes down power almost as a right on inheritance.

"When you control the politics in a certain area, you control everything," says Olivares, explaining the attractiveness of making politics the family business. “They're making fools out of us.”

As the Akbars are doing, it is not uncommon in the country to have wives and children run for a political office vacated by a politician who has exhausted his term limits. Capitalizing on the familiarity of their last names and the clout of acquired wealth, the family members often promise to continue the work begun by their incumbent relative, who is either seeking a higher office or just taking the back seat until he can run again in the next election. In some cases, there are even family members running against each other.

This has long been a problem. When former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, his stated aim was to displace the traditional oligarchies running the country. He jailed leaders of several political families, including the Lopezes, the Osmeñas and the Aquinos, but far from reforming the system, he simply replaced the old oligarchs with his even-more-corrupt cronies. When he ran against Cory Aquino for president in `1986, the old political elite helped finance her campaign – after all, she was one of them – and they came roaring back into power once Marcos was overthrown.

In the time of seeming reform, the 1987 constitution addressed dynasties. It says: "The State shall guarantee equal access to public service and prohibit political dynasty as may be defined by law." It stopped there, however, because the legislative arm of the government, comprised largely of members of political families, has yet to pass a law to implement this constitutional provision.

Former President Aquino is now the matriarch of one of the biggest political dynasties in the country. The Citizens Antidynasty Movement counts at least 24 members of Aquino's clan, including her husband, the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who were and are in the business of politics.

Her son, Benigno III, is vying for a seat in the senate under the opposition party ticket, with television advertisements featuring mom. Benigno's aunt, Tessie Aquino-Oreta, is also a candidate for senator on the administration side. Cory's brother, Jose Cojuangco, Jr., has held numerous offices, including Speaker of the House, and is running for governor of their home province of Tarlac, a post he has also held before. His daughter, Patricia, is running for congress.

These are only a few. At least nine members of Cory's clan are candidates in the upcoming elections and the Aquinos have been passing power between themselves in Tarlac since the earliest days of the American colonial period. To top it off, Lupita Kashiwahara Aquino, Ninoy Aquino’s sister, is a key strategist for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and one of the savviest behind-the-scenes political operators in the country.

Most people are also wondering when Cory's youngest, the wildly popular TV star and tabloid favorite Kris Aquino, will enter the political arena. It seems almost inevitable since she combines show biz sizzle with dynastic politics. She is a good bet to be the next President Aquino one day.

"The feudal mentality of the Filipinos is the underlying reason for this," says Olivares. When formal government was instituted by the country's colonizers centuries ago, it was natural for the landlords – the ruling elite – to retain the power they exerted over their turf by controlling local politics as well.

With money at their disposal and political machinery in place, it was easy to stay in power for years on end. The Osmeñas of Cebu, the country’s second largest city, for example, have been in power since 1907, with two Osmeñas currently serving as senators. This year, members of the family are running for the senate and congress, and, locally, for the position of governor and mayor. The story is the same for the Dys of Isabela, the Ortegas of La Union, the Caris of Leyte, and so on and so forth.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, of course, is also the product of a political family, being the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal. Both her sons and her brother-in-law are all seeking elective posts in the upcoming elections.

As a result of all this, says Olivares, the Philippines is one of the most corrupt and backward countries in the world. He explains that when a family controls that much power over a locality, corruption is not far behind. Of course, these families will favors for their constituents, which is how they keep people beholden to them, but Olivares says the bad outweighs the good.

"Even if their motives are pure at the start, the temptation to become corrupt is too strong. A lot of the political violence and killings we see today are because of families fighting for power in local government. Besides, political dynasties are stunting the development of good and independent leaders," he says.

Nielex Tupas, a candidate for city councilor in Iloilo City on the island of Panay in the Visayan region, begs to differ. His father is running for reelection as governor of the province, his brother is seeking reelection as mayor, his other brother and a cousin are both running for seats in congress, and another cousin is running for vice- governor.

"I don't believe we are a dynasty. The people still choose who they want to lead them and I believe in the intelligence of the voters," says Nielex, who holds a master's degree in public administration. The same line of defense is used by practically all others accused of perpetrating political dynasties.

Growing up in a family of politicians, Tupas explains, has led him to want a career in public service as well, and he believes no law should dictate what career he can and cannot pursue. Besides, he adds, he is running for office in the city, which is not part of the clan’s traditional turf. "My brothers are all in the province, and while I am benefiting from name recall, I have to work quadruple time because we don't have political influence in the city," he claims.

But what the young Tupas is trying to do is even worse, says Olivares, because he is effectively seeking to enlarge the area over which the family holds sway. "The family is just expanding its tentacles," says Olivares.