Filipino Politics is a Family Affair

Congressional and other elections looming in the Philippines next year may provide some clue to how far governance reform has progressed so far under President Benigno S. Aquino III. Nominations are in a so it is possible to discern a little of the future. It is a depressing spectacle.

These elections may tell us about the chances of governance gains being sustained by his successor. Sadly the nation has a long history of improvement, such as under President Fidel Ramos, only to be undone by successors Estrada and Arroyo. Unless Aquino goes into this election cycle with an comprehensive reform agenda for the second half of his presidency the chances are high that history will repeat itself.

The recent rise in foreign perceptions of the Philippines owes much to Noynoy’s efforts to improve governance by appointing mostly honest and competent people to key positions and addressing head-on the corruption and politicization of the Supreme Court. Although he gives scant impression of being either dynamic or decisive, his firm stances of the Reproductive Health bill and in facing China over the Panatag shoal and West Philippine sea have been rewarded with a high level of popular approval.

Aquino’s economic policies have differed little from Arroyo’s but the emphasis on education, health and support for the poorest has had some impact. But so far Philippines’ growth continue to be driven mainly by the impact of remittances and earnings from business processing outsourcing rather than by a sustained rise in the level of investment in badly needed infrastructure.

Tax collection remains a struggle with corruption and smuggling of both exports and imports defying good intentions. Indeed increased trade with China may even have increased the smuggling and illegal mining problems.

The persistent current account surplus, low interest rates and firm peso gain applause as signs of strength of stability, which impresses foreign investors but also reflects the inadequate level of investment. What remains lacking is the domestic and foreign investment that could broaden the economic base and create jobs for a working age population still expanding at over 2 percent a year.

Infrastructure badly lags even Indonesia and in a country of 90 million people no amount of outsourcing can compensate for lack of growth in labor-absorbing manufacturing. That the Philippines lags so badly both on economic and many social development goals is primarily a function of weak governance, whether high level corruption at the center, dominance of regional power and privilege by family dynasties, or the lack of a nationwide bureaucracy with strong traditions and systems. Entrenched interests keep out competition by manipulating the political system.

In short there is only so much that a president, however honest and determined, can do. Which brings us to the role of the coming elections. Thus far it is a depressing spectacle – and one on which Aquino has shown no sign of leadership. Nominations for the Senate show that the dynastic tendencies of politics are being strengthened at a time when power should be shifting to new entrepreneurs and those linked the new middle class emerging from outsourcing and professionals returning from overseas employment.

The Aquino clan is itself the worst offender, offering up two relatives including one who has never run for any public office but who thinks the name and looks is sufficient. Next up is vice-president Jejomar Binay, who not only has his own eyes set on the presidency in 2016 – even though he would then be 73 years old – but is backing his daughter for a senate seat even though she too has no experience of lower level election of administration.

Then there are the Estradas. Former President Estrada’s son Jinggoy is already in the Senate and may well be joined by his brother JV Ejercito, who has changed his name to Estrada to improve his prospects. (Ejercito was the family name. Estrada was the former president’s stage name). Name usage is also the game for the son of 88-year old Senate President and one time Marcos defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. He has identical initials to his father.

Two relatives of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are also contenders, so that clan may well join the descendants of former presidents Marcos and Osmena in the 24-person law-making body. Sons of senators Angara and Villar are also bidding to replace their fathers.

Things are not much better for the competition for seats in the House of Representatives, where two or three families continue to dominate in many provinces and even large urban areas. Currently, according to one estimate, in 40 percent of provincials congressman and governors are related, and 50 percent of both are related to previous holders of these officers.

New national heroes cannot resist trying to use name recognition to create a political dynasty. Thus the boxer Manny Pacquiao is not content with being a congressman – though he hardly bothers to attend – but is backing his wife for a vice-governorship.

Dynastic hope has even been taking over some of the congressional seats elected on a national basis and reserved party lists. These were included in the 1986 constitution in an effot to broaden the base of representation including providing space for marginalized and worker and leftist groups such as Bayan Muna. But it has largely been taken over by representatives of the rich and powerful. Thus Arroyo’s rich husband Mikey is there to represent security guards.

This time around the Commission of Elections, once in the pocket of the incumbent presidents, is taking a stance, weeding out many of the groups through which dynasties have flourished. But is difficult and controversial process and suggests to some reformers that the party list system has failed in its purpose and should be abolished.

But the real scandal of the dynasty issue is that dynasties are supposed to be outlawed by the constitution. The state “must prohibit political dynasties as defined by law.” But there is no law and not much prospect of one in the near future.. A bill to establish one is held up in a Senate committee and is unlikely to see the light of day before next year’s election which seems set to increase the dynast hold.

Some argue that Comelec should take up the issue itself to enforce a constitutional provision which the lawmakers have avoided. But it unlikely to be so bold.

Another needed reform is to get rid of the pork barrel system of proving government largesse to senators and congressmen allegedly for specific works projects. But for the center it is a means of buying congressmen’s votes and for the legislators a way of getting kickback from the contractors employed for the projects. So while Aquino preaches anti-corruption at the top, he still carries on with a pork system which is institutionalized corruption masquerading a development spending.

For sure there is a groundswell of opinion against dynasties and pork. But nothing is likely to happen unless the president takes a lead. But he has shown scant interest in constitutional issues, including changing the constitution itself. Many believe that the current two tier legislature and the system of national election of senators contribute to corruption and to long delays in legislating. It encourages name-driven politics and has led to political parties being no more than temporary alliances of convenience with no real policy platforms or national agendas.

Different ideas for change are bandied around but again nothing will happen without leadership. As it is, nationalist economic clauses in the 1986 constitution have become a tool for entrenched interests to keep out foreign competition as well as ensure that legislation and taxation provisions are favorable to them.

It is not certain whether any president can push through changes which would fundamentally improve standards of governance. But such are needed if the nation is to cease to be a semi-feudal state ruled by a self-perpetuating elite and with a system which continues to fail to bring significant progress to the mass of people millions of whom are undernourished and millions more dependent on the remittances by hard working family members.

Aquino must stop basking in approval for what he has achieved and lay out a radical reform agenda which can underwrite his achievements so far. An attack on dynasties would be a good place to start.