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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.