Monday, November 30, 2009

Philippine Politics at its Worst

The way I see it, the Maguindanao Massacre was a "massacre waiting to happen." It was bound to happen because practically every household in Maguindanao has a gun and every political clan has their own private armed group. Even before last week's gruesome murders, politicians in Maguindanao have been killing each other for several decades. No one notices it because they kill singly or in small numbers. People generally are not interested if one politician or one mediaman or one human rights lawyer is killed, especially so if it happened in far-away Mindanao. But if say an entire village got razed or, like in the Maguindanao Massacre, 50 persons got killed, then it merits front-page treatment. If it bleeds, it leads.

Pundits are quick to blame the country's supposed "culture of impunity," or Maguindanao's "gun culture" or "culture of violence" as the problem. My favorite Inquirer columnist Randy David also wrote a very thoughtful article along the "Philippines-is-a-weak-state-therefore-families-rule" line. They are in a sense correct but to me the root cause of the problem lies with our system of "political dynastyism."

The framers of the Constitution believed that power concentrated in the hands of a few is intrinsically evil and accordingly included a provision calling for a ban to political dynasties. The problem is Congress has been unable to pass an enabling law for this provision so dynasties continue to proliferate today. In fact, political dynastyism is more the rule rather than the exception in Philippine politics nowadays.

Personally, I believe there are "good" dynasties and there are "bad." Dynasties exist not only in politics: in showbiz there are also dynasties (i.e. KC Concepcion, Richard Gutierrez), in business you have the Ayalas, Gokongweis and Ortigases, even the armed forces has its traditional military families like the Brawners. One example of a "good" dynasty to me is the Roxas clan of Capiz province. Members of the clan (President Manuel Roxas, Senator Gerry Roxas, Congressman Dinggoy Roxas and now, vice presidentiable Mar Roxas) all served with competence and integrity and because of their admirable personal attributes (above-average intellect, diligence in their work, good looks, wealth and political savvy), almost every Roxas during his time has been considered "presidential timber." At the other end of the spectrum are the Ampatuans - their clan patriarch Datu Andal Sr. is semi-literate (he only finished Grade 4), they all look chubby, etc. In fact the only thing they have that could be considered an "asset" in politics is their reputation for explosive violence (this is because in politics and in life in general no one will mess with you if you are known to have a capacity for violence). So if the Roxas clan represent one end of the spectrum and the Ampatuans the worst, I would say that most of the political dynasties fall somewhere in between of the spectrum.

Political power is not only corruptive, it is also very addictive. And a family who has been in power for so long would cling to power much like a drug addict who would beg, steal and kill just to get his fix. The Ampatuans have been so addicted to power that the mere thought of losing it have sent them into a fit of murderous rage.

A family who has been in politics for so long will eventually amass enemies. Thus, dynasties need arms to protect them from people who carry a grudge against them and usually have a string of bodyguards to deter would-be assassins. The so-called "gun culture" exists not only in Maguindanao and muslims are not the only people noted for their love of guns. Ilonggos for one also love to play with guns and most Ilonggo politicians also have a stable of armed bodyguards like the Ampatuans. The only difference is the scale: whereas most politicians here only have a squad-sized or even a platoon-sized group, the Ampatuans have a mind-boggling 300 men under arms which is about the size of a battalion! The sad thing about all this is that even if government incarcerates all the Ampatuans the politics of violence in Maguindanao will not change. The gun culture and dynastyism are so ingrained that it is unrealistic to expect the people to change overnight. Even if the Ampatuans are somehow erased in Maguindanao's political landscape some other warlord will just step in to fill the power vacuum. Ultimately, it is the people of Maguindanao who should be blamed for allowing themselves to be cowed by the guns and wowed by the gold of their politicians.

I have written before here that the only way to put an end to political dynasties is to amend the Constitution limiting to only one term all elective positions. Each term could be changed to four years or six years or even twelve years, but after that, the elected person can no longer seek reelection or run for any other higher (or lower) post again. In this way political dynasties will simply run out of sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins and wives which they could field as candidates and I predict that 20 years after this amendment, all dynasties will be just a memory. The political field will then be dominated by temporary, "short-term" politicians, not the dynasts who in a sense we could describe as "long-term" political professionals.

But the question is: do the people want it? I believe not.

The Filipino is not a democrat or a republican. You can see and sense it in the very hierarchical and stratified relationship structure of our society. And I am talking here not only about the usual "rich-and-poor" hierarchy because even in squatter areas there exists subtle ranks or pecking orders among individuals. While our textbooks tell us all men are created equal, our society teaches us that some men are more equal than others. Deep inside the Filipino is an aristocrat. Why else, for all our society's inequalities, injustices and impoverishment, have the Communists and other so-called reformers failed to get the masses to rise up, riot and revolt?

Aside from an "aristocratic" streak, the Filipino also want political dynasties to stay because he benefits from them. Filipinos expect politicians to solve their problems for them (and in most cases this means their personal problems). One of the reasons why political dynasties are so dominant today is because they are often more willing to go to great lengths to help their constituents than the "short-term" politician. This is because political dynasties think long term: a politician who has no intention of putting up a dynasty only thinks of the next election while a political patriarch thinks about how to secure the election victory of his still teen-aged son. Thus, he is more willing to spend resources in organizing his supporters, quicker to help needy constituents in order to chalk up life-long debts of gratitude, and more careful to commit political mistakes.

Of course, "going to great lengths" is very relative and it could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It could mean working harder than most, being more accommodating and friendlier than most and so forth. For Ninoy Aquino "going to great lengths" meant offering himself as the proverbial sacrificial lamb so that our people can be rid of a tyrant while in the case of the Ampatuans, "going the extra mile" meant massacreing their political opponents. By offering his life for his country Ninoy Aquino (wittingly or unwittingly) created an unassailable political dynasty while by killing their political opponents in a most gruesome and shocking way the Ampatuans effectively committed political hara kiri. Today, even their powerful friends are powerless to protect them in the face of intense media glare and public pressure.

1 comment:

Ryan Murphy said...

This is an interesting post. I'm an American volunteer living in Iloilo province, and of course like everyone else I've been following the Maguindanao coverage, but it's difficult for me as an outsider to grasp all the history behind the event.