Re-Imagining the Philippines

This year could mark a watershed in the life of the nation. The election of Rody Duterte to the presidency signifies so many firsts. The first Mindanaoan to hold the highest office. The first with open links to the left, willing to share power with progressives. The first septuagenarian. The first to promise constitutional reform by way of a convention to alter our form of government and remove restrictions on foreign investment.

We are witnessing the end of the post-EDSA era, and the start of a new one, the shape of which, we do not yet know.

The post-EDSA era spanned thirty years from 1987 to 2016, and was bookended by two Aquino presidencies, that of Corazon and her son Benigno, the 3rd. It is credited with restoring the rambunctious chaos of the post-war republic, which also lasted thirty years, from 1945 to 1974. In between them were a dozen years of “constitutional dictatorship” under Ferdinand E. Marcos.

The Marcos regime proclaimed the dawn of a “New Society” that would emancipate us from the feudal order dominated by landowning dynasties that traced back to the principalia at the turn of the last century who revolted against one colonial master (Spain) only to pledge allegiance to another (America).

These local elites were swiftly rewarded with national office under the “benevolent assimilation” of their new colonial masters and filled the bureaucracy with their acolytes, creating a weak state, unable to set policy independently of vested interests.

Marcos was an upstart. He didn’t hail from the landed aristocracy, neither did his wife who belonged to the poorer relations of an established clan. He was part of a new professional elite, educated under the American system, with a brilliant legal mind, able to use his knowledge of the law to great personal advantage. As a member of a new political class, Marcos took the logic of our elite democracy to its natural conclusion.

The landowners who collected rents from their tenant farmers at the local level, had converted political office into a “rent-seeking” enterprise at a grand scale. They used their access to power to channel soft loans, public contracts, licenses, franchises and monopolies their way. The purpose of this rent-seeking was to enrich themselves and dispense patronage to buy votes or eliminate opponents using private armies.

Marcos simply centralized rent-seeking and patronage dispensing ability to himself, while turning the military into his own private army.

After the demise of the Marcos regime, old political families whom he had suppressed or co-opted saw the restoration of their privileges under the post-EDSA political order. They were joined by some new political bosses belonging to the yellow forces that overthrew Marcos. These newcomers had to learn quickly how to master the art of rent-seeking and patronage to compete against the older, more entrenched dynasties, and start their own.

A study by CenPEG found that from 1907 to 2004, corresponding to the first Philippine Assembly to the present Congress, 160 families have had two or more family members serving in them. By 2010, 178 families controlled 73 out of 80 provinces, 68% of the house of representatives, and 80% of the senate. About half of them came from the pre-EDSA republic, the other half from the post-EDSA regime. These dynasties had ties to virtually every lucrative sector of the economy: from logging and mining, to property development and banking.

With the emergence of Duterte, and the disgruntled, angry movement that he represents, the potential for re-imagining the Philippines has again become possible.

I say “again” because this is the sixth attempt to fashion a new charter, after the Malolos convention (1899), the American Commonwealth period (1935), Marcos Con-Con (1974), and the two post-EDSA iterations (1986 and 1987). If the next constitution is ratified in 2018, it will be the sixth republic in 120 years.

In all this time, it doesn’t seem much has changed. The same old elites, so adept at ingratiating themselves to whoever is in power, are lining up behind Duterte, forming a supermajority in the lower house. Since the delegates to the con-con have to be elected, there is no doubt that the same political dynasties will dominate.

They would most likely lift term limits on elective positions (something introduced by the 1987 constitutional assembly), resist moves to impose an anti-political dynasty provision, oppose the lifting of restrictions on foreign investment to protect their business interests, and rig any form of political party and campaign finance reform to favor incumbents.

Without such features being embedded in the new charter, the shift to a parliamentary, federal form of government envisioned by Duterte could simply lead to a greater consolidation of political and economic power in the hands of the same old elite that have wielded it for over a century.

Without a catalyst or agent of change, it will be difficult to imagine a situation where the Philippines can extricate itself from the control of a privileged few.