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Philippine Politics and Corruption: A Sociopolitical Digression

November 2000

In the last Pearl, I presented a contrarian view of the current ruckus in the Philippines. I focused on a number of positive factors and did my best to come to a more-or-less optimistic conclusion. In addition to providing a useful counterpoint to the prevailing drumbeat of despair, it may have reminded readers that the current situation, dismal and disturbing though it be, won't last forever.

Index to Pearl of the Orient Seas by Clarence Henderson Nevertheless, I can't find it within myself to generate another such piece. The reality is that this is one heck of a mess and the fate of the country hangs in precarious balance.

Perhaps I can contribute to the debate by stepping back, putting on my academic hat, and providing some perspective on a question that may puzzle the uninitiated - Why is the Philippines so darn corrupt? Or, to rephrase it using an old hillbilly idiom my grandpa used a lot, why are so many key players here crooked as a dog's hind leg?

Herewith, a few observations on the seemingly impenetrable jungle of Philippine politics and corruption. Interested readers might want to refer to An Oversimplified History Lesson or Cronies and Booty Capitalism for additional background.

Filipino Democracy

Various terms have been bandied about to describe Filipino democracy - élitist, oligarchic, illiberal, authoritarian, anarchic, chaotic, and wide-open come to mind. I believe I myself have referred to it as "vibrant" (although that begs the question of which way the thing vibrates and how many fragile institutions are jeopardized in the process of vibration).

The Republic of the Philippines is a weak postcolonial state. The public sector is basically subservient to the dominant social classes and deeply entrenched special interests. The reasons can be traced back to the historical evolution of the political system and modes of governance.

Both Spain and America created bureaucracies based on their own models. Indeed, the Philippine state owes little to indigenous Filipino norms or culture - the whole apparatus was externally imposed.

Part of the problem was that Uncle Sam was conflicted about the unaccustomed role of colonialist power. Lacking the long history of colonial rule of the Spanish or British, the Americans were never quite comfortable as authoritarian rulers, and never solved the dilemma of how to "save the little brown brothers" while still protecting their strategic interests in Asia.

The American administration imposed colonial-style rule (albeit with a Filipino-staffed bureaucracy) while simultaneously encouraging grassroots democracy. They introduced local elections in 1901, only three years after taking over, then legislative elections in 1907, and eventually presidential elections in 1935.

From the beginning, the domestic political process was dominated by powerful clans in the provinces. They have been referred to as caciques, a term originally used in Spain and Latin America, but equally applicable in the Hispanic-influenced Philippines. Michael Cullinane refers to the resultant system as "colonial democracy". Early on, provincial aristocrats like Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña, Sr. extended their power, with local patronage politics gradually seeping up to the national level legislature and the President's cabinet. Tip O'Neill, the former US House Speaker, used to say that "all politics is local". This has always been the case in the Philippines.

Political participation in the Philippines was never based on a democratic model. Given the long history of patron-client relationships, the provincial caciques held tremendous clout based on their ability to deliver votes. Complex and labor-intensive political machines soon evolved. The élite bosses knew how to mobilize opinion leaders, poll watchers, and enforcers; their power was unquestioned within their own spheres of influence. As one scholar of the Mafia put it, the bigger and stronger the reputation, the less need to deploy the resources that led to that reputation in the first place. From the time of the first national elections in 1935, Presidential candidates were beholden to various bosses in the countryside, for without them they could not be elected to office.

From the beginning, electoral competition did not revolve around class differences. Instead, politics was a game played within the élite classes, who manipulated and controlled the political process. They were a homogeneous group, and there were few substantive differences in politics or political philosophy. Everybody was a conservative. One consequence was that the political and electoral process was based more on personality than on substance.

Post-War Political Evolution

After the War, Philippine presidents were still very much dependent on the support of the provincial élites and Manila oligarchs. The executive branch was always faced with a dilemma: How to support and uphold the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy (the American model) against the reality that holding office and exercising power required the support of corrupt political machines in various corners of a spread-out country?

Among other things, this led to tremendous pressure on the bureaucracy. The civil service, staffed predominantly by Filipinos, was relatively efficient during the American colonial era After independence, however, it quickly degenerated. The combination of low prestige, incompetence, lousy pay, and inadequate resources was demoralizing and the opportunities for graft were many. The resulting corruption should not be surprising.

During the pre-Marcos era (basically the 1950s and 1960s), the Philippine state played a key role in economic development following the dictates of import substitution and economic nationalism (see Globalization Part 1). The government's intermittent efforts to promote democracy and development in the countryside, encouraged by donor agencies and the American government, were sabotaged by conflict with the elite classes. Efforts at land reform, for example, never had much chance of success given the entrenched power of the landowning classes.

During the same period, the state began to lose its monopoly on armed forces. The Americans had relied on the Philippine Constabulary, a legacy of the Spanish era (the Guardia Civil), to enforce its will. But as local elites gained power after the War, their private armies became a de facto source of power and the Constabulary was undermined. The provincial bosses settled into a comfortable role in which they exchanged the large blocks of votes they controlled for economic booty and special considerations. One of the main consequences was endemic political violence.

Marcos himself emerged from this corrupt environment. He learned the political trade from his father's prewar campaigns for the National Assembly. His first political presence was as a defendant changed with murdering his father's rival, and his wartime experience included significant black marketeering and fraud. It's not surprising that he brought the violence-oriented philosophy of the provincial politician to the national level.

Marcos, of course, took corruption to unprecedented heights through systematic plundering of the Philippine economy. Members of the Marcos family and key associates accrued tremendous wealth from bribe-taking and kickbacks from crony monopolies. They also diverted government loans and contracts into their own pockets, made fortunes from profits from over-priced goods and construction projects, and directly skimmed from the public trough.

The Post-EDSA Political System

One of the first things President Cory Aquino did was to create the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to identify and retrieve money stolen by the Marcos family and their cronies. However, Aquino's early reputation as a house cleaner did not survive allegations that two of her Cabinet members and certain relatives were themselves corrupt. The PCGG was accused of corruption, favoritism, and incompetence. Eventually, Aquino established the Presidential Committee on Public Ethics and Accountability, a less corrupt body but one plagued by insufficient staff, funds, and political will to adequately address the problems.

President Ramos also took on the anti-corruption mantle and made some apparent progress. The achievements of his administration, chronicled in other Pearls and in the Philippines Economic Capsule, were substantial, particularly in such reforms as liberalizing the telecommunications industry and welcoming foreign investment. However, the Ramos administration was not above reproach, as evidenced by various scandals and allegations of corruption (including the Philippine Estate Authority/Amari mess and kickbacks associated with the Centennial Expo at Clark).

Throughout the Aquino and Ramos years (1986-1998), the combination of limited government money, political and economic uncertainty, and the newly restored constitutional democracy weakened the Federal government. The élites whose power had been preempted by Marcos swept back in to fill the void. By the time of the 1998 elections, the system had in many ways reverted to the corruption of the pre-Marcos years (although somewhat moderated and not as extreme).

The 1998 Election

In placing Estrada's election into context, it should be noted that Philippine political parties aren't very different from one another. Unlike the Republicans and Democrats in the states or the Tories and Labour in England, they are pretty much indistinguishable in terms of policy and philosophy. They are at root élite old boys' clubs, controlled by politicians and businessmen who have been wealthy and powerful for generations. Thus, the recent defection of Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr. (author of the much-ballyhooed E-Commerce Act) from the President's party was a non-event. Party switching in the Philippines is a long-established pattern that raises no eyebrows at all.

In concrete terms, elections and the political system itself are still largely driven by the politics of personality. Voters do not identify with political parties, they identify with individuals. As Conrad de Quiros noted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 1998: "nobody remembers the party, everybody remembers the candidate".

President Estrada won by a large margin (6 million votes) over his nearest rival, Jose de Venecia. He garnered nearly 40% of the vote in a field of ten "presidentiables", compared to only 24% for Ramos in 1992. Erap, of course, was swept into office on the strength of the support of the masa, the Class C-D-E voters. They knew him as a popular movie actor who specialized in Robin Hood roles. The urban and rural masses related to Erap; his English was only slightly better than theirs and he was quick to play to their sensibilities (although he himself was from an élite family). At the same time, the tremendous criticism directed at Erap by other politicians and the media (he's ignorant, a womanizer, an intellectual pygmy, a brawler, a gambler, a heavy drinker, ad infinitum) backfired. Many of the masa saw such putdowns as reflecting on themselves, and many undecided voters no doubt voted for Erap out of sympathy. (Some of my earlier commentaries on the administration include Filipino Political Theatre and Two Years With Erap).

The last two years have demonstrated just how flawed the Philippine democratic system is. Erap's election is clearly understandable given the above dynamics. However, the fallout of his ascension to power has not been pretty. While corruption and a crony-dominated system may not prevent a country from growing during boom times, such a system can create major problems during bad economic times. And that describes the current situation accurately.

If we think of the transition from the Marcos dictatorship (dark ages) to Aquino (transitional administration) to Ramos (breakthrough administration) as three steps up a progressive ladder, then the election of Estrada in 1998 represented a throwback to a crony-dominated system that should never have happened.

A Tentative Conclusion

Corruption occurs all over the globe and in all historical eras. Just think of 18th century England, the urban political machines of 19th century America (Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall), the caciques of Spain and Latin America, or the chaopho (godfathers) in Thailand. However, especially given the Asian economic crisis and increasing and apparently irreversible globalization, crony capitalism must somehow give way to more enlightened forms of governance if developing economies are to move forward.

The Philippine state remains weak, and the continued power of entrenched éelites makes it difficult for the central government to provide cohesive and non-corrupt leadership. Insider factions still maneuver for their pieces of the federal government pie, tax collections and customs collections are highly centralized, and the Philippines bureaucracy's long tradition of corruption remains intact. Further, the President and other national officials remain dependent on local politicians to deliver the votes on demand. All in all, a recipe for continued corruption.

In short, the problems are structural and institutionalized. Among the prerequisites for a viable democratic system are a stable middle class, educational achievement and opportunities for social mobility, and open access to the political process. The still-extreme polarization between rich and poor in the Philippines (see Globalization Part 1 and Globalization Part 2) remains a major obstacle to meaningful reform. And as long as civil service salaries stay abysmally low, it will be extremely difficult to eliminate (or even minimize) corruption in the government.

There are some groups now pushing reform, including NAMFREL (National Citizens Movement for Free Elections), the Consortium for Electoral Reform (CER), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIIJ), and Akbayan (Citizens' Action Party). One can hope that young professionals, businesspeople, and the (slowly) emerging middle class are getting tired of politics as usual.

More importantly, however, the impetus for true reform must come from the political leadership. Although all outcomes are unpredictable as I write these words, it seems clear that a totally new vision will be required if corruption is to (finally) be brought under control.

Without recounting the misdeeds of the administration, the crony-related incidents and pervasive corruption now under investigation are part and parcel of the syndrome discussed throughout this article. The current debacle reflects a major crisis of the entire system. Whatever form the upcoming resolution may take, the nation's leaders and thinkers must seriously address the causes of the problems and develop strategies to overcome the deeply rooted tradition of corruption. If they don't, the long-term prospects for this country in the global economy will be significantly jeopardized.

...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas



Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines

Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo. Clarence Henderson: Manila, Philippines Sources - About Clarence - Other Columnists

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