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Casino democracy

The title I owe to Benedict Anderson, the eminent scholar of Southeast Asian history and politics. Studying the electoral landscape, Anderson described the Philippine system as “politics in a well-run casino.”

His starting point was the robust response to the first post-Marcos provincial and local elections in 1988. Of the 27.6 million eligible voters, 81 percent cast their ballots. Nearly 149,000 candidates competed for 16,500 elective positions, or an average of about nine candidates for each office on offer.

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Running even for a local office, then and now, is expensive and dangerous, and the chances of success for the neophytes highly uncertain. But, as in a casino, while the risks are great, the payoff is rich and inviting: a jackpot providing social prestige, political power, opportunities for building a retirement fund or resources for reelection.

The returns are higher as one moves up the political food chain. But the frenzy over the recent barangay elections, from the frantic push to get voters registered to the vote-buying and the violence, suggests that the rewards, even at the bottom of the totem pole, offer sufficient temptation for wrongdoing.

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In the Senate, the returns have become spectacular. The modest, monthly salary of P35,000 pales in comparison to perks: allowances that require no audit, committee chairmanship fees, access to pork barrel funds.

Miriam Santiago, a member of this elite club who should know the score, estimates that a senator can pocket as much as P2 million a month, perhaps more, depending on the kickback rate from pork barrel projects.

Because some long shots do win, amateurs in the casino may believe they have an even chance at a windfall. But the cards are stacked in favor of the house. In Philippine elections, the odds against the novice in politics are even more formidable, because a small, educated and economically powerful elite has reacquired control of the game.

Marcos emasculated the elite, which originally emerged in the late Spanish colonial period and entrenched itself under American tutelage, The architects of the 1987 Constitution recognized that elite excesses had fostered an environment hospitable to martial law and the danger to democracy posed by a semifeudal oligarchy. They accordingly included an antipolitical dynasty provision in the Charter.

Perhaps, inevitably, the People Power restoration of electoral democracy also paved the way for the return to Congress of dynastic politics. Of the 200 congressmen elected in 1987, only 31 had no electoral experience before martial law.  The rest belonged, or were related, to the traditional, pre-1972 political families.

Ongoing research of the AIM Policy Center shows that, the constitutional ban notwithstanding, the trend toward dynastic politics has intensified. In the 7th Congress (1970-73), 32 percent of the Senate came from dynasties. The figure, at 25 percent, was only slightly lower in the 8th Congress, during Cory Aquino’s presidency.

By the 15th (2010-13) and the current 16th Congresses (2013-16), the percentage of dynastic senators exceeded 41 percent and 66 percent, respectively. From the research of Prof. Nicole Curato of the University of the Philippines, 30 families dominated the Senate in the decade 2003-13.

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Reviewing the 15th Congress data, the published paper of Prof. Ronald Mendoza, APC director, identified 70 percent of congressional seats occupied by members of political dynasties. These congressmen reported higher net worth and won election by larger margins of victory compared to others.

Control of public resources that political clans can pool together helps explain their dominance and their wealth. The clan can mobilize these resources for political patronage to support the election and reelection of family members.

As illustrative examples, the research looked at five families, described as “fat”—those whose members held multiple national and local government elective positions simultaneously. The sample covered the archipelago: the Dys in Isabela, the Garcias in Cebu, the Jalosjoses in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Singsons in Ilocos Sur, and the Tans in Western Samar.

The estimate of the resources available to these families, from congressional pork barrel allocations, provincial and municipal internal revenue allotments (due to governors and vice governors and to mayors and vice mayors, respectively), reached from P1.10 billion to P2.11 billion per year.

These sums did not include collections from local tax revenues and dues from local government units, nor the potential for gain arising from exercising political and regulatory powers over their areas of jurisdiction.

But command over public resources by political dynasties did not redound to the benefit of their constituencies. Their districts showed lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality.

The link between the pork barrel system and political dynasties has resulted in a political casino running loaded games. And the citizens, who ultimately bear the costs of the electoral establishment, receive only a pittance from political patronage.

Time to abolish the pork barrel system and enforce the constitutional ban on political dynasties.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Business Matters, Edilberto C. de Jesus, opinion, pork barrel, Senate
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