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Editorial

Political patronage

/ 12:12 AM June 02, 2015

LONG CITED as a major drag on the Philippines’ development, political patronage is defined as the allocation of favors or rewards such as public office, jobs, contracts, subsidies or other valued benefits by a patron (usually an elected official) to a client (usually a donor or campaign contributor) in return for the client’s service, such as voting for the patron or providing money for electoral campaigning. Political patronage has also been mentioned in many studies as a major factor why industrialization did not happen as planned, why manufacturing degenerated, why land reform failed, and why the Philippines has been economically overtaken by its neighbors.

Late last month a visiting political scientist from Harvard again cited the ills brought about by political patronage—vote-buying, corruption, political dynasties—which hinder attempts to foster an “inclusive” economy that will benefit others besides the rich and the well-connected. In an investment summit organized by Financial Times and First Metro Investment Corp., Boston-based James Robinson, coauthor of the book “Why Nations Fail,” said that while the Philippines operates as a vibrant democracy, it is a democracy where competition is not about public goods. The quality of Philippine democracy is being hampered by the lack of political competition, he observed, noting a “highly clientelistic politics based on exchanges of private goods for political support.”

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The long legacy and enduring presence of “extractive” political and economic institutions in the Philippines, as shown by political patronage, has indeed been one of the key constraints to the country’s development. Deposed strongman Ferdinand Marcos launched an ambitious economic program centered on 11 major industrial projects, but political patronage led to the scrapping of many of those undertakings that would have adversely affected the businesses of the regime’s financial backers or “cronies.”

Examples of patronage politics fairly cry out to be noticed. Land reform, instituted since the 1970s, failed because many of the legislators tasked to craft the law to fairly and justly distribute land to farmers were landlords themselves or were beholden to the landed class for their political careers. More than 20 years ago, foreign investors proposed to build a petrochemical complex here, but politicians suspected of being beholden to businessmen whose companies would be affected adversely by the presence of a petrochemical plant initiated congressional inquiries that eventually discouraged the investors. An iconic hotel was won in a public bidding by Malaysian investors, but the auction result was reversed by a Supreme Court believed to be beholden to the losing bidder. Only recently, a big toll road project was auctioned by the government but a new bidding was ordered after a known Palace ally complained that it was disqualified because of a simple typographical error.

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To this day, the biggest concession to big business has been the continued existence in the Constitution of a clause protecting certain local sectors from foreign competition. Truly unfortunate, because First World countries with industrialized economies have shown that free enterprise fosters competition that, in turn, should benefit consumers.

Robinson agreed that the Philippines is capable of breaking out of this “weak state” category. While many industries are still benefiting from high levels of protection and barriers to entry—including the glass, cement and shipping sectors—he noted that the big economic success stories in the Philippines over the past decade had been those that encouraged competition, such as the telecommunication and aviation sectors. (However, telecom services leave much to be desired.)

Indeed, various bills pending in Congress have sought to remove constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership and on liberalizing many economic sectors. There are also pending measures seeking an end to political dynasties and their various forms, including the padrino system and the cliques where kumpadre, kaibigan, kamaganak, and utang na loob hold sway.

But for all that, politicians still take big businessmen as sponsors at their weddings, or for the baptism of their children. So what are they telling the Filipino people? That they can separate personal from official relationships? That when the occasion calls for it, they will decide in favor of their constituents and not of their godparents? They can tell that to the marines.

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