Presidential system, patronage politics and political dynasties

Presidential system, patronage politics and political dynasties Featured

WHEN the Consultative Committee (Con-com) last February 27, voted to uphold the status quo by defending the presidential system, I criticized the move in my Manila Times column (March 8, 2018). I quote:

“But the most glaring defect of the presidential system of government is that this is the embryo upon which patronage politics is nurtured. For almost 100 years the system flourished feeding upon the least desired facet of Filipino culture, the desire for and dependence on a benefactor, from the datu and sultan, heading a clan; to the Spanish patron looking over the indios, to the American “big brother”; morphing into the Philippine President, the “father” of a people…”

The following is partly a reprint of a blog I wrote in October 2014 tracing the roots of patronage politics and ensuing ills from our cultural historical practices.

Dualism, or the state of having a dual nature, pervades cultural practices and beliefs in the Philippines. In our dominant religion, Roman Catholicism, we mix our deep faith in a supreme being with reverence for nature and animistic religious practices that emphasizes supernatural beings inhabiting the forests, rivers and mountains. On the way to church in the barrio where I grew up, we passed by a huge balite tree and reverently announce our presence and seek permission to pass through from the resident kapre.

The belief in “anting-anting,” a charm, jewelry or special object worn around the neck said to protect the wearer from evil and sorcery, has become popular as a scapular. Originally, the scapular is an object worn by devout Roman Catholics to honor a particular saint and emphasizing a pious way of life. I was given mine by the Catholic Women’s League as a blessed object that would“protect me from the evil spirits” lurking in the night – especially from the “aswang and manananggal” and the fearsome “manti-anak” who could castrate me while I slept.

This dualism pervades as well in other facets of our beliefs.

Take democracy, for instance. Introduced by the Americans after 300 years of Spanish colonial influence, it was meant to instill in our political life a novel concept of governance and thus widen the participation of a greater majority of our people towards the path to political maturity.

But what took root instead were traditional practices of our earlier culture perverted by the colonialists for their own purposes and emerged as traditional political patronage. Inevitably, these resulted in the development of weak democratic institutions.

I have not heard DU30 repudiate the concept of political patronage outright but as our city mayor then, he understood perfectly well local political culture, where politicians are seen as “approachable and compassionate”; and must show sympathy or goodwill via monetary contributions or donations. These in turn are translated by the beneficiaries as manifestations of “good governance and good political leadership.” This is of course an erroneous concept of governance; nonetheless he practiced it to the hilt propelling him to rule the city for 22 years.

Marcos elevated patronage politics during the earlier part of his administration and practiced this to perfection during the Martial Law years where “crony capitalism” came into our political lexicon. To hold on to power, “patrons and padrinos” were allowed to dip their dirty fingers into the public coffers and dispense them to the chosen electors. Thus, a new sub-species of the oligarchy was born and another word appeared in the glossary,“kleptocracy.”

Subsequent practitioners of this sordid art of political patronage, chiefly Presidents Erap and Gloria paled in comparison to the masters – the Macos “conjugal dictatorship”– but the two former presidents did a good job as acolytes, honing the practice further.

Today, political patronage has become more pervasive and has fomented corruption. Our electoral processes for instance are the overarching environment upon which political patronage incubates. Paradoxically, democracy can’t exist without elections; except that in our culture, we managed to debauch the same.

Politicians, whether “wannabes” or incumbents spend millions of pesos to gain the support of their constituents. As a result, a major consideration of the elected public servant is to recoup their investments through all sorts of “rent-seeking activities,” leakages in public funds and outright corruption – to the detriment of society’s development and public good.

And in our presidential system, where the president is elected at large, he is expected to provide the wherewithal for an expensive election campaign. This opens an aperture for the oligarchy and the moneyed elite to influence the outcome. And we can only speculate at the quid pro quo.

With the constitutional mandated term limits of elective officials, this deviant model of “public service as a private business” becomes a strong impetus toward the perpetuation of this power base – thus the birth of powerful political dynasties.

The multitude of ills have piled up and as a result one of the important instruments of democracy—political parties—has had a stunted growth. In truly democratic societies, they are meant to aggregate the various and sometimes differing aspirations of the people and mediate between the electorate and the government, translating them into good policies of governance.

Instead, the political dynasties have become substitutes and power and privilege accrue to a few families. The politics of personality sets in; and political patronage then is ingrained in the dynasty’s practices of local governance, ensuring its survival.

One has to understand that the country’s political system has been all about control, power, manipulation and distortion of democratic processes. All these are the elements of patronage politics. There is no panacea against these ills but perhaps the path to its correction could be laid down today.

For one, we are today faced with the possibility of revising the 1987 Constitution, which has protected the system that perpetrated these evils. In contrast to the presidential system, we have an alternative, where studies, written tomes and existing governments of many progressive economies have proven its superiority. The Philippine Centrist Democrats (CDP/CDPI) have been championing the concepts, values and culture of how we can all fight and counter traditional political patronage and its vile handmaiden, political dynasty.

Parliamentary government, the alternative system, was unfortunately rejected outright by the Consultative Committee.000
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