The Enduring Curse of Patronage Politics: Why Filipinos Should Not Elect a Patrimonial President in the 2016 Elections

by Dr. Michael Magcamit

All throughout Philippine history, a small number of extremely influential families possessing vast lands and huge corporations have ruled our government. The notoriety of patronage system and oligarchic culture in the country has inspired numerous experts and scholars to coin equally notorious terms to describe the severity of conditions underpinning Philippine politics – anarchy of families, booty capitalism, non-substantive democracy, ersatz capitalism and cacique democracy, among others.

When the U.S. colonial regime transplanted its brand of representative democracy into our oligarch-infested economy, it virtually cleared the pathway for the systematic subjugation ofthe country’s democratic institutions and procedures by the ruling patrons and oligarchs. The policy of attraction introduced by then U.S. governor-general, William Howard Taft (which was originally intended to convince the landlord class to collaborate with the American forces instead of joining the revolutionary factions) had transformed the economic elites of the Spanish-colonial era into political elites. Considering that the representative institutions emerged prior to the development of a strong republic, the political parties in the Philippines according to Nathan Quimpo (2005, pp. 4-5) have become ‘convenient vehicles of patronage that can be set up, merged with others, split, reconstituted, regurgitated, resurrected, renamed, repackaged, recycled, refurbished, buffed up or flushed down the toilet anytime’.

This strategy that was adopted by the Americans for consolidating their rule over the entire archipelago enabled the elites to exponentially expand their capital and influence through political appointments. Consequently, by the time the Americans were finally ready to erect political institutions that would facilitate electoral contestations in the Philippines, a national oligarchy – rather than a national government – had already been born. This oligarchic system has now become the playing ground of the so-called trapos. The dominance of these trapos in Philippine politics has resulted in what Rogelio Manacsa and Alexander Tan (2012) refer to as reverse accountability or the condition in which individual voters are compelled to elect their respective patrons into power in exchange for personal favors that are either provided in the past or promised to be delivered once elected.In the words of Juan Linz (1975, p. 260), the voters’ support for their patrons is largely a function of the latter’s ‘own interests, rewards for loyalty and the fear of vengeance’.

As my analysis of the past and present patrimonial administrations in the succeeding sections reveal, neither regime change nor democratization has helped curb the oligarchs’ influence over our political and economic affairs. The astounding indifference of patronage-backed presidents to inoculate themselves from oligarchic manipulation has further aggravated our existing political, economic and socio-cultural maladies. Policy reforms that had the potential to transform Philippine polity into a more level playing field were conveniently side-tracked, as the oligarchs maneuvered to consolidate their wealth and power. Regrettably, the re-democratization process of the post-Martial Law era had simply led to the reinstallation of pre-Marcos arrangements. Notwithstanding the implementation of various democratic institutional reforms, the oligarchic forces in the Philippines have already become too embedded within the system to the extent of surmounting even the state power.

The Marcos Administration (1965-1986)

Even the infamous episode of authoritarianism in the Philippines courtesy of Ferdinand Marcos failed to quash the elites’ vice-like grip of the state. Instead of freeing the state from the shackles of oligarchic control, Marcos had simply regrouped the existing personal-clientelist networks in the country, and made himself the supreme patron.

Through the establishment of political frameworks, the access to power at all levels became contingent on the patronage of the autocracy, which led to the elimination of antagonistic and unserviceable sections. Patrimonialism under the Marcos era had taken a new face by evolving into a highly personalistic, sultanistic regime. Consequently, the goal of creating a strong state that had the capacity to put an end to oligarchic predation had once again been side-tracked.  A critical part of Marcos’ version of patronage politics was the replacement of the old oligarchy with a new one by creating opportunities and public positions for the latter group, while simultaneously discriminating against the former group (See, Manacsa & Tan 2012). Notwithstanding his anti-oligarch rhetoric, Marcos developed his own personalized patronage system by sequestering the powers and possessions of his elite enemies and transferring them to his own cronies. In other words, the authoritarian regime had simply reversed the position through which the new oligarchy could pillage the state from the inside rather than from the outside.

The Aquino Administration (1986-1992)

The institution of a new Charter under Corazon Aquino’s administration still failed to develop a strong, visionary state. Ironically, the re-democratization of the Philippine bureaucracy had simply led to the renaissance of the pre-Marcos patronage system. Manacsa and Tan (2012) cited two critical features of the post-People Power system that prevented the genesis of a developmental state in the Philippines. First, the first-past-the-post approach to selecting the new president made it difficult to achieve a significant level of voters’ support. Obtaining a mandate for vital national policies became unnecessarily strenuous and confounding. Second, the 1987 Constitution did not stimulate the establishment of ideology-based political parties with clear-cut programs designed to achieve a specific long-term vision for the Philippines. Instead, the new Constitution simply laid the groundwork for the bourgeoning of disposable political parties stripped of any moral aspirations to serve the interests of their respective constituencies.

Hence, the end of the Marcos dictatorship signalled not the beginning of a new Philippine political economy, but the refurbishing of the old oligarchy’s apparatuses for bureaucratic exploitation. The reopening of political offices in the country’s capital led to the manufacturing of parties that were designed to secure the dynastic interests of few oligarchic families. Not surprisingly, these newly developed parties showed the usual symptoms of old patronage politics: ‘reliance on coalitions of local elite, non-ideological character and shifting membership’ (see, Hutchcroft & Rocamora 2003, p. 278). Access to patronage has become the primary impetus for forming a party, thereby making the political process a mere bargaining tool for negotiating coalitions based on individual and/or group identities. Such a system reinforces that all-too-familiarbalimbing attitude that has come to characterize the culture buttressing Philippine politics.

Furthermore, Aquino’s administration also failed to enact two crucial laws that could have helped repair the Philippine political economy: the land reform program and the anti-dynasty law. On the one hand, traditional landed elites who were able to access the legislature had significantly delayed the progress on land reform issues due to the ‘uneven application, slow adjudication of cases and the government’s inability to finance the compensation to landlords as stipulated in law’ (see, de Dios & Hutchcroft 2003, p. 52). On the other, influential political clans had also succeeded in blocking the bills that proposed the constitutional banning of political dynasties, which led to further exploitation of national and local electoral posts. Thus, it can be surmised that Aquino’s ultimate legacy was, for better or worse, the replication of the pre-Martial Law Philippines. That said, the most jarring concern with such a myopic thinking was the utter disregard for behaviours and practices that gave birth to crushing patronage politics. These problems explain why the elections since Marcos’ demise have not resulted in the creation of a definitive electoral mandate that is necessary for institutionalizing and legitimizing a coherent and viable national agenda.           

The Ramos Administration (1992-1998)

Fidel Ramos initiated the ‘Strong Republic’ agenda to address the problems generated by political elitism. Ramos understood how the oligarchs’ excessive control of political power had engendered an economic order that enabled a very few influential families to extract wealth from the national economy with little or no limits. Unlike the government underpinned by a neo-patrimonial culture, Ramos’ idea of a strong state was supposed to independently pursue national interests that were not solely contingent on the demands of a specific class or group. Under the former arrangement, there was no incentive to develop frameworks that promoted accountability and fair competition given that the loyalty of the ruling politicians was devoted to their own patronage. From Ramos’ standpoint, a country that was attempting to build a strong state did not have to be authoritarian as long as the bureaucracy was professional, accountable, transparent and dedicated to securing the long-term national vision rather than short-term economic interests (see, Villacorta 1994).

Central to the rise of this strong Philippine republic was the emergence of revisionist political leaders that had strong resolves for keeping the markets free from oligarch predation. However, as politicians often discover, the adaptation to democratic practices ismuch easier than the transition to free market policies. As Seymour Lipset (1959) puts it, it is more problematic to organize markets than to organize elections. Politicians are compelled to rely on patron-client relationships which invariably lead to larger public deficits and higher levels of corruption. Since the country’s decision-makers themselves are guided by their ideas of public good, the state cannot be expected to accommodate and transform polarizing social demands into public policies (see, Skocpol 1979; 1985). Put bluntly, inclusive growth and development can only occur if the ruling elites want it, or more accurately, if it endows them with greater power, otherwise, they will oppose it.

In the end, Ramos, just like his own patron Aquino, had failed to initiate key reforms that could have made the bureaucracy more resilient against patrimonialism. Left without a choice, he embraced the traditional political customs and practices in order to put forward his own political agenda. Indeed,Ramos maneuvered his Strong Republic vessel where the currents of neo-patrimonialism flowed. And by doing so, the government had once again failed to bring the state back in and salvage its bastardized democracy due to the absence of any critical institutional change in the system.    

The Estrada Administration (1998-2001)

The conditions surrounding the Philippine political economy deteriorated even further under the leadership of Joseph Estrada after winning the 1998 presidential elections. With 40.0% of the voters casting their ballots in his favour, Estrada’s pseudo-populist government had convincingly denounced the culture of oligarchic politics using his highly popular slogan, Erap para sa Mahirap. Estrada vowed that under his leadership, no influential social entity – be it kinfolk or friends – would be given special privileges. Indeed, Estrada had been very successful in making the poor and marginalized sectors in the country believe that the ‘president of the masses’ had finally arrived, from their favourite local movie theatres to the Malacañang Palace.                                                                                                                  

Nonetheless, Estrada’s huge popularity could neither cover up nor compensate for the country’s terrible economic shape. Despite the administration’s initial proclamations regarding the supposed insulation of decision-making processes from peripheral influences, Estrada had fell prey to the excessiveness and recklessness of oligarchic predators. Some of the peripheral actors that yielded considerable power over government affairs during Estrada’s presidency were called the padrinos. In the Philippine context, the padrinos were outsiders with close personal connections with the president either by blood or by social relations, and whose assistance and opinion had been discreetly sought. Their primary role (albeit unofficial) was to direct the president’s attention to the needs of certain political actors in order to ensure that necessary actions were undertaken. Not surprisingly, Estrada’s padrino system was heavily comprised of blood relatives and close friends who supported him during his campaigns. Thus, despite the presence of institutionalized gatekeepers such as the Offices of the Executive Secretary (OES) and the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), the padrinos were able to successfully circumvent the government’s policymaking procedures (see, Manacsa & Tan 2012).                                                                                      

The padrino system was complemented by the so-calledkumpadres, comprised of Estrada’s closest friends and allies. Aside from his official cabinet members, Estrada’s kumpadres served as his de facto advisers. This set up had opened yet another backdoor entry for peripheral actors that enabled them to access government resources. Whereas the Department Secretaries comprised the official axis of power; the kumpadres constituted the informal bloc of political control over several aspects of the economy (e.g. business, infrastructures and even legislative bills). This allowed some of the kumpadres who had no official function or role in the government to become the primary chiefs of certain policy areas. The practice had become so pervasive that at one point Estrada’s off-the-record advisers and consultants reached two hundred (see, Laquian &Laquian 2002).  

This rather furtive policymaking environment inevitably ignited a clash between Estrada’s formal and informal advisers. As Manacsa and Tan (2012) have noted, one-upmanship became the rule of the game in which the ‘winners’ were decided in terms of who succeeded at persuading or even bypassing the president. Such a clandestine approach to decision-making perfectly complemented the culture of corruption that ultimately defined the Estrada administration. The structure of Estrada’s policy regime made it virtually impossible to trace both the initiators of questionable transactions, and the officials accountable for their flawed executions.  In 2000 Estrada was impeached by the House of Representatives and was tried in the Senate for charges relating to state plunder, corruption and involvement in an illegal numbers game. Ironically, these allegations came from one of Estrada’s former kumpadreswho accused him of the malversation of public funds.

The Arroyo Administration (2001-2010)

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s regime was no more than a continuation of traditional clientelism in the Philippines characterized by the methodical looting of government resources and rapid deterioration of public institutions. However, hers was not merely a trip back to the prowling years of the Marcos family. It was a period, according to Quimpo (2009, p. 347) that was ‘marked by the adjustment of predatory forces to global economic and political liberalization’. In the era of globalization, underhanded government transactions were pursued within the context of market economy logic ‘to produce private goods for officials, their families and their cronies’ (see, Diamond 2008, p. 42). Despite her promise to transform personality-based Philippine politics into a politics of party programs and sincere dialogues with ordinary citizens, Arroyo still ended up with the distinction of being one of the most corrupt Philippine presidents. In fact, according to a 2007 survey conducted by Pulse Asia, 42.0% of Filipinos believed that Arroyo was the most corrupt president in the history of the Philippines next to Marcos.                                                              

Just a few years into her presidency, a litany of corruption charges had been hurled against Arroyo, alongside family members, relatives and close friends. Astonishingly, Arroyo had survived the imbroglio through her skillful exploitation of the country’s patronage culture. Arroyo was able to adeptly consolidate the existing webs of patron-client relationships with the help of her executive powers. This gave rise to a predatory regime that further undermined the country’s democratic institutions, which in turn, resulted in rigged elections; heightened repression; enfeebled rule of law; influx of unqualified political appointees; and enlarged military influence (see, Hutchcroft 2008; Quimpo 2009). Through the ideological homogenization of political parties, the politicians were able to switch alliances whenever it suited them. Although such an arrangement may be perceived as a problem, nevertheless, for many traditional politicians, it was this particular character of Philippine party system that nurtured and protected their predatory objectives.

Indeed, government institutions were the first casualties of Arroyo’s destructive presidency. The justice system was reduced to a mechanism that suppressed popular dissent, while the military and the police acted like private armies of a mobster regime. Similarly, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) became the playground for fixers, while bureaucracy in general became the schoolyard for politically inept state managers cheered on by the House of Representatives and the Senate. Predictably, the ‘political termites’ behind Arroyo’s predatory regime were able to escape public accountability by chewing away at the government’s check-and-balance mechanisms in order to erase all traces of improprieties and indiscretions.

The Aquino III Administration (2010-2016)

Then came the incumbent President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. Prior to his election to office in 2010, many Filipinos doubted his capacity to lead the nation, let alone fulfil his campaign promise to end corruption. This cynicism had a strong basis considering his lacklustre performance both as a senator and as a three-term district representative.  Considering the context which led to his presidential victory (i.e. death of his mother, Corazon Aquino), many observers see him as a symbolic leader rather than a ‘genuine’ politician with the fervent desire and interest to run the country. Nevertheless, in his six years in the Palace, Aquino III has been able to pull off some surprises that only a few had seen coming.

Many of these surprises relate to the country’s economic performance from the moment he was sworn to office. Since 2010, GDP growth under Aquino III averaged at 6.2% – a stunning achievement for a country that has for many years been considered the ‘sick man of Asia’. More importantly, Aquino III has been largely credited for his efforts in addressing the issues of widespread corruption and political violence. His administration has chased to court high-ranking public officials (e.g. a former president, a chief justice and an ombudsman) involved in anomalous government transactions, and filed criminal charges against.

However, despite his initial triumphs, the scandal over the misuse of public funds by some of the country’s top officials and lawmakers has suddenly become the most crucial crisis that is now confronting Aquino III’s government. The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scandal, considered by many as the biggest fraud involving public funds in Philippine history, saw billions of pesos worth of government funds stolen by certain members of both the Senate and Congress.The scam involved the funding of ghost projects of implicated legislators and officials using the PDAF money. But while Aquino III may have been uncompromising in his crackdown of corrupt officials, however, patronage politics has continued to wield an overwhelming influence on his administration. The taming of oligarchic powers still seems far-fetched even under the Aquino III presidency. Despite the president’s decision to abolish the PDAF amid strong public indignation over the scandal, however, he did not cut the amount of funds held at his discretion. This led critics to label this patronage-prone reserves as the ‘President’s pork barrel’. By doing so, the opposition is able to divert public outrage away from corrupt officials to the administration by depicting the president as the principal distributor of the pork barrel, and therefore, the one who is most guilty for perpetuating a rotten system.

If the May 2016 elections were to serve as any indication, the corruption of political dynasties in the country is bound to continue in the foreseeable future. While some of these political dynasties have contracted, nonetheless, as Quimpo (2009) points out, others have expanded as more family members come to the fore of Philippine politics. As such, Aquino III’s reforms cannot be expected to have any long-term impact since they do not genuinely confront the very order that breeds and propagates oligarchic wealth and power. In the end, it may just be another hiccup in the seemingly eternal life cycle of patrimonialism and oligarchism in the Philippines.

Final Words

 Where political institutions are frail, differences in leadership styles and methods can have enormous effects on the political outcomes. The five presidents that came after Marcos revealed significant variations with respect to the image and quality of their respective administrations. Aquino was, for better or worse, a ‘throwback’ president whose primary agenda was the regeneration of the old oligarchy to restore elite-driven institutions that were sabotaged by her despotic predecessor. Ramos was military royalty who bowed down to his patrons to negotiate for his watered-down reforms that only further entrenched the status-quo. Estrada was a charismatic actor who misread the role of Robin Hood as he went on to pillage the nation’s coffers only to redistribute his loot among his kinfolk and friends.  Arroyo was the wilful presidential daughter whose mastery of economic philosophy enabled her to efficiently plunder the government resources.  Lastly, Aquino III is the acquiescent son whose unforeseen rise to the presidency has inspired dreams for a new belle époque in the Philippines, if only he could compromise his oligarchic roots and privileges.

The upcoming election in May offers us an opportunity to gradually reclaim our freedom from the curse of patronage politics. Let us carefully scrutinize the platforms, backgrounds and all the pertinent information about the presidential aspirants as they hold important clues as to how each candidate will respond to the enormous pressures exerted by powerful patrons and oligarchs that have long bastardized our democracy. Patrimonial presidents are never the ‘safe’ choice. On the contrary, they are like cancer cells that systematically destroy the immune system of the nation. It is high time to finally confront this disease by electing a president who will act as an antidote to the widespread albeit curable cancer of patronage politics.

Further Readings

Anderson, B 1998, ‘Cacique democracy and the Philippines’, New Left Review, vol. 169, no. 1, pp. 3-33. 

de Dios, E & Hutchcroft, P 2003, ‘Political economy’, in A Balisacan & H Hill (eds.), The Philippine economy: Development, policies, and challenges, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 45-73.

Diamond, L 2008, ‘The democratic rollback: The resurgence of the predatory state’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 87, no. 2, pp. 36–48.

Hutchcroft, P 1998, Booty capitalism: The politics of banking in the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City.

Hutchcroft, P & Rocamora, J 2003, ‘Strong demands and weak institutions: Addressing the democratic deficit in the Philippines’, Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 259–92.

Hutchcroft, P 2008, ‘The Arroyo imbroglio in the Philippines’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 141-55.

Laquian, A & Laquian E 2002, The Erap tragedy: Tales from the snake pit, Anvil, Manila.

Lipset, S 1959, ‘Some social requisites of democracy: Economic development and political legitimacy’, American Political Science Review, vol. 5, no.1, pp.69-105.

Manacsa, R & Tan, A 2012, ‘Strong republic sidetracked: Oligarch dynamics, democratization, and economic development in the Philippines’, Korea Observer, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 47-87.

Quimpo, N 2005, ‘Oligarchic patrimonialism, bossism, electoral clientelism, and contested democracy in the Philippines’, Comparative Politics, vol. 37, no. 2,  pp.229-250.

Quimpo, N 2009, ‘The Philippines: Predatory regime, growing authoritarian features’, The Pacific Review, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 335-353.

Skocpol, T 1979, States and social revolutions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Skocpol, T 1985, Bringing the state back in, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Villacorta, W 1994, ‘The curse of the weak state: Leadership imperatives for the Ramos Government’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 67-32.