THE complaint that the Aquinos are creating a political dynasty through the possible inclusion of Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV in the Liberal Party senatorial slate for the 2013 elections comes a bit too late. There is already an Aquino dynasty, or more properly, an Aquino-Cojuangco dynasty, and it didn’t come into being yesterday.
The beginnings of that dynasty go back to the Malolos Congress in 1898, in which the great grandfather of Benigno Aquino III, Servillano Aquino, was the representative of Samar. From 1907 to 1909, during the United States occupation, his maternal great grandfather Melecio Cojuangco represented the first district of Tarlac in the Philippine Legislature.
After the recognition of Philippine independence in 1946, granduncle Lorenzo Sumulong represented the second district of Rizal in the House of Representatives from 1946 to 1949, and was in the Senate from 1954 to 1972. Another granduncle, Francisco Sumulong, represented the second district of Rizal for 35 years (1957 to 1992), during which the House of Representatives became the Batasang Pambansa during the martial law period and was back again as the House of Representatives after.
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., perhaps the most famous Aquino of all and President Aquino III’s father, was a member of the Senate from 1968 to 1972. And of course, Mr. Aquino’s mother Corazon Aquino was President of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992.
Although the rivalry between Ferdinand Marcos and Ninoy Aquino, as the rivalry between warring politicos has often been, was deadly enough to include the latter’s assassination in 1983, during the martial law period Aquino III’s uncle Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. , who was closely identified with the Marcos regime, represented the first district of Tarlac in the so-called Batasang Pambansa from 1978 to 1986, at the same time that Francisco Sumulong was representing the second district of Rizal in the same body.
From 1986 onwards, an assortment of Aquino III granduncles, uncles, aunts, and cousins have occupied various elective posts, from Tarlac provincial board member representing the provincial Sangguniang Kabataan (the actress Mikee Cojuangco, a cousin) to Representative (for example, Gilberto Teodoro Jr., another cousin who represented the first district of Tarlac from 1998 to 2007 and who also ran for President in 2010, ) and senator (Agapito Aquino, an uncle, who was in the Senate from 1987 to 2007).
Uncle Jose Cojuangco Jr. represented the first district of Tarlac (1962 -1969; 1987-1998) and is currently presidential food security adviser. Aunt (and Cojuangco wife) Margarita Cojuangco was the governor of Tarlac from 1995 to 1998. She is currently also a presidential adviser, and Undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the Aquino-Cojuangco dynasty, which, however, it shares with the other dynasties in this democracy, is the enduring capacity of its members to remain in power of some kind despite political upheavals, whether it be during the Revolution, colonization by the United States, Japanese invasion, independence, or martial law.
The political agility of the members of Philippine political clans suggests a fundamental lack of bedrock principles. This was amply demonstrated in the ease with which, for example, former revolutionaries at the turn of the century made the switch from revolution against Spain and war against the United States to collaboration with the US once it had crushed the remnants of the Katipunan.
Opportunism and lack of principle may in fact have been a factor in the US’ prevailing over the armies of the Revolution, in keeping with what has been described as a tradition of betrayal among the political elite. Historians are still debating it, but was it patriotism that drove Emilio Aguinaldo and company to return to the Philippines in May 1898 (on board a US ship) at the suggestion of the US consul in Hongkong, or was it something else? And what of the enthusiasm with which such former partisans of independence as T. H. Pardo de Tavera (who declared himself an American) joined the political institutions the US created after 1902 when the Philippine-American war officially ended?
The same tradition was in evidence during the Japanese occupation, when a number of politicians prominent in the Commonwealth assumed posts in the Japanese-sponsored government. Some of these politicians managed to reinvent themselves as statesmen, emerging as nationalists and even anti-imperialists from 1946 onwards.
Reinventing themselves to suit changing circumstances seems to be an inherent — could it be genetic? –capacity among the members of the Philippine dynasties, much like the ability of chameleons to assume the color of their surroundings.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., recast from a tyrant’s playboy son to a Senator of the Republic, could defend his vote of acquittal for Renato Corona by citing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His mother Imelda has herself been reborn from dictator’s consort to congresswoman. Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the chief architects of martial law and the alleged brains behind the coup attempts against the Corazon Aquino presidency from 1987 to 1989, is now a democrat, an upholder of the rule of law, and an occasional Aquino III ally. One of his cohorts, who is dearly remembered in Mindanao as a creative torturer of captured Muslim guerillas, today looks, acts and talks like a statesman who couldn’t pull the wings off a fly.
The term dynasty has a royal ring to it, and does suggest the entitlement that such pretenders to royalty as Miriam Defensor-Santiago claim. But the members of the handful of dynasties that a la the Hapsburgs or the Romanovs have a monopoly over power in this rumored democracy do fight among themselves, depending on how ripe and ample the pickings at any given moment, such as when Marcos seized the opportunity to grab as much of the public treasury as he could from 1972 to 1986 by keeping rivals at bay.
But they eventually reconcile, no matter the violence of the rivalry. Kris Aquino’s giving Marcos Jr. a peck on the cheek was only among the least telling indicators of that process. It’s easy enough to know why. Opponents and rivals on the political stage, and even deadly competitors at times, as the principal and eternal beneficiaries of an economic, social and political system that has been so generous to a few and so brutal and unjust to the many, they share the same commitment to the protection of privilege and the preservation of the way things are that has always been their main goal.
Dynastic rule explains why even the littlest change has been so problematic in the Philippine setting. And from all appearances, it is and will remain the fundamental reality in Philippine politics, where only the first names of the people in charge change.