IT should be obvious by now that the failure of the Philippines to keep pace with the development of such of its neighbors as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even Indonesia can primarily be attributed to the poor quality of its political leadership.

Some analysts blame the country’s laggard status on its damaged culture, its fraudulent and violence-ridden elections, or on “too much democracy” — even the quality of its human resources. As valid as some or all of these claims may be, rather than the root causes of stagnation and even retrogression, they seem to be mere reflections of Philippine society and governance as these have evolved under the erratic watch of a flawed leadership.

That leadership has mostly been drawn from the modern embodiment of the principalia — that class that developed during the Spanish colonial era from among the pre-Hispanic chieftains who ruled the scattered settlements the Spaniards found in these islands.

Its monopoly over political power since the Commonwealth to the exclusion of those classes that have a stake in the transformation of Philippine society is the practical guarantee that things will remain as they have always been since the Spanish period in terms of inequality, poverty, and social injustice. Its long history of collaboration, first with the conquistadores, later with the US colonizers, the Japanese invaders, and currently with its US patrons in behalf of its economic and political interests, have also compromised its capacity to govern in behalf of national interest.

If the defense and advancement of self, familial and class interests are among its most enduring qualities, so is corruption. There is little, even no resistance to putting a stop to such petty instances of corruption as traffic enforcers’ being bribed, or to forbidding such external indicators of entitlement as the use of sirens by even petty officials. But stopping or merely minimizing corruption at the higher levels of government where its cost runs into the billions has become a nearly impossible task.

The character of the ruling elite was most evident during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when naked self-interest swept aside all pretense at democratic rule, and revealed how corrupt and unfit for the governance of a country that so desperately needs transformation are the present-day descendants of the principalia. The Marcos dictatorship claimed to be for change, while actually being for the exact opposite. But it had to rely on that deception because of the widespread demand for social revolution feeding the growth of the mass movement that Marcos used as one of his excuses for the imposition of martial law.

Awareness of the limitations of traditional Philippine leadership has since become common, even if unarticulated in those terms by the less eloquent. Among the indicators of that awareness has been the electorate’s choice of leaders it regards as different from the usual professionals, businessmen and members of the landed gentry it had been electing since 1947.

While among the indicators of its search for alternatives to traditional politicians, the election of celebrities to some of the highest offices in the land including the Presidency was followed by the election of, among others, such reformists as Ed Panlilio to the governorship of Pampanga, and Grace Padaca as governor of Isabela despite the advantage in wealth and political machinery of their trapo opponents. Imaginative and honest leaders do arise even in flawed systems, and there is no arguing that during the last three decades or so, the Philippines has produced such leaders.

As a result of the recognition by the 1987 Constitution of the dominance of elite representation in Congress and, therefore, of the undemocratic character of Philippine “representative democracy,” the party list system the Constitution put in place also resulted in the election to the House of Representatives of the nominees of such politically-marginalized sectors as workers, poor farmers, women, urban poor, and progressive youth.

But these gains have turned out to be either illusory or short-lived. Most of the celebrities the electorate believed represented them morphed into politicians as traditional as those they were supposed to replace once they became part of the system. Meanwhile, against the steadfastly reformist, the traditional politicians devised conspiracies of money, power, violence and fraud to either keep them out of office, or to eventually oust them. The party list system has also been transformed by the traditional politicians into a backdoor through which they and their surrogates can further enhance elite hold on power, perverting a system meant to enhance democratic representation into one more instrument of dynastic dominance.

Even some of those who entered government as reformers have also turned into versions of those they were once against. The compromises needed to win in elections where money rules are treacherous traps for those committed to political reform. In at least one instance, for example, a party list group not only ended up in a coalition with some of the worst trapos in Philippine politics; its most well known representative also found himself on the campaign stage with Ferdinand Marcos Jr., whose father’s military goons had arrested and tortured him during the martial law period.

Those rare officials who’re exemplary in their performance are often targeted for demolition by those politicians who see them as threats to their power or as hindrances to their continuing to operate in the manner they have been accustomed. As universally praised as the late Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo has been, for example, his confirmation had been opposed by certain members of the Commission on Appointments as well as by his local rivals, while all sorts of false accusations of wrongdoing were being thrown at him.

The reality is that those who benefit from the political system will always resist all attempts to change it. They also have more than ample means to prevent its transformation into anything resembling an authentic instrument of mass empowerment and social change. Among the most fundamental lessons of the involvement of reformers and even revolutionaries in Philippine elite politics is that not even the most radical can “change the system from within” despite the cliché to the contrary. Rather will the system change them – often into the very same people they most detest.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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