The election circus and political warlords

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - June 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Political warlords will also be kings in next year’s elections and they are ready to roll the red carpet as the election circus visits their respective kingdoms.

My bet is that they will have bigger roles to play in the May 2022 polls because of the pandemic which will surely limit face-to-face campaigns-- those mammoth cheek-to-cheek rallies and house-to-house visits.

Instead, candidates will have to rely on warlords to bring them the votes, now more than ever. This means bigger leverage for the political warlords – the quid pro quo game will be stronger if provincial kings can deliver the votes. Concessions and favors, post-election victory, will be bigger and better. They will surely ask for more projects; think multi-billion peso contracts funded by pork barrel funds or whatever you call these funds nowadays.

Who are these political warlords? Almost every province has one – mostly living in sprawling mansions; some with local empires whose reach goes far beyond the provinces they govern; some are owners of local businesses – banana plantations, for instance, as far as the eye can see.

In a province somewhere in the north, we have the family with a one syllable name, whose members have ruled since the ‘70s. In the same region, but closer to Manila, there’s also that powerful figure known for beautiful women and a fleet of big buses.

In the south, we have that businessman and sometimes politiko who owns hectares and hectares of plantation. In the Visayas, we have Spanish mestizos who may not be in politics, but are equally influential.

Political warlords have always been part of society. They are mostly dynasties whose clans have ruled for decades, with power passed on from their elders to their grandchildren, to their grandchildren’s children.  Some of them have sprawling businesses on the side or are godfathers to entrepreneurial families in their provinces.


Some have delivered votes in past elections. We all know about the controversial 12-0 senatorial slate win supposedly involving the former political warlords of Maguindanao, the Ampatuans, who, backed by the powers-that-be in Malacanang and their own private armies, ruled the province for decades.

“In Maguindanao, the word of the Ampatuans was the law,” Human Rights Watch, quoting an Ampatuan militia member, said in a 2010 report.

In other parts of the country, we also have the yellow clans, the Cojuangcos and Aquinos in their bailiwick in Tarlac.

Some have faded into oblivion or have quietly left the spotlight. During the Marcos era, there were the Gustilos of Negros, a sugar baron clan close to the late strongman.

But political warlords will never really disappear from society, at least not in the near future, for as long as our Constitution continues to allow it. Some may just be replaced by new names, paving the way for the next political dynasty.

Indeed, they are everywhere and anywhere in this nation of 110 million and now, more than ever, with the country’s first post-COVID-19 elections, they will surely be more powerful as they strive to deliver the crucial votes.

‘Idealism is not enough’

And this is where the uncertainty lies. Will they have their constituents in mind in choosing the candidates they vowed to support? Or will they just be mercenaries and choose the ones who can give them what they want? Or will they, at the end of the day, really choose to support leaders who can help their respective territories move forward and progress as cities, municipalities, and provinces?

Your guess is as good as mine.

A political warlord once said, “Money is important. When people get sick, married or die, they expect a little help. When you get into politics, you need financial backing. Idealism is not enough.”

What is clear, and as I wrote in last week’s column, is that the election circus has come to town.

COVID-19 is about to change the usual campaign trail as face-to-face sorties will be limited. There will be more troll masters who will be tapped for social media campaigns and disinformation, or propaganda will spread faster like wildfire.

The country’s tycoons and billionaires -- the owners or the funders of the circus themselves -- are already placing their bets, with some betting on existing leaders, mainly because they will need support for their respective empires’ recovery in a post COVID-19 Philippines.

Silver lining

The silver lining in all of this is that smaller businesses, including listed companies and new entrepreneurs, as well as the foreign business chambers, vowed to deliver votes for a candidate they deem will really be good for the country and not just themselves. It might be an uphill battle, but as one businessman told me, the next best thing to seeing real and lasting change is the struggle to work on that change.

It’s going to be a wild ride, this 2022 election circus. At best, it will be entertaining, another dose of dark comedy in this country we live in.

God bless the Philippines, I hope; not so much for ourselves, but for the future of our children and that of our children’s children.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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