All in the family

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2021 - 12:00am

In countries such as New Zealand, people quit top government positions because the job is too demanding, or because of plain burnout and they want to try something new.

In our country, officials are prepared to kill and be killed to hold on to a government post with long hours and modest pay. And the position is considered an entitlement that must be passed on to the official’s children.

We’ve seen elected local officials die, only to be automatically replaced by a son or daughter who is the deputy, who in turn is replaced in the vacated post by another relative in the direct line of succession. More relatives occupy congressional seats in the province or city.

You know an enterprise is hugely profitable, and not just financially, when it becomes the main family business – not just the immediate family, but the entire clan.

And you get an idea of how profitable it can be by the number of politicians who are willing to have their rivals and supporters eliminated through murder.

This is what our political system has become, as lawmakers – among the biggest beneficiaries of politics as family enterprise – have steadfastly refused to pass the enabling law for the constitutional prohibition on political dynasties.

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The system has so deteriorated that we’re no longer even looking at uninterrupted succession, but of entire clans occupying every position available in their turfs, all at the same time – and then grooming their spouses, children, siblings and even mistresses as their future replacement.

Not content with occupying existing positions, lawmakers carve up their fiefdoms, to create even more positions for their relatives and cronies. They field more relatives as party-list nominees. Gerrymandering has continued, adding to taxpayers’ heavy burden, even amid the COVID pandemic that has buried the country in debt for the next four generations. And President Duterte, himself a dynast and aiming to please political allies, keeps signing the gerrymandering bills into law.

Some dynasts also blame the constitutional term limits, which have compelled politicians to field their relatives at the end of their term. The relatives enjoy their stint in office and decide to aim for other positions once the original politician returns to power. They argue that in the US, for example, there are no term limits for lawmakers.

Dynasts don’t call this unmitigated greed, but the people’s will. The common argument is that if voters are unhappy with the dynasty, they can always elect new officials.

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The reality in our sad, dysfunctional republic is that once a family becomes entrenched in power, replacing the clan can endanger the lives and livelihoods of those seeking change.

We have enough documented stories of armed harassment by those in power of political foes and their supporters. There are also non-violent ways of making life difficult for non-supporters. For example, they can encounter red tape in all dealings with the local government, which can be a terrible hassle for those with businesses. Basic services in their residences and offices can deteriorate: roads are not repaired, and garbage collection slows down.

We’ve seen the worst case scenario: persons can be framed for drug trafficking and end up as an addition to the ever growing death toll in Duterte’s war on drugs.

Entrenched clans control every aspect of the criminal justice system – plus the electoral machinery – in their home turfs. It allows them to literally get away with murder and poll fraud.

The check and balance system is also upended, fostering opaqueness and corruption. In a city or municipality, for example, the council is supposed to provide the checks and balances to the mayor. But the council is chaired by the vice mayor. How can the system work when the mayor and vice mayor (plus a councilor or two) belong to the same family?

With their power unchecked, entrenched clans can also freely engage in illegal but hugely lucrative enterprises such as drug trafficking, gunrunning, smuggling and jueteng.

The money is easily laundered through the banking system, since lawmakers have also steadfastly resisted efforts to lift the bank secrecy law. With the weakness of the anti-money laundering and tax police, dirty money is also easily funneled to legitimate businesses. Pretty soon the clan owns businesses big and small in their turf. No red tape for their businesses, no substandard roads, no security problems.

During elections, the money is used to buy votes and dispense patronage, to ensure the perpetuation of the dynasty.

They can kill whoever gets in their way – and get away with it.

The Ampatuan clan is just the extreme example of the monsters created by dynasties. Across the country, however, the incestuous marriage of politics and business is evident on a lesser scale.

If those tasked to implement the Philippine Competition Act of 2015 really did their job, they would easily find violations of laws on antitrust and unfair competition by several political families.

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The government has become the country’s biggest employer, with no positive impact on the quality of governance. We’re seeing the consequences in the disastrous pandemic response. Multilateral agencies, analysts in investment houses and think tanks are one in describing the Philippine response as mediocre.

So what can the nation do about it?

Some quarters have suggested that we shouldn’t vote for anyone with a relative in another elective post, especially in the same city, municipality or province. This could wipe out nearly all the incumbents plus their challengers from rival political families – not that this is such a bad idea.

There are proposals for more people from sectors other than the legal profession, show biz and sports to try their hand at politics, offering themselves as alternatives to the entrenched clans, and proposing viable new ways of running government. Where are the doctors, engineers, urban planners, educators? Through the creative use of social media, they can run cheap but effective campaigns.

Dynasts will likely say, dream on, and see you at the polls!

There’s an opportunity to disappoint them in their smugness. Will the nation take the opportunity?

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