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The Arroyo Imbroglio

By Paul D. Hutchcroft
First Posted 16:39:00 02/04/2008

Filed Under: Graft & Corruption, Elections, Government, history

Another article by an American scholar provoked a recent ripple among Filipinos in the Internet. Written by political science professor Paul D. Hutchcroft of the University of Wisconsin?Madison and published in the Jan.1, 2008 issue of the Journal of Democracy, it summarizes the conduct and consequences of Philippine elections from 1907 to the present, and makes concrete suggestions for 2010. Excerpts follow, with a link to the whole article at the end.

With the exception of Ferdinand Marcos, who held power from 1965 to 1986, no one in Philippine history has had a longer tenure in the presidential palace than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She first assumed the presidency in January 2001, when a ?people power? uprising ousted
President Joseph Estrada from Malacanang Palace and elevated her from the vice-presidency to the highest office in the land. After serving out Estrada?s remaining term until 2004, Macapagal-Arroyo was elected for another six years. Term-limit restrictions require her to step down in 2010, after what will be nearly a decade in office.

In the midst of this longevity, the Arroyo administration has found political legitimacy to be elusive. President Macapagal-Arroyo?s assumption of office through extra-constitutional means provided a weak initial mandate.

Over the course of her seven years in office, an already crisis-prone democracy has faced an unusually high number of travails, including an uprising by the urban poor that nearly breached the walls of the presidential palace on May Day 2001; a botched military mutiny in July 2003; corruption scandals involving the first family; allegations of presidential involvement in fixing the 2004 elections; a failed coup attempt-cum-popular-uprising in February 2006 that led to the declaration of emergency rule; concerted attacks on the press; an alarming spike in extrajudicial killings; impeachment attempts in 2005, 2006, and 2007; two major bribery scandals in late 2007, one involving the chief election officer and the other, brazen cash payouts from the Palace to congresspersons and governors; and a November 2007 bombing at the House of Representatives that killed a notorious warlord congressman from Mindanao.

Macapagal-Arroyo very effectively wields the substantial powers of the presidency to keep herself in office, and in the process she exhibits no qualms about further undermining the country?s already weak political institutions. As the Philippines suffers one political crisis after another, its longstanding democratic structures become increasingly imperiled. No country in Asia has more experience with democratic institutions than the Philippines, dating back to the fledgling Assembly created by the revolutionary republic
that declared independence in 1898, after more than three centuries of Spanish rule.

The United States? rapid defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War led to a protracted colonial conquest of the Philippines, in the wake of which the United States embarked on its first major overseas experiment in ?nation-building.?

Elections proceeded from the municipal level to the provincial level to the October 1907 convening of a Philippine National Assembly, bringing together prominent elites from throughout the lowland Christian Philippines.

Several key elements of Philippine democracy can be traced to the U.S.-colonial era. The first is patronage-infested political parties that rely heavily on pork-barrel public-works projects run through national legislators. Under U.S. governor-general William Howard Taft?s ?policy of attraction,? which was intended to woo the landlord class away from the revolutionary struggle and toward collaboration with the United States, the economic elite of the Spanish-colonial era was transformed into a political-economic elite that continues to wield power today.

Because representative institutions in the Philippines emerged before the creation of strong bureaucratic institutions, it was easy for patronage-hungry politicos to overwhelm the nascent administrative agencies of the colonial state. Taft liked to evoke images of New England?style deliberative democracy, but the end result is better thought of as a Philippine version of Tammany Hall.

Second, the colonial political system ensured exclusion of the masses and control by a national oligarchy nurtured by U.S. rule. The franchise was limited to a tiny electorate and did not begin to expand substantially until the late-colonial and early-postcolonial years. By this time, the dominance of the national oligarchy was so well-entrenched that challenges from below faced monumental odds.

A third major legacy is the provincial basis of national politics, as influential provincial elites thrived in the national arenas established by US officials. Finally, the strong presidency of the modern Philippines began with the emergence of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, when President Manuel L. Quezon presided over a weak National Assembly and enjoyed largely uncontested executive authority.

These legacies were the foundations from which Philippine politics evolved after independence in 1946. Among the trends of the 1950s and the 1960s were the further expansion of suffrage, the emergence of charismatic appeals, a new prominence for the media, the expansion of civil society, enhanced presidential mobilization of the army and community development agencies and the increasing cost of elections. The genius of ?cacique democracy,? as Benedict Anderson explains, was its capacity to rotate power at the top without effective participation of those below.

Ferdinand Marcos undermined the system of regular rotation, however, beginning in 1969 when he became the first postwar president to be reelected to a second term. Three years later, partly in an effort to skirt the two-term limit imposed by the 1935 Constitution, Marcos declared
martial law. His personalistic, authoritarian rule, amply rewarded by successive U.S. presidents in exchange for continued unhampered access to U.S. military bases, endured for more than thirteen years until 1986.

When people power confronted Marcos?s tanks on the streets of Manila in February 1986, the Philippines became a beacon of hope for democrats around the world. As Corazon Aquino was propelled from grieving widow to democratic icon and the Philippines began its transition out of authoritarian rule, there was much to celebrate about the exuberance of the country?s democratic spirit.

Opposition to Marcos had nurtured the growth of vibrant civil society organizations dedicated to promoting the interests of farmers, the urban poor, women, indigenous peoples, and others who had long been marginalized by the country?s political system. A new breed of investigative journalists, seemingly fearless in their desire to expose corruption, emerged after the country?s transition back to democracy.

Elections brought forth high turnouts and extensive civic involvement. The country?s return to democratic structures, however, revealed many underlying problems. First, numerous coup attempts against the Aquino government demonstrated the difficulties of returning the military to the barracks after more than a decade of martial law.

Second, the Maoist insurgency of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People?s Army continued in many parts of the archipelago, assisted by successive governments? failures to address immense socioeconomic divides. In the Sulu archipelago and parts of the large, southern island of Mindanao, Muslim secessionists challenged the central government and demanded attention to their longstanding grievances.

Third, the effective reinstatement of pre?martial law electoral and representative structures facilitated the restoration of the power of the old local clans, who dominated the newly convened legislature in Manila and used the new democratic dispensation as an opportunity to reinvigorate private armies that had been dismantled under Marcos.

Fourth, while political parties expanded in number, they remain today nearly indistinguishable from one another in terms of programmatic and policy positions.

Politicians have little allegiance to party labels, frequently bolting from one party to another in search of the greatest access to patronage resources. Political divides are ever-shifting, uniting former rivals and dividing former allies in a continual process of alignment and realignment almost entirely divorced from coherent positions on policies or programs.

?Political scientist Nathan Quimpo provides perhaps the best description of contemporary Philippine political parties: ?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.?

In an environment in which political institutions are weak, differences in leadership styles have a particularly large impact on political outcomes. The four post-Marcos presidents vary enormously in the quality and goals of their leadership. Corazon Aquino (r. 1986?92), widow of a martyred politician, might be characterized as an elite restorationist, since her major achievement was to rebuild the elite-dominated democratic structures undermined by her authoritarian predecessor. Former general Fidel Ramos (r. 1992?98) was the military reformer who achieved considerable success in bringing about economic reform through deft manipulation of old-style patronage politics.

Joseph Estrada (r. 1998?2001), a former movie star, was the populist self-aggrandizer who built a strong following among the masses and then redistributed wealth in favor of his family and friends; anger over his corruption led to his downfall via ?People Power II? in January 2001.

Finally, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (r. 2001?present), a former president?s daughter and the holder of a doctorate in economics, might be called the great compromiser, given her willingness to accommodate anyone able to help her retain the presidency.

An Election Scandal and Its Aftermath

On the surface, the 14 May 2007 midterm elections seemed to demonstrate the vitality of Philippine democracy. Some 87,000 candidates contested more than 16,000 local and national posts. Two-thirds of registered voters exercised their right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of citizens mobilized to guard the polls in four-fifths or more of the nation?s precincts, and to monitor the vote count afterward.

In the senatorial elections, widely viewed as a popular referendum on the Arroyo administration, candidates running under an ad hoc label of ?Genuine Opposition? ended up winning a majority of the 12 seats at stake, despite large sums expended by those who campaigned under the president?s rival banner of ?Team Unity.?

A closer look, however, reveals that the Philippine electoral process is alive but not well. The most recent elections went forward under the shadow of the 2004 presidential election, after which President Macapagal-Arroyo was accused of personal involvement in an attempt to fix the results. Because she came into office in 2001 via people power, Macapagal-Arroyo?s first three years in the Palace were dogged by questions of legitimacy?even though the Supreme Court had given its imprimatur to her ascension.

The president was determined to correct this at the ballot box, and in the 2004 elections her considerable patronage
resources were skillfully deployed to local politicians throughout the archipelago. There were many allegations of improper use of public funds, manipulation of government programs, and tampering with the vote count, but election-monitoring groups were generally happy to declare the results ?free and fair.? Many feared the consequences of victory by Macapagal-Arroyo?s major opponent, Fernando Poe, Jr., a popular movie star with close ties to deposed president Estrada. The National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), in particular, seems to have been more concerned with giving Macapagal-Arroyo legitimacy than with safeguarding the sanctity of the ballot.

With the help of ?free election? monitors, Macapagal-Arroyo managed to weather criticism and enjoy the legitimation of her million-vote margin over Poe. By mid-2005, however, things had started to unravel. In May came accusations that her husband and son were taking monthly payments from gambling lords. This had particular resonance because her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, had been drummed out of office partly due to accusations of heading up a lucrative gambling syndicate.

Most damaging, however, was the bombshell that hit the headlines in June 2005. Tapes of wiretapped conversations were released, thought to contain the voice of the president talking to a Commission on Elections (COMELEC) commissioner amid the counting of ballots in the weeks after the May 2004 election?

In 2007 as in 2004, the elections revealed major shortcomings in the country?s democratic structures. The Philippine ballot is probably one of the most archaic in the world, as voters are required to fill in, by hand, the names of all candidates for whom they are voting. The vote tally is then compiled, also by hand. With thirty million ballots cast last May, each containing the votes for roughly 25 to 30 positions, election officials faced the gargantuan task of counting almost a billion preferences in all.

This laborious process is highly susceptible to fraud: As official election tallies begin their long migration from local precincts throughout the Philippine archipelago to Manila over the course of several weeks, politicians can use a variety of tactics to supplement retail vote purchases with wholesale manipulation of the vote count.

In each of the last two elections, the Commission on Elections has demonstrated itself to be fabulously incompetent (and often very corrupt) in performing its three basic tasks of preparing for elections, executing the polling process, and counting the votes. NAMFREL reported that in 2004, due to huge errors in COMELEC?s voter lists, ?disenfranchisement may have run as high as two million voters.?

There has long been talk of modernizing the ballot, but allegations of corruption have impeded change. Most recently, in 2003, a COMELEC attempt to automate the electoral system was nullified by the Supreme Court due
to bidding violations. Finally, the long vote count provides ample opportunities for election officials to solicit payoffs not only from trailing candidates wanting to pad their votes, but also from leading candidates needing to protect their votes against the cheating of others.

After the May 2007 elections, it took almost two months before the twelfth-ranked candidate was proclaimed a victor in the Senate contest. Many of the charges and countercharges focused on Mindanao?s remote province of Maguindanao, the details of which illustrate complex interactions between the administration, COMELEC, and local power holders. In the run-up to the elections, each region of the country was put under the supervision of a particular COMELEC commissioner.

Benjamin Abalos, a political ally of the First Gentleman who had been appointed COMELEC chair in 2002, assumed initial responsibility for the polls in Mindanao and then placed key lieutenants in strategic posts. In Maguindanao, his provincial election supervisor was a well known protégé of Garcillano who had merited frequent mention in the ?Hello, Garci? tapes and was linked to suspiciously strong pro-Arroyo results in the 2004 election. Without the effective oversight of either COMELEC or election monitors (who were barred from many localities), Macapagal-Arroyo?s political allies in Maguindanao were able to deliver a sweep to her Team Unity senatorial candidates.

The key figure in securing this outcome was Governor Andal Ampatuan, who commands a substantial paramilitary force and has a reputation for using violence against his political enemies. ?Whatever the president wants, he will follow,? said a family friend to Newsbreak.

?12-0 is what Ma?am wants.? Ampatuan is no doubt well-rewarded by the Palace, but seemingly cuts deals for his own benefit as well. Among the Team Unity hopefuls, it is reported that ?the ranking of individual candidates depended on how much they would pay up.? Rumor has it that the top senatorial slot in Maguindanao went to a northern Luzon strongman for the sum of 30 million pesos (US$636,000).

Aside from money, violence is also a useful tool for gaining political power. According to police statistics, there were 148 election-related killings in 2004, more than double that of the last general elections in 1998. In 2007, there were 121 election-related killings, marginally more than the 111 persons killed in the last midterm elections, in 2001.

?The contest over control of these activities gives a premium to leaders with skills in manipulating illegality and the uses of violence. At the least, one can say that the national police and the Philippine armed forces are unable to safeguard the electoral process; far more disturbing is when their coercive power is deployed in favor of one candidate over another.

Another armed force, the communist National People?s Army, has used its coercive capacity for a combination of entrepreneurial and political ends: extorting permit-to-campaign fees in the areas that it controls, occasionally hiring itself out for intra-elite political assassinations, and intimidating rival opponents on the left.

?The analysis thus far has focused on the challenges of democratic process, in particular the conduct of free, fair, and safe elections. Equally important is the capacity of a political system to provide the citizenry with the opportunity for democratic outcomes, notably clear choices among contending views and programs. Democracy should, after all, involve citizens in their own governance.

Philippine democracy as it has developed over the past century, however, privileges personalities and patronage over parties and platforms. Electoral victory thus frequently involves promising voters some short-term gain, whether it be the purchase of a vote or the pledge to construct a health center, road, or neighborhood basketball court.

This produces high-cost politics?costly in monetary terms and in the gross undermining of the democratic ideal. When candidates buy or coerce their way into office, they have little reason to be accountable to the electorate. Their accountability, rather, is to those who have financed the past campaign effort and to those who might be called upon for assistance during the next elections.

As Philippine elections have become increasingly costly, they have encouraged politicians to become more creative in raising funds, whether through the promise of legislative and regulatory favors, real-estate scams, involvement in gambling syndicates, or links to drug lords and the underworld. In a surprisingly candid moment, Speaker de Venecia explained the system: ?It?s the drug lords and the gambling lords . . . who finance the candidates. So from Day One, they become corrupt. So the whole political process is rotten.?

Prospects for Political Reform and Charter Change

The Philippines has now had a longer stretch of life after Marcos than life under Marcos. As the post-Marcos era enters its third decade, the high hopes for democracy voiced in the mid-1980s have given way to disillusionment with the country?s low quality of governance.

Polls measuring overall satisfaction with ?the way democracy works? were in the range of 46 to 70 percent under Ramos and 42 to 70 percent under Estrada, in each case peaking at 70 percent after their respective victories in the general elections of 1992 and 1998, respectively.

Under Macapagal-Arroyo, the range is 33 to 54 percent, peaking at 54 percent in the wake of the 2007 midterm elections that brought opposition victories in the Senate. No other post-Marcos president has had lower approval ratings than Macapagal-Arroyo, who is the first to plunge into negative numbers in her ?net satisfaction rating?: -33 percent in May 2005, improving to -3 percent in June 2007.

One major bright spot for Macapagal-Arroyo, however, has been the very respectable economic growth rates, which have gained her substantial support from elements within the business community. The administration can also point with pride to recent progress in peace negotiations with the major Muslim secessionist group in Mindanao.

These important successes notwithstanding, Philippine democratic institutions are not inspiring faith among the citizenry. In the month prior to the 2007 elections, 69 percent of those surveyed expected vote buying and 53 percent anticipated cheating in the vote count (substantially higher percentages than those registered prior to the 2001 and 2004 elections). In a 2006 survey, COMELEC was among the four agencies that the public rated as ?very bad? in terms of ?sincerity in fighting corruption.?

There have long been problems at COMELEC, but the level
of politicization under the Arroyo government is perceived to be particularly grave. Similar stories can be told regarding the decline of other important political institutions, including the House of Representatives (currently subordinated to the Palace even more thoroughly than usual); the judiciary (with the Supreme Court an important and encouraging exception); the Office of the Ombudsman (now headed by the president?s former chief legal counsel); and the military (recall the use of military intelligence for electoral purposes, discussed above).

Many believe that the best way to address this disillusionment is to reform democratic institutions. But those who advocate ?political reform? have a range of ideas as to what should be changed and to what extent, as well as how to accomplish the changes. Given current levels of disillusionment, some suggest that whatever political set-up the Philippines presently has should be discarded. If the country is currently under a presidential system, it should shift to parliamentarism. If it is currently unitary, then federalism is the solution.

The bigger the change, however, the greater the risk of unintended consequences, leading some to call for well-targeted incremental reforms, instituted with particular goals in mind. A central, overarching goal should be the fostering of stronger and more programmatic political parties.

?A good starting point would be such modest electoral reforms as preprinted ballots, a consolidated ticket for the election of presidents and vice-presidents, and an option for straight-party voting.

Two somewhat more ambitious electoral reforms, one for the Senate and one for the House, could have much greater impact in promoting stronger parties. The first would be to scrap the current system in which senators are elected from one nationwide district; this leads to intra-party competition and forces each candidate to cut his or her own deals with local power holders throughout the archipelago.

The second change would be to abolish the current party-list system, through which 20 percent of the members of the House are selected. While most standard proportional-representation systems require parties to achieve a certain percentage of the vote in order to have seats in the legislature, the Philippine party-list system is distinguished both by a very low floor (2 percent) and by the presence of a ceiling: Incredibly, no single party is permitted to have more than three seats in the legislature. This entirely undermines the goal of aggregating interests under one party label.

Following the example of Japan and South Korea, the Philippines could consider adopting a mixed system involving both single-member-district seats and some element of a more standard proportional-representation system.

Another well-targeted reform, more relevant to process than to outcomes, relates to electoral administration. COMELEC should be restructured from top to bottom?from its central office in Manila to its extensive nationwide field structure?in order to develop the capacity to maintain accurate lists of voters and execute an accurate and expeditious vote count.

Allegations of election fraud involving politicians and COMELEC officials need to be investigated by independent prosecutors willing and able to press charges for wrongdoing. The perfect opportunity for leadership change comes in early 2008, as COMELEC chair Benjamin Abalos steps down in the wake of bribery charges, and three additional slots on the seven-member national commission will also need to be filled.

As a practical matter, incremental measures of political reform, rather than a wholesale shift to parliamentarism or federalism, seem to hold greater promise for success. In response to the two late-2007 bribery scandals, the Palace dusted off proposals for charter change in yet another attempt to change the topic to political reform. Such patent political opportunism has turned much of the public against the idea of constitutional revision. After his attempts were spurned in late 2006, even Speaker de Venecia now seeks a moratorium on charter change.

Senators continue to oppose the abolition of their chamber, and one can presume that the five senators considering bids for the presidency in 2010 are particularly averse to the parliamentary option. Considering these factors, there is unlikely to be renewed momentum for sweeping constitutional changes until after the 2010 presidential elections.

In the meantime, democratic institutions in the Philippines continue to be under major stress. For some, democracy has lost its appeal and military intervention has become an attractive option. Those who want to see the perpetuation of civilian democratic structures might draw some comfort from the reflection that the Philippine military has never launched a successful grab for power, despite many attempts.

Given the current weakness of political institutions, however, it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of a coup. After all, the odds that such an attempt might succeed depend not only on the capability of a group of disgruntled soldiers but also upon the nature of the political institutions that are being targeted.

Although the Philippines can boast the oldest democratic structures in Asia, they are currently weak and lacking in legitimacy. Battered by scandal after scandal, these structures need careful and well-considered reform if they are to survive. With particular attention to the goal of strengthening political parties, it is important to build a democracy that can overcome its historical shortcomings and begin to demonstrate responsiveness not just to the privileged few but to the citizenry as a whole.

Click here to read the whole piece.

Paul D. Hutchcroft has written extensively on Philippine politics. He is author of Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines (1998), and is completing a book on patronage structures and territorial politics in the twentieth-century Philippines. The Journal of Democracy is published by the National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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