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In the Philippines, political dynasties die hard

In light of the death toll from Monday's election violence, now over 40, political warlordism looms large.

The bodies of female members of a political clan lie on the ground at the scene of a massacre on the outskirts of Ampatuan, Maguindanao in southern Philippines, Nov. 24, 2009. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo placed two southern provinces and a city under emergency rule on Tuesday after more than 40 people were killed in the worst-ever election related violence in the country. (Erik de Castro/Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines — Political violence on a scale never seen before has rocked the Philippines, with the brutal murders of 46 people, sparking new and grave concerns about the role of family dynasties in the country's political system.

The victims — relatives of politicians, lawyers and several journalists — were abducted by around 100 armed men in Maguindanao province, in the southern Philippines. By Tuesday, 46 bodies had been recovered, according to police.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo placed two southern provinces under a state of emergency on Tuesday.

Many of the victims were beheaded and brutally shot and hacked, according to Esmael Mangudadatu, a vice mayor of a small town whose wife, sister and other kin were among those believed dead.

The incident blanketed the whole country with a sense of doom, made especially stark since Filipinos have been celebrating the recent victory of boxing phenom Manny Pacquiao and CNN’s selection for Hero of the Year, Efren Penaflorida, a young man who drives around a pushcart to teach poor kids how to read and write.

The gruesome violence was a brutal reality check that once again underscored just how deadly Philippine democracy can be and, perhaps more importantly, how little has been done to eliminate one of its scourges: political warlordism.

“[Monday's] outrage brings this country closer to failed state status,” said Inday Espina-Varona, editor of the Manila newsweekly Philippine Graphic. It was a “brutal and barbaric display of naked power,” said Carlos Isagani Zarate, a lawyer from Mindanao, the main region in the southern Philippines. Two of Zarate’s colleagues who were lawyers of Esmael Mangudadatu were among those presumed dead. “This is a tragic commentary of our so-called democracy,” Zarate added.

While often exalted as the epitome of U.S.-style democracy in Asia, the Philippines has not quite lived up to the hype, if we go by the violence Filipinos witness every election season. In the 2007 midterm elections, more than 100 people were killed in election-related violence. In the 2004 elections, the number of deaths was even higher, at more than 200. But nothing — Zarate said not even during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos — came close to the brutality of Monday’s attacks.

What made the incident more incendiary is the fact that at least a dozen journalists, who were covering the relatives of Mangudadatu as they went to the provincial capital to file his candidacy papers, were likewise killed, further cementing the Philippines’s notoriety as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists next only to Iraq. “Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders reacted in a statement.