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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.

Political families or dynasties, with their warlords and private armies, rule the Philippine political landscape, especially in the provinces. They are products of the Philippines’ colonial experience, with the Spanish and Americans nurturing them to protect each other’s interests. Even after the country gained independence in 1946, the system — which can only be described as feudal — persisted, with land-owning Filipino families forming their own dynasties, building their own private armies and running for public office to protect their interests.

According to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a Manila think tank, there are an estimated 250 political dynasties in the Philippines. Of the 265 members of Congress in 2007, it said in a report that year, 160 of them belonged to these powerful families.

In the same report, the center said these political dynasties almost singlehandedly engendered a culture of election fraud. “Fraud recycles the political dynasties and keeps them in power. It breeds generations of cheaters and manipulators, corrupt politicians, mediocre executives, bribe takers, absenteeism in Congress,” it said.

Apart from fraud, these dynasties flourish because Filipinos tend not to vote according to class, ethnicity, religion or even ideology. As a result, the Filipino family has become “the most enduring political unit and the one into which, failing some wider principle of participation, all other units dissolve,” wrote Brian Fegan, an American anthropologist and historian, in his book “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines.”

Monday’s violence is typical of the dynamic between Filipino political dynasties. The victims, the Mangudadatus, are themselves a powerful political clan in at least two Muslim provinces in Mindanao. Esmael Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of Buluan town, is challenging the governorship of Maguindanao province whose governor, Andal Ampatuan, belongs to the Mangudadatus’ main political rival. Esmael Mangudadatu alleged on Monday that the Ampatuans launched the attack to frustrate his attempt to become governor, which is perhaps the most important office that a political dynasty should have in order to remain in power.

Prior to this incident, there had been violent attacks perpetrated by either side and Esmael Mangudadatu, in television interviews on Monday, admitted that he had sent his wife and other female relatives to file his candidacy for him, thinking that his opponents would not harm women. He was wrong: The military says 13 of the 21 bodies they recovered Monday were those of Mangudadatu’s women relatives as well as his two women lawyers.

What made this case even more politically intriguing is the fact the Ampatuans are allies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. They have thrived in Maguindanao largely because of Arroyo’s patronage.

In the 2004 elections, Andal Ampatuan, who was already governor at the time, publicly promised to Arroyo that he would deliver most of Maguindanao’s votes for her and her party. He did, with two of the towns they controlled delivering zero votes to Arroyo’s opponent — sparking allegations of massive election fraud. In fact, the allegation that is hounding Arroyo — that she cheated her way to the presidency in 2004 — had its beginnings in Maguindanao province, with the Ampatuans allegedly behind the whole thing.

The Ampatuans had denied the election fraud charge. They have not issued any statement to refute the recent attacks, while Arroyo has promised to investigate the carnage and bring the perpetrators to justice.

In any case, there has always been a call over the years for government to dismantle these private armies. The latest one was sounded off by Amnesty International in a statement on Monday. “The government must prohibit and disband private armies and paramilitary forces immediately,” said Donna Guest, the group’s deputy director for Asia-Pacific.

Political movements have also been launched to break the stranglehold of political dynasties on Philippine democracy. These have had some few successes but, overall, the dynasties still rule.

In fact, Arroyo herself has demonstrated that a powerful political family is crucial to survival in the rough-and-tumble world of Philippine politics. Her two sons and her sister- and brother-in-laws are all members of congress. Her allies even created a new district in one province so that one of her boys can run there.