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No more “wang wang” in the Philippines?  

For several weeks now we have been discussing the long-run history of development in the Philippines and its legacy for the present, why the Philippines failed to become a “Tiger economy” and how contemporary politics is riven by dynastic control and clientelism? Is there a way out?

There is some hope that the answer to this is yes. In his inaugural State of the Nation address President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino noted:

Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? So do I. Do you want to give everyone a fair chance to improve their lot in life? So do I.

The expression “wang wang”, derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way so they can come through, is commonly used in the Philippines to refer to the syndrome of corruption and lack of accountability of elites which plagues politics in the country.

Now there is some irony in President Aquino, a fourth-generation politician of a distinguished political family, spearheading a campaign to clean up Filipino politics and reduce corruption and elite-control.

It was the assassination of President Aquino’s father in 1983 that led to the social mobilization and the People’s Power Movement, which ended the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and catapulted his mother Corazon into the presidency.

President Aquino’s mother failed to eliminate wang wang because she had to spend a great deal of time fending off military coups and in order to regain some stability in many ways facilitated the re-consolidation of dynastic power (and perhaps dynastic politicians aren’t always the best ones to end the elite control).

But the military is under civilian control now and her son is trying to make a transition towards a different society. Can he do it? Does he really mean it?

President Aquino’s strategy appears multi-faceted. Part of it is to greatly expand a conditional cash transfer program CCT) and Community Driven Development (CDD) programs which deliver money and resources directly into the hands of poor people. The CCT program has been specifically designed to make sure that it is not hijacked by clientelistic politicians. To target the program to the poor, the government undertook a household survey to objectively identify who was poor and in the process cleared off the pre-existing list of “poor people”, hundreds of thousands of people who were incorrectly labeled poor for the sake of transferring patronage to them.

But can such a system actually break the grip of political patrons on local politics?

It might. As we argued in our discussion of the collapse of the Christian Democratic political machine in Naples in the 1970s, the construction of car factories which brought higher paying jobs was critical in making poor people autonomous from political bosses and vote buying machines. But the Naples example also suggests that organization was important too. It was crucial that the Christian Democrats were not able to control who got jobs at the car factories and the communist Italian trade unions made sure they could not. So the CCT program in the Philippines may loosen the grip of political bosses, but probably it needs organization for poor people to identify and articulate an alternative, better vision of how public good should be allocated.

The evidence in the Philippines also suggests the power of organization. Though, as we have seen, politics in the country is typically clientelistic, there is interesting variation.

Local politics is very different from the norm in cities of Naga and Cebu. Both feature reformist mayors and a local politics focused on public good provision and politicians competing on their track record.

In our field work in Cebu, we met with local organizations of poor urban people who actually endorsed different candidates. Before local elections they invite the different candidates to come and address them, and then they grade them according to different criteria. Once they have picked the one they think is the best, they work for this person’s election. This situation does not lead to a different type of clientelism simply targeted at the organized groups, but a different sort of politics. As one lady said to us:

if you sell your vote, you don’t get any services.

So vote buying is out, services and public goods are in.

When we asked where all this organization came from, we were told it was a direct legacy of the People’s Power Movement which had overthrown Marcos. People had organized to fight for the end of martial law and the dictatorships and after the return to democracy they had stayed organized and used this to try and get the new democratic institutions to deliver.

The situation in Naga is similar there though spearheaded by a reformist mayor Jesse Robredo, who tragically died in an air crash last year. But just as in Cebu, when you dig into the Naga case you see the power of organization. This has been done by Maria Teresa Melgar in an unpublished 2010 PhD Dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (“Constructing Local Democracy in Post-Authoritarian Settings: A Comparison between Porto Alegre, Brazil and Naga, the Philippines”). Just as in Cebu, the transition away from clientelistic politics in Naga has been spearheaded by intense social organization which has striven to stop clientelistic political practices and demand services and public goods.

What is unclear however is why the legacy of People’s Power was so strong in these two places but not elsewhere. It is also not clear if CCT on its own can create organization independently or in conjunction with CDD.

Some CDD programs have actually been designed with the specific aim of bolstering the organizational capacity of communities. But in this they seem to have failed, as exemplified by an attempt in Sierra Leone studied by Katherine Casey, Rachel Glennester and Ted Miguel. The failure in Sierra Leone seems to have been mostly because the program was designed without a real theory of what the political problem was in the first place they were trying to solve.

How to build effective organization and what Robert Putnam called “social capital” in his seminal Making Democracy Work in order to combat clientelism is something that the Aquino government will have to learn, and fast given that he is term limited when his presidency ends (actually the terminology of social capital was coined in the 1970s by the Brown economist Glenn Loury, but it was Putnam who popularized it and made it the centerpiece of his innovative theory of politics).

So why is it that we and the Filipinos should pin their hopes of such fundamental institutional change on a dynastic politician? There are a couple of answers, and of course one of them is wishful thinking. But more seriously, it probably has something to do with the fact that this particular dynasty is also deeply interwoven with the People’s Power Movement, which has brought down Marcos and has turned, as we have just explained, into a force towards making the Philippines a more inclusive society. More speculatively, it may well be that the political power of dynasties is a double-edged sword. That power, by shielding them, enables many politicians to fill their pockets and increase the dominance of their families. But it also enables a few, with the vision and the courage to do so, the elbow room to attempt real change. Time will show whether this more optimistic interpretation is on target, and if so, whether such an attempt can actually succeed. 


How (not to) Break Political Dynasties  

In the previous post we documented some facts about the political dynasties of the Philippines. Our discussion of the Marcos regime further showed that ranting — and doing next to nothing — about the problems of oligarchs and political dynasties has a long history in the Philippines. After 1986 and the return to democracy the 1987 Philippine Constitution introduced various changes aimed at decreasing the power of political dynasties. For example, Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution included a clause stating:

The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.

However, after 25 years, a dynasty-controlled congress has failed to pass legislation providing a definition of “political dynasty,” so this constitutional ban remains vacuous. Most importantly, the 1987 Constitution introduced term limits for all elected offices. Senators can only be elected to two consecutive 6-year terms while congressmen, governors and all other local officials can only be elected to three consecutive 3-year terms. Some political analysts and scholars were optimistic that these constitutional provisions would open the political system to greater competition. For example, Alfred McCoy, in his book An Anarchy of Families stated:

Aquino’s Constitutional Commission adopted articles designed to break, for all time, the influence of political dynasties through both universal term limits and a specific prohibition on relatives (…) holding any public office. 

Other scholars argue that term limits, de facto, rob the electorate of a meaningful say in who does and does not belong in office.

But did term limits really have the effect of removing the power of dynasties over politics in the Philippines? This question was investigated by Pablo Querubín in his paper “Political Reform and Elite Persistence: Term Limits and Political Dynasties in the Philippines”. Though the idea that term limits can break dynasties is at first appealing, when you think about it, you’ll realize that it might in ractice encounter problems. Remember we pointed out that in many provinces there was a governor and congress-person from the same family. Maybe if they both faced term limits they could just switch jobs? In fact, that is exactly what happened in many cases. For example, in the province of Camiguin the congressman Pedro Romualdo faced a term limit in 1998 after serving for 3 consecutive terms. In response he successfully ran for governor while his son Jurdin Romualdo took his seat in congress. After both served three consecutive terms in their new positions, they swapped. In 2007 Pedro went back to being congressman, while Jurdin became governor. In Camiguin, not only did the term limits not stop dynastic control, they brought another member of the family into politics who might not otherwise have been there. 

As Pablo Querubín shows, this “Alternating Offices” strategy is not the only response that dynasties have formulated to deal with term limits. Another is the “Benchwarmer” strategy. In Cebu City, for example, when Antonio Cuenco faced a congressional term limit in 1998, his wife Nancy Cuenco took over for one term. In 2001 Antonio was back as congressman. 


Term limits are inducing dynasties to bring new members into politics also seems common. Take the situation in Bukidnon province. In 1998 the sitting congressman Jose Zubiri Jr. faced a term limit. He was replaced by his son Juan. Jose switched to Governor in 2001. When Juan hit a term limit in 2007, he switched to the Senate and was replaced by his younger brother Jose Zubiri III. In 2010 Jose senior faced a term limit as Governor but what could he do with his two sons in the Senate and Congress and not yet term limited? No problem, he successfully ran for vice Governor.

An interesting feature of the political system in the Philippines is that people have no problem in running for lesser offices after they have been term limited. In Davao City, for example, crime busting mayor Rodrigo Duterte was term limited in 2010. He switched to vice Mayor and was replaced as Mayor by his daughter Sarah.

Are these isolated examples or do they represent the general pattern? In fact what Pablo Querubín’s research shows is that term limits in the Philippines did not influence the probability that the same family controls a particular political office: if in one period a particular family was Governor, the fact that there was a term limit for Governor had no impact to the probability that the Governor in the future would be from that family, relative to the previous regime without term limits.

So much for easy solutions for breaking the power of political dynasties…


Political Dynasties in the Philippines  

In our discussion so far on the Philippines we have seen how the political system was captured by an oligarchy whose consolidation was greatly facilitated by the way the US set up their colony. Marcos tried to break the oligarchy, but he failed and indeed if anything, as Benedict Anderson pointed out, the oligarchy surfaced after 1986 even more powerful than ever.

The clearest manifestation of the oligarchy in the Philippines and how it impacts politics is the existence of political dynasties. Now you’d be right in noting that every country in the world has political dynasties. The US has the Bush dynasty, the Kennedy dynasty, Colombia has the López family, the Lleras family and the grandfather of the current president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, was president between 1938 and 1942. Winston Churchill’s son was even a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party in Britain.

But the extent to political dynasties in the Philippines is off the chart compared to any other country in the world. 60% of congress-people elected in 2007 had a previous relative who were also in congress. To give some sense of how high this is, the analogous figure in the US was 7%. In roughly half of the 80 provinces of the Philippines the governor is related to one of the congress-people.

This family run government is not a new thing in the Philippines and it dates all the way back to the US creation of democracy. In the first elections the US organized, to be eligible to run you had to come from a set of elite families recognized by the Americans, called the principalia. This was one of the ways in which the oligarchs had a huge head start and incumbent advantage became the way of life in the Philippines. This has led to very long-run family advantages. For instance, in the province of Leyte, a member of the Veloso family has been either a congress-person or the governor since 1916.

How is it that these families perpetuate themselves in power even today? For one thing, being a member of a political dynasty massively increases your probability of being elected to any political office. For instance, if you are from a political dynasty and run for congress, you are 22 percentage points more likely to get elected relative to a non-dynastic candidate. This effect is even larger, 40 percentage points, if the dynastic candidate currently has a member of the family in some political office.

But this correlation could mean many things. Maybe rich families with large landholdings or wealth or some specific talent form dynasties and it is not really the dynasty that matters but these characteristics correlated with the formation of a political dynasty. For example, Ted Kennedy came from a dynasty of rich Bostonians with a strong interest (and success) in politics. But perhaps, it wasn’t that his father was a senator or his brother a president that made Ted Kennedy likely to be elected, but his family’s wealth or other characteristics of this ambitious family.

To tackle exactly this issue Pablo Querubín in his research “Family and Politics: Dynastic Persistence in the Philippines” compares non-dynastic political candidates who just win office, to those who just lose (either dynastic or non-dynastic). The idea with this “just win office” strategy (or as it is called, the regression discontinuity strategy) is that this approximates a situation where the candidate who won did so “almost randomly” relative to the candidate who just lost (think of a coin toss determining whether a candidate with exactly 50% of the vote gets one more vote or whether his rival does). This in particular should ensure that whether one of these just winning candidates didn’t do so because of their special talents or wealth relative to candidates who just lost it.

What Pablo finds is that those who win in these circumstances are 4 times more likely to have a future relative holding political office. This suggests that, given other institutional and political features of the Philippines, just holding office, other things equal, is enough to help create a political dynasty.

All this means that it may have been the initial conditions that the US imposed that shaped which political dynasties form, and perhaps even the origins of the power of political dynasties in the first place.


Marcos versus Park  

As we noted in our last post, there is a far more charitable account of the Marcos dictatorship after 1972 in the Philippines than brought to mind by Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes. 

Marcos himself argued that the move to autocracy was needed to discipline the oligarchs and discipline them he did.

The Lopez family was one of these. Before martial law Marcos had Fernando Lopez as his vice president as part of a strategy to co-opt the oligarchs. But after 1972 Marcos discarded him and expropriated his assets, sugar estates, media empire and power generating plants. He cowed the rest of the sugar oligarchs into submission. He also centralized the state and embarked on an attempt to promote industrial exports.

In these strategies and aspirations Marcos was quite similar to Park Chung-Hee in South Korea. Park rose to power in a coup in 1961 and one of his first acts was to arrest and lock up business oligarchs on the grounds that they were “illicit profiteers”. Park similarly abandoned the attempt to keep himself in power through elections in 1972, just as Marcos did. He also famously launched an ambitious export-driven industrialization plan.

The difference between the Marcos and the Park experiences, however, is that while the latter was a huge economic success, the first collapsed into an orgy of rent seeking and looting of the state. Why the difference?

This takes us back to the history and in particular the history of the construction of the state. As we saw in our previous post, the state in the Philippines was built from the bottom up in a way which facilitated its capture by the oligarchy. This captured state was highly patrimonial, largely lacking meritocratic recruitment and promotion of the bureaucracy for example. Appointments were made on the basis of political criteria, for example, ability to help win elections.

The history of the state in South Korea was very different. As Peter Evans pointed out in his seminal book on comparative economic development, Embedded Autonomy, the Korean state developed by Park was able to tap into a rich history of meritocracy dating back to an examination system which the pre-colonial Korean state had adopted from imperial China. Both Park and Marcos tried to build the state, but they worked in the context of very different historical legacies and contemporary politics. In Korea, land reform had obliterated much of the traditional elites.

Ultimately, both Park and Marcos attempted to launch what we call “extractive growth” in Why Nations Fail. This was a success in Korea but not in the Philippines because Marcos did not have the type of state that was capable for generating economic growth from above. In Korea, Park was able to create hard budget constraints, and credible rewards and punishments for economic success and failure. Marcos had no such option with his captured patrimonial state. Perhaps the looting started because he realized that Korean style industrialization was not an option in the Philippines (though in fact there is evidence that it dates back to the 1960s).

All that being said, as we also point out in Why Nations Fail, even Korean growth could not have been sustained without the transition to inclusive political institutions and away from Park’s authoritarian regime.

But equally importantly, the Philippines experience also suggests that extractive growth is not even a transitory option for countries lacking the type of centralized state that Park inherited and strengthened.


Cacique Democracy  

Let’s set aside culture and return to the colonial history of the Philippines and how it influenced institutions. One of the most influential analyses of this is due to the political scientist Benedict Anderson, whose 1988 article in the New Left Review “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams” laid out a theory of the political economy of the Philippines. Like Fallows’s article (which we discussed here) , Anderson’s was written in the wake of the People’s Power Movement that had ousted Ferdinand Marcos. Everyone was trying to come up with forecasts for where the Philippines was going. Fallows’s answer was: nowhere, because, he argued, the real problem was not Marcos but Filipino culture. Anderson’s answer was also nowhere, but from a very different perspective.

As we noted in our first post on the Philippines, though the country was a Spanish colony and even shared the same specific institutions as Spain’s American colonies, there were important differences. There was little settlement by Spaniards, and as a result the Church essentially ran the colony. They invested little in education, and at the time of US occupation probably no more than 5% of the population spoke Spanish. In the 19th century after the collapse of the Spanish empire in the Americas, commercial restrictions were gradually lifted on the Philippines and a non-Spanish economic elite, often of Chinese descent, emerged. They gradually acquired education and spearheaded the nationalist movement that ousted the Spanish shortly before the US invasion. Yet the behavior of the US administration was to turn this elite into a real oligarchy.

First, they expropriated about 400,000 acres of land that had been church estates and auctioned it off. It was the elite that had money to buy this land.

Second, right from the beginning they staffed the administration with locals, but these were positions that the educated elite was best placed to fill. In addition, meritocratic criteria were not applied for recruitment into this administration, so the oligarchy could easily dominate them, as Anderson puts it:

Here is the origin of the ‘political dynasties’ —among them the Aquinos and Cojuangcos—which make Filipino politics so spectacularly different from those of any other country in Southeast Asia.

Third, they introduced elections first at the local level for provincial governors in 1902, then for the lower house of the legislature in 1907, then a bicameral assembly in 1916, and finally for the executive in 1935. Though this sequencing of elections, with local ones coming first appears like a good idea in the abstract, in practice it allowed the newly entrenched oligarchy to dominate local politics and then to build on the skills they honed at this level to capture the successive democratic institutions that were opened up (albeit with a very restrictive property franchise).

As a result of all of this, from the start the Philippines was a captured democracy, even if the elites who were doing the capturing were different from the elites of Latin America — they owed their power more to the way the US had structured their colony.

Nevertheless, elite dominance had the same effects in the Philippines as in Latin America — most notably extractive economic institutions and poor economic growth. After independence in 1945 they maintained this dominance. Indeed, the first serious attempt to break it was by, none other than, Ferdinand Marcos who after his election in 1965 introduced marshal law and suspended the constitution in 1972. He then ruled in this fashion until ousted in 1986 by Corazon Aquino and People’s Power.

Marcos went down in history as a run-of-the-mill kleptocratic dictator, but actually there was more to it than that. If you read his 1974 book Notes on the New Society of the Philippines you’ll see that his diagnosis of the root cause of the problems of the Philippines is precisely that it is dominated by an oligarchy. So, Marcos justified his policies by the attempt to break the oligarchy’s control over the economy and the polity!

And why was Anderson so pessimistic in 1988 about the future of the Philippines?

Precisely because, though he did not consider the Marcos dictatorship a success, it was followed after 1986 by the return of the oligarchy. So Anderson argues:

the truth is that the President, born Corazon Cojuangco, is a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within the Filipino oligarchy… Her marriage to Benigno Aquino, Jr., at various periods Governor of Tarlac and Senator, linked her to another key dynasty of Central Luzon.

So People’s Power overthrew the dictator Marcos in order to reinstate the oligarchy….