Available now: USAvailable now: UK

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….


The Politics of Utang na Loob  

We ended our last post by casually remarking that rather than having a “bad culture”, perhaps the Filipinos had too much of a good culture that interacted in a perverse way with weak institutions, allowing for vote buying. In fact, though the example we gave there was from Paraguay, there is quite a bit of evidence that some patterns of behavior are of this type in the Philippines. In the Philippines there is the concept of Utang na Loob which can be translated from the Tagalog as “debt of inside” or as “debt of gratitude,” and is closely related to the reciprocity we were talking about in our last post. Quite a few students of Philippine politics see this as an important concept to help understand various facets of who runs for and who wins elections (on this, see this blog post).

How such cultural practices and social norms interact with other institutions is an important area for research and at the moment is little understood.

Our only point here is that, like most other social norms, Utang na Loob fundamentally interacts with institutions and politics. On its own, it could be a positive behavioral pattern, facilitating trust, cooperation and exchange. But in the electoral and institutional world of the Philippines, it seems to produce the same sort of perverse outcomes that reciprocity and vote buying networks produce in Paraguay.

And if one wants to change politics in the Philippines, it makes sense to focus not on cultural change so as to undermine Utang na Loob, but rather on institutional reform and political change.


Good Culture? On Vote Buying and Reciprocity  

In our last post, we discussed a famous cultural hypothesis about the Philippines which suggested that its bad culture was at the root of its poverty. As we pointed out, the particular cultural hypothesis that James Fallows proposed was a bit vague, however.

Culture is complex and no doubt made up of many different practices and beliefs. For instance, cultural anthropologists would see reciprocity as being a fundamental human cultural process and essential to a well-functioning society. Reciprocity means that if somebody gives something to you or does something for you, you tend to do likewise — i.e., reciprocate.

Social scientists have devised games for testing how reciprocal are and you might well argue that being reciprocal is critical for building cooperation, trust and a well-functioning society. Could it be that the Filipinos are just insufficiently reciprocal?

But as the paper by Fred Finan and Laura Schechter shows, reciprocity can be a double-edged sword in the presence of weak institutions. As we’ll see coming up, politics in the Philippines is endemically clientelistic. There are many ways of engaging in clientelism but a simple one is vote buying. A politician gives you money and you vote for him.

Finan and Schechter start with the puzzle of how clientelistic practices can persist if there is a secret ballot. The politician comes to buy your vote, but how is he going to be sure that you kept your end of the bargain after getting the money and voted for him?

Finan and Schechter argue that one potential way that this problem can be solved for clientelistic politicians is if they are able to identify people in the community who are intrinsically “reciprocal”. Such people are just culturally disposed to reciprocate when someone does something for them. If there is an effective secret ballot, they may be able to cheat, but they just won’t. Then using data they collected in Paraguay from surveys and games to identify how reciprocal people are, Finan and Schechter show that it is people who are more reciprocal who are likely to have their vote bought, and politicians use intermediaries and community leaders to identify such people.

What looks like “good culture” in the abstract turns out to support clientelism, a political strategy associated with the mass under-provision of public goods.

Hmm, so maybe Filipinos are too reciprocal?