Philippines: Left challenges dynasties in mid-term elections

In May 13 mid-term elections for both houses of Congress, and provincial and municipal-level local governments, the control of electoral politics in the Philippines by a small number of powerful, nepotistic families became a big issue.

It was the left-wing Party of the Labouring Masses (PLM) that put the question of political dynasties onto the agenda.

However, not all the PLM’s impact on the election translated into votes and, due to fraud, not all the votes the PLM received in the ballot box translated to votes in the official tally.

President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III, whose own position is up for election in 2016, is the scion of two major political dynasties ― the Cojuangco and Aquino families. His mother is a former president.

Aquino focused on the Senate vote, campaigning for Team P-Noy, an alliance of Senate candidates from different parties.

PLM chairperson Sonny Melencio told Green Left Weekly: “In terms of the winners it’s basically nine-three in the Senate.

“Nine of the 12 Senators elected are from Team P-Noy, so P-Noy is saying it’s a big win for him as his supporters now control the Senate.”

Melencio rejected claims Aquino’s focus on the Senate was to support a progressive reform agenda.

“It is not really a reform agenda, but the US bid to re-establish its military bases in the Philippines, in line with its ‘pivot to Asia’,” Melencio said. “For that P-Noy would need two thirds of the vote in the Senate.

“It’s not about reform. P-Noy actually rejected the Magna Carta for the Urban Poor and rejected the Freedom of Information Bill. These are the reform bills, and the Alternative Mining Bill which did not make it in the last Senate because P-Noy didn’t act on it.”

Aqunio won his two-thirds Senate majority. But Melencio said: “In the lower house, it might not be the case that he has the upper hand. The previously ruling parties might still be in control.

“In general what it means is that this is again a win for the traditional politicians, the ‘Trapos’ (as they are known), specifically the political dynasties. This became the issue in this election.”

As in past elections, successful candidates, whether pro-government or from the main opposition groups, were largely from traditional political families.

“Out of the 12 senators who won, only three or four would be non-dynasty and two of these are tied to different dynasties and 70% of Congress is controlled by the families,” Melencio said.

“There’s a constitutional prohibition on political dynasties, in the 1987 constitution, but the series of Congresses elected after were not able to pass a law to implement the constitutional prohibition. It did not become an issue in the past.”

The PLM made it an issue in these elections. “We took this up as a major campaign. We formed an alliance with a Senate candidate who formed Crusade Against Political Dynasties (KKD). Later on, we endorsed him as our candidate in the Senate.

“We ran a national campaign. We went all over the Philippines campaigning against the presence of political dynasties, explaining how they contribute to poverty and work against the interests of the country.

“It’s an in-your-face situation when the whole government is run by families ― everyone knows that now. What we do with this issue is we relate it to the question of poverty and the huge amount of money the dynasties amass.

“The issue of corruption, the issue of the resources they control and the entire question of how democratic the system really is.”

Holding political office is lucrative in the Philippines. Through the Priority Development Assistance Fund, which even politicians refer to as “the Pork Barrel”, Filipino legislators are allocated large sums from the annual national budget. They can use these funds to buy votes, favour business cronies or funnel into their own family companies.

“If you have four members of your family in elected office, then you have four times the pork barrel,” Melencio said.

“It is quite high. Senators have 200 million pesos [about $5 million] yearly to dispense and Congress representatives have 70 million pesos yearly. This is on top of their salaries and other perks.”

Despite the party holding elected positions at the Barangay (neighbourhood) level, this is the first time the PLM has run for either Senate or local positions at a general election.

At previous general elections, the PLM had contested only party-list seats, that is the 20% of seats in the lower house of Congress reserved for “under-represented sectors”.

“The problem with just running in the party-list seats is that you don’t contest the Trapos,” Melencio said.

“But in this election, because the PLM was participating at the local level, we contested against the local Trapos and organised forces against them.

“The political dynasties are well entrenched at the local level: you have situations where the mayor is replaced by his wife while he runs for Congress and his son runs for governor.

“As part of the campaign, we filed petitions with the Supreme Court to implement the constitutional prohibition on political dynasties. The Supreme Court junked them on questions of technicality.

“Then we filed petitions with COMELEC [the electoral commission]. But COMELEC also junked the petition a few days before the vote.

“It was a successful campaign. Later on the media singled out political dynasties as a major issue.

“It came to the point that even the sons and daughters of the political clans had to say that this would be the last time ― and once in Congress, they would sponsor a law against political dynasties.

“That was at the end of the campaign. Before, they were saying there are good and bad political dynasties and they belong to the good ones.”

PLM local candidates polled between 8% and 15% and in Quezon City got the second largest vote overall. This is despite the political dynasties routinely using electoral fraud against each other and to exclude left-wing and independent candidates.

“This was an election where there was massive cheating at the local level, and we experienced that because we ran 23 local candidates,” Melencio said.

“One of the usual ways of cheating is the night before the election, the Trapos will go to the community to buy votes and have people's fingers inked so they will not be able to vote. They do this in areas where they think the rival candidate will win.

“Another form is that they hire thousands of people to be their poll watchers. And they hire voters who they move in from other areas. If they need 40,000 votes to win they will get 40,000 people there.”

Fraud also takes place at the national level. “Our candidate for the Senate, Ricardo Penson, based on our analysis, received around 4 million votes but in the counting only officially got 1 million.

“There’s cheating that’s done at the top, with the shifting of votes to Trapo candidates. This way Penson lost 3 million votes. The independent candidates lost votes this way too.

“Candidates got the same rankings in places where they were known to be popular as they did in other places. It’s statistically impossible is what the independent candidates are saying.

“Independent candidates who ran in previous elections got more votes then in certain areas but this time round they got the same ranking all over the Philippines.

“Penson is from Bulacan and has a local base of support but he got the same ranking there as elsewhere. And he was recorded as getting very few votes in Mindanao despite being supported by a majority of local candidates.

“There was also manipulation by opinion polls. The two main polling companies ― Pulse Asia and Social Weather Station (SWS) ― are owned or operated by cronies of the president, his cousins. They have interlocking directorships and they manipulate the surveys in order to project the results that they want.”

In terms of winning seats, the PLM and other left-wing groups did best in the party-list seats where they have traditionally been most successful.

“The PLM supported Sanlakas as its party-list candidates. But we also supported the Ang Nars (nurses) and Ating Guro (teachers) party-lists. Basically Sanlakas lost, but Ang Nars won one seat and Ating Guro is likely to win one sea,t but haven’t been declared.

“So we will have two seats, one from Ating Guro, who is a PLM member and one from Ang Nars, who is an ally.

There were also elected two representatives of the Overseas Filipino Workers’ party-list who we hope we can form an alliance with. There are a total of 13 left or progressive members in Congress, an overall increase.”

Melencio said that running in elections “allows us to increase our base. Those votes we won ― 46,000 here, 20,000 here ― are supporters we have to consolidate.

“There is a Barangay election scheduled for October. We have already called on our forces, on all our members, to intervene in the Barangay elections, to run as candidates or form an alliance with progressive candidates.

Our intention is to open up many base areas through the election. We are also looking at 2016, the next presidential election. We have big plans for that but our plans are based on our capacity to increase our base.”

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