If it ain’t a mere humbug, we should support reform

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President Duterte has recently fulminated against oligarchs, which for centuries have dominated the economic and political life of our poor nation. This is not something new and unheard of. Every politician in this country makes war against the filthy rich and resorts to mouthing anti-oligarchs rhetoric. It appeals to the masses and identifies himself with the poor, a surefire formula to get their support. This approach to win votes will never go out of style. But once elected into office, he becomes a coddler of the oligarchs and serves the interests of the business elites. Or worse, he creates his own oligarchs who will be beholden to him. For those who supported his political adversary, he will make sure that their business would suffer under his term. All the government machineries and resources, particularly the regulators, will be deployed against them.  

But if you think that that’s the end of the road for the oligarchs, you are terribly wrong. The oligarchs have uncanny survival instincts that they can co-opt with every ruling administration regardless of whoever is in power. They can readily switch their allegiance to the incoming power and find ways to ingratiate themselves to the new Malacañang occupant. This way, they continue to receive the ‘blessings’ under the new government. In this department, the oligarchs can give our ‘trapo’ politicians who can turn coat even before they take their oaths to their office a run for their money. Those who cannot, lose influence and power if they fail to curry the favor of the ruling regime. They are taken over by the new cronies, the oligarchs-in-the making, doted on by the new political leadership. But many others can weather the adverse political storm. They go on self-exile, hibernate, transfer business management and control to dummies or sell out to another oligarch. The Lopezes were able to get back their assets (Meralco, ABS-CBN, Manila Chronicle, etc.) when Marcos fled, Danding Cojuangco came back after Cory’s term and assumed control of his companies, and even the Marcoses returned. Oligarchs will always be around; they are omnipresent and indestructible, playing footsie and rubbing elbows with the powers-that-be.

The oligarchs control our country’s economy. They hold 90% of the nation’s wealth. This explains why the Philippines, a country rich in natural resources and inhabited by literate people, remains a very poor nation. Filipino oligarchs have survived from generation to generation; from president to the next president, from one administration to the next, ad infinitum. In fact, oligarchy has flourished from the Spanish period up to the American regime, and remains a major economic and political force to this day. The sad fact is that each political administration has promoted its own oligarchs. No president from Quezon to Duterte has spared us this curse. Cronyism is ingrained in our system and it’s a survival mechanism for the party in power. Thus, we had the Madrigals, Aranetas, Lopezes, Disinis, Benedictos, Cojuangcos, and many others. Their composition and character may vary but they all have an insatiable appetite for profit. These elite families broaden their economic base though political alliances, blood ties and intermarriages, and business relationships. The oligarchs become more entrenched and formidable with the grant of franchises or licenses that allow them to hold a monopoly and total control of a particular industry or business market. Crony capitalism practically empowers the ruling class or dominant families to plunder the country’s resources and assets and control credit and financial accommodations through franchises, behest loans and concessionary credits from government financial institutions. Thus, it was not uncommon in the past to see state financial institutions driven to near bankruptcy since rapacious oligarchs plundered their resources. The government largesse should not be treated as a private kitty of the president to be made available to his political business allies and friends.  

We need to change our political culture. Our freewheeling elections thrive on massive spending and fraud. Two forces manipulate our political system—the entrenched economic elites or oligarchs and the destitute masses that deliver the votes. The former have the money while the latter have the votes that are offered to the highest bidder. It is a lethal combination, which is highly vulnerable to corruption and fraud. It presents pregnant opportunities to the oligarchs to subvert our electoral process. They can fund the campaign of the most popular and winnable candidate regardless of political platform and agenda to protect their interest under the new administration. This only fosters the growth of oligarchy. Unfortunately, our weak middle class constitutes a minority whose independent votes cannot deliver elections although for one shining moment, as demonstrated during the Edsa revolution, this sector could be a formidable force for structural changes when the condition demands. The middle class breeds the social consciousness that can galvanize the civil society to oppose government abuses and oligarchic excesses. They are the present ‘illustrados’, the enlightened elements of our society, who can lead us to reform.

The oligarchs will always aspire to rule our economy and politics. We should support honest-to-goodness reforms to dismantle unwanted oligarchy. President Duterte, if it were not a mere humbug, should harness his enormous political capital and his vaunted political will to destroy our oligarchic system and crony capitalism that devastate our economy. In the twilight of his term, the President should promote fair competition and legitimate business practices. Otherwise, we will be perpetually mired in poverty entangled by a corrupt government and the pernicious control by the oligarchs.

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