Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

The current supremo in the Philippine Islands is President Noynoy Aquino who prefers to be called Pnoy. Despite the complaint of some individuals, both credible and discredited, about the perceived vacuum of leadership in the new administration, Pnoy is still considered the overall kingpin in this “sand-and-coconut-tree country.”

Behind Pnoy are gruesome, backbiting factions which are constantly striving for dominance in the Malacanang snake-pit. The Balay and Samar groups are the two infamous factions but they also have to deal with the mafia in the Taliban Liberal Party composed of self-righteous traditional politicians, unremoulded arrogant members of (un)civil society, racketeering social democrats and phony progressives. But the Times Street inner circle dominated by the Kamag-anak Inc., Classmates Inc., and the three sisters seems to be more influential than the other power factions.

Pnoy’s mandate remains effective as long as there are sizeable adherents of the legal fiction of democracy and sovereign will of the people. In other words, Pnoy’s rule is legitimized by propagating the idea that representative democracy is the only acceptable and feasible system of determining the country’s political leadership.

But we are aware of the inherent flaws of this system. Georges Sorel wrote that “Government by the mass of the citizens has never yet been anything but a fiction: yet this fiction was the last word of democratic science. No attempt has ever been made to justify this singular paradox by which the vote of a chaotic majority is supposed to produce what Rousseau calls the ‘general will’ which is infallible.”

Proudhon was even more critical of universal suffrage: “How could universal suffrage reveal the thought, the real thought, of the people, when the people is divided by inequality of fortunes into classes subordinate one to the other and voting either through servility or through hate; when this same people, held in restraint by authority, is incapable notwithstanding its sovereignty of expressing its ideas on anything; and when the exercise of its rights is limited to choosing, every three or four years, its chiefs and its impostors?”

A tiny clique of powerful and rich individuals is able to legalize its oppressive rule by manipulating the ballots. Then it hides the imperfections of the system to make the people believe in a sham democracy. It finally proclaims itself as the undisputed leader and representative of the sovereign people.

But the tiny clique is aware of the unstable and weak basis of its power which is why it’s always ruthless against the restive classes, dissident groups, and political forces which represent the ordinary masses.

It must be emphasized that the victorious tiny clique does not enjoy a complete hegemony since there are always contending forces which threaten or undermine its dominance. Concretely, Pnoy is the president of the Republic but his absolute reign does not reach the whole archipelago. For example, there may be 7,107 islands that compose the Philippines but many of the islands are already privately owned. In Marinduque, three small islands there are owned by a politician. Turtle Island in Tawi-Tawi was already sold to the governor. Obviously, Pnoy is not the effective ruler of these private islands and other remote territories which are still part of the Philippine state.

Like his predecessors, Pnoy is merely a figurehead who extends his clout through media magic and brutal display of violence by the armed forces.

So if the successful tiny clique currently headed by Pnoy does not have a monopoly of power, who or what are the other power blocs in the country?

Topping the list is Uncle Sam. The Philippine state which evolved in the past century is a subservient state of US imperialism which makes the latter the major, if not the strongest and also the most vicious power holder in the country. The Philippines is actually a remote satellite of the US empire while Pnoy is America’s ‘son of a bitch’ in this part of the world.

It’s an open secret that Filipino politicians who covet the presidency must first seek the support of the US if they want to prevail at the polls. No important foreign policy decision is made without consulting the US masters. Promoting American geopolitical objectives is equated with pursuing the national interest. US intervention in our domestic affairs is so widespread, extensive, and sophisticated – think of Balikatan, Meiring, Subic-Clark, Agile, USAID, Peace Corps, CIA, World Bank, and dancing ambassadors.

Business tycoons wield considerable power too. They use their wealth and prestige to corrupt the bureaucracy. They buy politicians, bribe local officials, hire soldiers, and steal money from the poor to advance their business interests. Protecting their profit margin is considered a government mandate since it is said to be good for the economy even if it leads to the destruction of the environment, violation of labor rights, and displacement of villages. Laws can be either enacted or revoked to accommodate the needs of Big Business.

They are even exempted from the obligation to respect and abide to Philippine laws and traditions; and they receive generous tax discounts (think of export processing enclaves, outsourcing hubs, agribusiness plantations). They subscribe to the mantra that everything and everyone has a price tag; and this greedy, unchristian accumulation of material wealth is praised in the ‘porno-financial’ reports of the media. They are fondly referred to as CEO philanthropists, visionaries, and global leaders but the truth is, many of them are just big time crooks, tax evaders, cronies, and dummies. Of course there is only one Big Boss in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, there are various ‘dark lords’ and other shady characters which are lording it over in the islands – they are the landlords, warlords, jueteng lords, gambling lords, drug lords, and ‘praise the lords.’ All of these underworld creatures have political clout in their respective territories. They enforce their own laws in their feudal kingdoms. They only recognize the authority of the central government when they seek some favors from it.

Pnoy’s family is the super landlord of Luzon but the other smaller islands are also infested with equally notorious landlords. Land ownership is the source of their brutal power in the countryside which explains their stubborn resistance to land reform programs.

The biggest landlord in a town is often the reigning warlord. The warlord has a private army which, in some places, is bigger and better equipped than the local military force. The warlord belongs to a clan which fields candidates in elections. The Ampatuans are the most hated warlords today but the clans which opposed their despotic rule are also warlords.

It’s only the state which has the legal right to build its own army but the existence of private armies created and maintained by local politicians across the country is a direct affront to the supposed absolute authority of Imperial Manila.

The private army of a politician in power is usually augmented by deploying the local police and military under his personal command. This expanded army guarantees the continued reign of the politician patron by terrorizing the local opposition and disobedient residents.

Goons-for-hire also proliferate to protect the operations of drug and gun smugglers, human traffickers, and pirates. They belong to the network of international criminal syndicates which exploit the weak governance in the Philippines to expand their underground modus operandi.

The country’s long coastline (second longest in the world) is ideal for these criminal activities. It is in the coastal areas where Philippine sovereignty is often violated by visiting nuclear warships, foreign fishing vessels, toxic waste delivery ships, pirate boats, and kidnap-for-ransom groups.

Criminal gangs use their dirty money to silence the media, distract the police and buy political support. Drug lords and jueteng lords, for instance, are among the biggest financiers during elections. No less than former President Joseph Estrada was ousted from power after he was accused of receiving jueteng protection money.

But the most serious challenge to the leadership of the puppet president of the Republic comes from rebel groups and revolutionary movements. Naïve political commenters and other apologists of the status quo often criticize rebel groups as nuisance elements but they fail to recognize the success of these groups in establishing a separate government within the territory of the Philippine state.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has several camps which operate as mini government centers delivering frontline services to its constituents. Estrada’s total war campaign in 2000 was able to destroy Camp Abubakar but it proved that the MILF was already exercising jurisdiction in many parts of the Moro land.

Red power also exists in many areas in the countryside, as reported by the Communist Party. The Reds further claimed that they have already achieved belligerency status by waging a protracted people’s war for several decades. The military, of course, disproved the claim but was forced to admit that Red Fighters are indeed present in many provinces of the country. It is safe to assume, however, that the communist insurgency was able to thrive for more than four decades because of its ability to control, dominate or influence several towns and municipalities in the Philippine countryside.

It is impossible for Pnoy to dominate the whole archipelago. Foreign powers are always meddling, power factions are ‘draining the executive power’, warlords remain untouchables, criminal gangs are getting bolder, and rebels continue to present an alternative political order.

Pnoy may be an owner of a second hand Porsche, the VIP occupant of Malacanang, the owner of a house in Times Street, a minority shareholder in Hacienda Luisita, and he may even flaunt his title as president of the Republic and most illustrious bachelor of high society; but it doesn’t mean he has a monopoly of political power in the archipelago. His presidency is undermined from the very start because of the semi-feudal and semi-colonial character of the Philippine state; and it is further diminished by his weak leadership and lack of vision. An emperor sits on the throne, but the emperor is naked.

One Response to “Power dynamics in the Philippine Islands”

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