Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oligarchs and dynasts

The Chief Justice laments that the government is beholden to business oligarchs who control the economy of the nation.

In a speech delivered last week to launch the Moral Force Movement in Davao City, Reynato Puno said something that most of us already know, but have become powerless, in this day and age, to do anything about --- that the nation’s wealth has increasingly and inexorably gone to the control of a few people, a few families, a few presidential cronies and favourites. “Government remains beholden to those who control the wealth of the nation”, Puno rued.

“If you have that kind of predicament, we will never have a healthy democratic system. The rich are very few and the poor are the multitude”, the chief justice declared. How so very true.

This space has written several times, that ours is a feudal system, not a real and functioning democracy. Almost like a mantra, we keep lamenting that all we have are the “forms of democracy”, and not the “substance of democracy”, which is the equal opportunity of every citizen, regardless of the poverty of his origins, to rise up and develop, to improve and to progress. That has long been denied “the multitude” by oligarchs in cahoots with powerful politicians. And it gets worse by the passage of time.

Romulo Neri, before he was castrated into the silence of the cowardly, used to deliver lectures against the monopolies who have thrived on regulatory capture. He was then the NEDA Director-General, and he railed against the oligarchs who controlled ports, shipping, air transport, telecommunications, water distribution, power generation, transmission and distribution. Like most free trade economists, he believes in healthy competition, but because government is the regulator of these “strategic” industries and services, the presidency has always been in the pivotal position of regulating in favour of some, to the exclusion oftentimes of the national interest. Even the so-called privatization policy of government, where its strategic assets are sold to the more efficiently-run private sector, has been used as an instrument to favour the few whose proximity to power is converted into the entrenchment of monopolistic privilege.

Who suffers? The consumer, the small businessman, everyone. Small businessmen for instance who find that shipping costs from Davao to Manila are far more expensive than shipping produce from Davao to Korea. Consumers who buy pre-paid cellphone cards where proper accounting of call time versus charges are the exclusive domain of the company.

It is the classic case of “ginigisa sa sariling mantika”. Consumer protection is an oxymoron in a country where hardly anyone cares, whether government or even the abused. The latter probably because they have continually seen how futile it is to complain to a bureaucracy that cannot do anything anyway.

But the other side of the coin, the other side of unbridled, unrestrained and deeply-rooted economic oligarchy is the prevalence of, and entrenchment even, of political dynasties all over the land. The economic oligarchs and the political dynasts reinforce each other in a perpetuating orgy of greed, both in the local communities, as in the national scene.

Look at the map, check out each province against the entrenched political families, and see what I mean. While on a national scale, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is able to cause the interests of her favourites to prosper, whether in the sale of government assets or in the take-over of regulated industries and services, the same holds true in the provinces and cities where a favoured few, mostly relatives and/or cronies, bag the juiciest contracts from the governors and mayors, their heirs and assigns.

If we have Razons and Aboitizes, Cojuangcos and Angs, and a gaggle of other “oligarchs” in control of huge corporations, while perceived “enemies” like the Lopezes find their empires floundering, so too do we have, on a smaller scale, but by the millions still, favoured contractors for anything from badly-paved roads to garbage contracts, courtesy of their friend or family, the mayor or the governor.

Few of these political dynasts are genuinely motivated by public service. The profits and the enlargement of political capital come first; public service is hardly a factor. Let me name some genuine exceptions, though.

Not until I went to far-away Batanes did I realize how a well-meaning political dynasty can nurture a smattering of islands disadvantaged by topography, weather and distance into a thriving community where the people are proud and happy about the state of public services, the environment is kept as pristine as possible, and cultural traditions are proudly preserved. Thanks to the Abad political dynasty. From Butch and Pacita Abad’s father, who was congressman for the longest time, and became for a few years, public works secretary. To Butch himself, who has served as congressman, later briefly as agrarian reform and education secretary, with distinction. From father to son, and briefly to Butch’ wife Dina, the Ivatans had been well-served.

Roads built forty years ago still remain in excellent condition. One could perhaps say that few vehicles pass those roads, but hey, if a corrupt congressman had built that on tongpats-laced pork barrel, he would have built it so badly, because the typhoons would be excuse to ravage them anyway, and re-build once more, for additional tong-pats. Go to Eastern Samar and see the difference.

Another example is Negros Oriental, where a Silliman-influenced community exacts some kind of peer pressure on politicians to behave, at least in Dumaguete and the nearby towns and cities. People do not mind Tuting Perdices re-elected mayor over and over, just as they did his father before him, because they see genuine service and simple living. The same goes for Dr. Emilio Macias Jr. and his father before him, as governor, as congressman, as governor once more despite term limits.

A surprise to this writer is Bukidnon’s Jose Zubiri, who, from the distance of imperial Manila, sounds just like any other trapo, with his son Miguel, a three-term congressman now a senator by the dubious grace of Maguindanao’s Ampatuan and Lintang Bedol (where the hell is he, by the way?). Yet go to Bukidnon, as I did twice last year for private business pursuits, and see how genuinely loved Governor Zubiri is. Barangay farm-to-market roads that reach the top of the mountains are properly cared for by constant grading. Farmers produce reach the markets. And they have community health services that are the envy of the entire nation. So much so that even the Asian Institute of Management has cited Joe Zubiri’s health care programs.

There’s Edward Hagedorn in Puerto Princesa, the capital of beautiful and rich Palawan but his effectiveness stands in stark contrast to the mediocrity of provincial officials and the congressmen they keep electing. Jesse Robredo of Naga City, Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City, controversies about human rights notwithstanding.

Yet look elsewhere and weep at how dynasties have made a thriving business of their politics. Even in the metropolis, you see the same. Right here in Metro Manila, you wonder why citizens seem either unmindful or unable to abate the rapacity of their local officials. Kalookan, for instance, from the old Asistio dynasty to a rigodon of mediocrities, has consistently deteriorated. The same for Pasay, which entrenched an “approachable” but vision-less Pablo Cuneta for forty long years, only to be replaced by another old man with hardly any effort at change or renewal. Standing out in fair contrast is Marikina, thanks to Bayani and his Marides.

Chief Justice Puno is right in saying that the fundamental problems afflicting the country stem from “a lack of morality, the weakness of our ethics, the problem of inequitable distribution of wealth, the problem of poverty and the problem of peace and order”. But these are the same problems that Claro M. Recto and Jose P. Laurel and Jose Wright Diokno and Benigno Aquino Jr. in their time perorated about.

The system does not work. Democracy is a sham. Feudalism, entrenched by dynasts and oligarchs, reign supreme.

And elections, as public opiate, as release for perpetuating disenchantment, merely postpone proper reckoning. Especially because in recent times, the same elections have become farce --- from voter information, to vote-buying, to results manipulation.

Mr. Chief Justice, sir --- it is the system. It sucks. It needs a thorough overhaul, not by constitutional tinkering, but by revolutionary reform.