THE DATU system, an ancient political and social structure that has defined much of the history of the southern Philippines, provides continuity between a proud past and the tumultuous present in Maguindanao.

Yet it is one that has radically evolved — some would even say corrupted –into what many outsiders now perceive to be a system of patronage, corruption, inefficiency, and ruthlessness, especially in the province. As a result, the clans it has produced in the province are now perceived by many as the poster children of the worst kind of political dynasties.

But the problem is not a homegrown local phenomenon alone. National politicians and national poliical parties in Manila have also to share much of the blame: To win elections and to achieve political pre-eminence, they have cultivated datus or clans of choice as surrogates. They have stripped transformed the datus from traditional and religious leaders into political lieutenants.

It started with the American colonial administration, carried on to President Manuel L. Quezon who practically banned datuism in the 1935 Constitution, to the late strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos, and on to all the presidents that followed after the 1986 EDSA People Power revolt. Each president actually chose each his/her own favored datu or clan.

The story of the Ampatuans is most instructive. At the height of the Moro rebellion in the 1970s, however, Andal Ampatuan Sr. was not yet pandering to Malacañang. Like his grandfather. he became a rebel, his town of Ampatuan being “one of the sites of the fiercest fights, especially Christian and Muslim fights.”

In 1987, Andal Sr. ran and won as mayor of Maganoy, now named Shariff Aguak. The year 2001 was another turning point for the Ampatuans, with Andal Sr. elected governor of Maguidanao. It is said that Andal had the backing of the military, because his main rival, Zacaria Candao, was widely perceived to be coddling to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In Manila, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was busy struggling to consolidate her position after ousting Joseph Estrada in the second People Power revolt. Hounded by questions of legitimacy, Arroyo was besieged by pro-Estrada supporters who rioted in front of Malacañang in May 2001. All in all, the time was ripe for the interests of Andal Sr. and Gloria Arroyo to intersect.

In the years that followed, Andal Sr. carefully built his relationship with both military and political leaders on the regional and national levels.

Retired Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, who served as martial law administrator of Maguindanao after the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, acknowledges that the Ampatuan clan wielded an inordinate amount of influence on virtually all levels, even beyond the confines of Central Mindanao. It was a kind of clout that was unique to the Ampatuans, he says, and could not be seen with other political clans all over the Philippines.

“The clans were that powerful, to a point where they choose which battalion commander will be appointed there, or brigade commander,” he says. “Or even division commander, they can make a special request to higher authority. They can show that if you do not cooperate they can call on people higher than you.”

In large measure, Maguindanao remains a changeless story for now. National politicians have gone a-courting the clans again. Team P-Noy of the Liberal Party ruling coalition, as well as the opposition United Nationalist Alliance have adopted and endorsed their respective shares of candidates from the clans in the May 2013 elections. Party platform or philosophy seems to have little to do with the choices, more than the candidates’ winnability.

Yet still, the tide of change has started to take root in Maguindanao, as much as in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. “Young Moros” and civil society groups are now taking their place of honor in the political discourse, and transformation of the province and the region.

Read Part 3 and the Sidebars of “The Clan Politics of Maguindanao” here:

Part 3: National politicos prop dynasties to win elections
Sidebar: The wealth of Gov. Toto
Sidebar: The Change-makers

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