And the clans play on

Members of the First Philippine Assembly of 1907

FOR SOME 160 families, the two Houses of the Philippine Congress have practically been home for the last century. These families have had two or more members who have served in Congress, and they account for nearly 424 of the 2,407 men and women who have been elected to the national legislature from 1907 to 2004.

Political clans have been an enduring feature of Philippine politics. In the upcoming local and congressional contests, that will remain to be so. Majority of these families or clans, in fact, take their roots from local politics. Generally considered as a grouping within the elites of society, the political clan is basically composed of a family and its network of relations that actively pursues elective or appointive political office at the local and/or national level. In many cases, the clan has also managed to maintain power through generations.

Continuing clan dominance is a product of the seemingly immutable and unequal socio-economic structure, as well as the failure to develop a truly democratic electoral and party system. The institutional, legal, electoral, and party systems have prevented the expansion of the base of aspirants and candidates for representation. The social and class structure in the Philippines shaped a landowning system, which in turn enabled a core of landed families to accumulate economic and political power through time.

At the same time, political clans have displayed an uncanny ability to adapt to the changing landscape of Philippine politics. Through the years, the nature and organization of politics, particularly at the local level, have gradually transformed in the face of urbanization, decentralization, and the growing influence of mass media. In response, political clans have mobilized an array of adaptive strategies that include: 1) the establishment and maintenance of a kinship network; 2) the organization of political machines; 3) the mobilization of wealth and property; 4) access to state resources; 5) the use of violence and coercion; and 6) the cultivation of issues, image, and popularity.

These strategies are interrelated and oftentimes overlap with one another. Kinship networks, for example, serve to consolidate wealth and power, and provide the base for the establishment of a political machine. Beyond the usage of personal wealth, access to state resources serves as an additional source of patronage dispensed through political machines. When the machine functions properly, there is no need to resort to coercion or violence. Articulating a hot-button issue, projecting the right image, or simply being a celebrity can bolster one’s chances of victory in today’s media-driven elections.

The French historian Roland Mousnier observed, “Rank attracts power and money. Power is the generator of prestige and fortune. Riches give power and rank.” It is therefore no wonder that among the people attracted to politics are those whose ambitions are motivated largely by personal (or more specifically, clan) interests. And while the government provides various avenues for political leaders, in the Philippines it is Congress that has become a training ground and jump-off point for higher political office. Thus, aside from its formal legislative functions, the Philippine Congress has served as a nexus between national and local elite politics.

HISTORICALLY, PHILIPPINE society has been resilient to change. Between 1946 to 1972, the traditional landowning families that make up a national oligarchy exerted a high degree of influence over state policies and its implementation, directly through Congress and indirectly through local government administration. The national oligarchy was able to exercise powerful and particularistic control of the state apparatus (e.g. legislature) through the spoils system, while maintaining an independent economic base outside it.

Members of the First Philippine Senate

The traditional elites have demonstrated their prowess in adapting to shifting political and economic regimes. For the longest time, the social and class structure of the Philippines sustained a landowning system that perpetually concentrated economic and political power to a core of landed families — especially those involved in export plantation agriculture. But some families later successfully diversified into non-agricultural economic interests, such as real estate, logging, mining, and other industrial enterprises. This was achieved through a variety of means that include the establishment of family-owned banks, the procurement of loans and subsidies from state banks and government financial institutions, and having tie-ups with foreign and local capitalists. These clans also used their legislative posts to defend and expand their economic interests. In addition, their access to state resources augmented the distribution of patronage to their kinship networks and political machines.

The ability to source and distribute patronage allowed the less politically agile among the traditional clans, like the Albanos of Isabela, to maintain their electoral machinery. The Albanos’ economic base was limited to a few hectares of land and a handful of business enterprises; they could not get a foothold in the lucrative logging industry dominated by the rival Dy clan. The Albanos thus relied on their access to a succession of presidents (Marcos, Ramos, Estrada, and Arroyo) for economic and political resources.

Some political clans, however, have also used violence to maintain their dominance. Political warlordism was a result of the proliferation of arms and the weakening of the central authority in the provinces at the end of the Second World War. It would later re-emerge in areas where instability was fueled by the land frontier, protracted ethnic rivalry, or particular economic circumstance.

The Lluch-Badelles clan of Lanao, for instance, rose to power amid the historical conflict brought about by frontier politics in Mindanao. The clan had to swim in the tide of violence brought about by post-war confrontations between Christian and Muslim armed groups that were fueled by cultural and economic animosities. But the clan’s dominance of Lanao politics was eclipsed with the emergence of a more violent political warlord in the person of Mohamad Ali Dimaporo.

There is also Cebu’s Durano clan, which has effectively combined the use of violence and rent-seeking activities. Ramon Durano Sr.’s dominance in Danao blurred the thin line between the private and public domain. His family’s political exploits mirror the historical trajectory of Philippine state-formation: from the violence and clientelism of the post-war republic, to the dictatorship of the Marcos regime, and redemocratization in the post 1986 period. But decades of dominance have eliminated almost all possible political challenges to the clan. As a result, its members have turned against each other in an occasionally bloody intra-family conflict.

WITH THE capitalist penetration of social relations in the post-war period, land ownership ceased to be the primary source of elite domination in local areas. The traditional landed elites who were not able to adapt and diversify their economic interests were eased out by new political elites linked to the modern sector of the economy. The breakdown of the reciprocal and interpersonal system of exchange was further facilitated by the rise of new social forces (e.g. working class and middle class) that could not be subsumed simply within narrow patron-client loyalties. This resulted in the rise of political machines as the main expression of patronage politics. Hence, patronage politics shifted from the consensual mobilization of support to a transactional negotiated organization of machines.

SPICE BOYS. Proof of the hegemony of families in Philippine politics are the young generation of politicians in Congress who are heirs to their parents’ positions or have politician relatives.

The weakening of traditional patron-client bonds at the local level resulted in the transformation of patterns of leadership and organization in rural Philippines. This was manifested by the emergence of professional politicians from the ranks of the new social forces that competed with the traditional landowning elites. This process of transformation, however, was abruptly disrupted by the declaration of martial law in 1972.

Previously, the traditional and new political clans cultivated their own political machines that were sustained through external governmental resources provided by their national and provincial allies. Upon the centralization of the distribution of political resources by the authoritarian regime, their machines were also integrated into the centrally directed political machinery (i.e. Ministry of Local Government, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan). This changed the nature of national-local relations.

The Marcos era was characterized as well by the reduction of the traditional elite’s political influence through Congress and the reduction of its economic powers that were transferred to the Marcos cronies. It also resulted in the narrowing of the institutional avenues for elite recruitment and reproduction.

Most of the new professional politicians at the local areas thus decided to link up with some of the new national elites, particularly the cronies who were able to consolidate both wealth and power through the regime’s monopoly of export agriculture. But there were those who were able to solidify their local political support and build autonomous machines; these found little need to capitulate to the regime. Some of them, like Aquilino Pimentel of Cagayan de Oro, Cesar Climaco of Zamboanga City, and Evelio Javier of Antique, formed the core of the local opposition to the Marcos regime.

Many new political clans have since been able to transform economic and social capital into political capital, through the use of the political machines. One such clan is that founded by Jose Maria ‘Joe’ Zubiri in Bukidnon, who sought to loosen the grip of the older Fortich clan on the province. Joe Zubiri managed to articulate progressive issues in the national arena, while maintaining clientelistic networks in Bukidnon. His seat in Congress was eventually inherited by his son, Juan Miguel ‘Migz’ Zubiri.

The younger Zubiri shares his father’s outspoken and often progressive views on national issues. Migz Zubiri, however, has exhibited his own distinct political style and has emerged as one of the more prominent and media-savvy among the second- and third- generation legislators in the House. Through a combination of his fine looks, issue advocacy, and media projection, he has surpassed his father in terms of national prominence and now has set his eyes on a Senate seat under the administration’s Team Unity.

The Acostas of Bukidnon, meanwhile, stand out as prime examples of new professionals who have decided to make an alternative career out of politics. Both Socorro Acosta and her son Nereus are Ph.D.s and have spent some considerable time in the academe and private sector. Given their professional backgrounds, the Acostas have employed non-traditional political means in the arena of traditional politics. What they lacked in terms of political resources, such as the backing of local mayors and barangay captains, they made up for through alternative structures and mechanisms in the grassroots, in the terrains of civil society. They have harnessed the support of the local network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the women’s movement, and farmer’s cooperatives. On closer scrutiny, however, the non-traditional NGOs organized by the Acostas have taken on the traditional role of the political machine.

THE END of the Marcos dictatorship reestablished formal institutions of democratic governance. Democratization, decentralization, and economic liberalization, have contributed to the emergence of new political players. Economic expansion and diversification have paved the way for a handful of non-elite political players with middle-class professional and entrepreneurial backgrounds, to penetrate the political arena. These new political players were active in the anti-Marcos struggle and served in the Aquino administration before embarking on a political career. Most were elected to Congress, and some were even successful in vanquishing established political dynasties.

Those who came straight from the parliament of the streets are particularly interesting, especially because they have adapted so well in Congress and have proven proficient in the ways of traditional politics. The Lagmans of Albay, for example, have played a major role, not only in national and local politics, but the Philippine Left as well. The Lagmans have fought the Marcos dictatorship in two fronts: legal and underground. The Lagman clan has opted to operate on two strategic and ideologically distinct levels. While Edcel Lagman has emerged in the national political scene through the parliamentary struggle, his brother the late Felimon Lagman made a name in radical working class politics. They achieved these by using their anti-Marcos credentials, mass politics, and the articulation of progressive issues. While the two arenas of struggle are incongruous in the Philippine context, the brothers have cleverly used each to push their political advocacies.

Until his recent conservative turnaround, Edcel had consistently been a voice of progressive causes in the bastion of traditional politics. In 1998, Edcel ran for the Senate but lost. Yet there was some consolation for the family: His daughter Krisel Lagman Luistro won in his former congressional district. The assumption of Krisel to Edcel’s seat was viewed as an indication that even progressive politics is not immune from the temptation of political reproduction and perpetuation. Krisel was reelected in 2001, but Edcel’s attempt to branch out in the fourth district of Quezon City was unsuccessful. Since retaking his Albay seat in 2004, Edcel has become a staunch defender of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

In a chapter for the compendium Anarchy of Families, Ruby Paredes observed, “There has always been a Filipino upper class whose position is based on combined economic and political power. But the composition of this class, the actual families that comprise it, is constantly changing.”

The dominant social class is rooted in a strong and highly resilient landed oligarchy that has adapted to the changing contours of the economy. Part of this class has managed to transform itself into the bourgeoisie during periods of import-substitution-industrialization and export-oriented industrialization. Yet, while segments of the landlord class managed to transpose itself into another class, it was weak enough to become that class and usher a new mode of production. In addition, there is a semblance of social mobility within the dominant class, as noveaux riches emerge and old families disappear. This steady influx of noveaux riches prevents the restriction of the oligarchy to a limited number of old rich families.

As societies undergo internal differentiation, its elites will become more differentiated and specialized. Hence, traditional elites are often transformed into strategic elites. The specialized nature of the strategic elites distinguishes it from the ruling castes, aristocracies, and dominant classes of the past. The shift from traditional elites to strategic elites is characterized by changes in the functions performed by the elites (i.e. from landed gentry in agrarian societies to managerial capitalists in an industrializing society). Their shifting functional significance is closely related to generational succession. Usually, a shift in generations is accompanied by changes in outlook and the functions, roles and skills performed by the next generation of elites. This may provide a narrow window for change and reform in the political system.

Julio C. Teehankee is associate professor and chair of the Political Science Department at De La Salle University, Manila.