(This commentary originally appeared in the May 3rd, 2013 online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.)


In our country ruled by an oligarchy, the political dynasties in most of our provinces enjoy a monopoly of electoral power, to the disadvantage of rival leaders and the general public. “An anarchy of families,” says American historian Alfred McCoy.


Political dynasts are seen to use their superior wealth, following and access to public resources to favor themselves and undermine the state. They attract their followers and keep them loyal with government patronage and personal protection. Having captured the state, some resort to massive corruption, fraud, violence, vote-buying, and intimidation.


The issue of political dynasties has heated up in relation to the senatorial candidates who come from political families and thus bear the same surname as other senators, Vice-President Binay or President Aquino himself.


The Constitution provides: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” The framers left it entirely to Congress, most of whose members belong to political dynasties, to define the term. Without a law defining and prohibiting political dynasties, the constitutional provision is inutile.


The rapid expansion of our electorate, consisting of more and more poor people and insecure and dependent voters, has increased the cost of campaigning and incumbency for the political leaders acting as patrons of their constituents. In turn, our continuing semi-feudal society, premodern political culture, weak state, and self-serving leaders shape and perpetuate our dysfunctional elections, political parties, presidential form of government, and unitary system of national-local government relations.


The cost of elections is rising in all democracies, except in the industrialized ones where many middle-class citizens contribute to the campaign of their party candidates. Moreover, their state supports the political parties through subsidies. In contrast, our middle class is not as broad, deep and effective as a countervailing force to the political establishment, although middle-class members are becoming more assertive and our media vigilant. Most politicians use their power and influence to divert public funds for their personal advantage and through wasteful pork barrel politics.


Weak, captive state

According to Richard Javid Heydarian in his revealing article, “Why the Philippines failed,” one discovers that the country’s developmental troubles have a lot to do with “state-formation”—or lack of a strong, independent state. This is precisely what differentiates the Philippines from many of its successful neighbors, which have had strong and enlightened executives autonomously undertaking crucial (and correct) economic decisions without pandering to specific interest groups.


As scholars, notably Joel Migdal, have correctly analyzed, “the main problem with the Philippines is that it never had a ‘strong’ state, which normally has at its disposal an enabling combination of sufficient ‘policy autonomy’ and ‘functional capacity’ to craft and implement right decisions in the interest of the country. Instead, the Philippine state is basically an instrument of extra-state, parochial interests, which hardly coincide with the broader national interest.” (The Huffington Post, April 25, 2013)


Adds Heydarian: “In this sense, one could say that—following Isaac Berlin’s concepts of freedom—the Philippines [under America] only developed an adulterated understanding of democracy, along libertarian lines, which emphasized ‘negative freedom’ (noninterference/intrusion of the State in individual’s lives and property) at the expense of ‘positive freedom’ (basic social and economic rights for all citizens). As a result, the Philippines has had not only a defective democracy—whereby citizens are formally equal, but in reality an oligarchy is in charge—but also a weak State struggling to craft an optimal economic calculus . [Emphasis added]


“In ‘Why Nations Fail,’ economists Acemoglu and Robinson provide a brilliant explanation on how progress and development is largely a function of ‘inclusive’—as opposed to extractive—governance. Using their dichotomy, the Philippines clearly falls within the extractive category, whereby the core-elite [has] blocked appropriate policies, which would have made the country a true democracy, anchored by a large middle class, an entrepreneurial sector, and strong institutions spurring growth and innovation. Therefore, in many ways, the developmental failure of the Philippines has something to do with its weak and divided State, which seldom had the right ‘policy space’ to make optimal economic decisions. [Emphasis added]


“Throughout the post-War period, the Philippine State has either been at the mercy of entrenched elites, pushing for particularistic interests and blocking policies/legislations aimed at national development, or international financial institutions (World Bank and IMF), which have prescribed counterproductive policies, notably ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs), causing tremendous poverty, social dislocation, agricultural decline and ‘de-industrialization’ across the developing world.”


In sharp contrast to the Philippines, Heydarian states, “Japan and then the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) of South Korea and Taiwan, of course China dramatically, and the Asean countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand were able to transform from feudal, agricultural societies into hubs of innovation and production … to climb up in the global chains of production, and lift millions of people out of poverty.”


Heydarian concludes: “In most cases, we see how a strong, autonomous state changed the national culture, created its own ‘comparative advantage’ within the global economic structures, and sidelined predatory elites for the preservation of national interest. This is where the Philippines should begin.” (The Huffington Post, April 25, 2013)


What’s to be done?

I have long advocated specific structural and institutional reforms requiring amendments to our 1987 Constitution. Our newly formed Centrist Democratic Party (Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya) advocates the devolution of our highly centralized and dysfunctional unitary system. We are also pushing hard for a parliamentary government to replace our obsolete presidential government that discourages the formation of democratic and program-oriented political parties and a strong, developmental state.


Moreover, we are asking P-Noy to spearhead the strengthening of the Philippine state through Charter change and reform legislation. We believe this is his best chance to become a truly transforming leader and leave a memorable legacy. His continuing high approval and trust ratings make it possible to undertake the fundamental reforms needed. And he must begin to make the potential a reality soon, well before his term ends in June 2016.


But, first of all, he must overcome his misguided resistance to Charter change that will strengthen our state, uplift the poor, and develop our country as never before. Ito  po  ang   daang  matuwid  na  ninanais  nating  lahat. This is the righteous path that we all desire.


Dr. Jose V. Abueva is president of Kalayaan College and cofounder of the new Centrist Democratic Party. He is a former president of the University of the Philippines and UP professor emeritus of political science and public administration. Comments are welcome at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his blogsite here.