Political Power and Exclusion

Politics Society Economy

The Philippine political system and the related consolidation of the political-economic elite are legacies of American colonialism—the foundational institutional history upon which our system has continued to build.

1. Colonial origins of the national oligarchy

The Philippine political system and the related consolidation of the political-economic elite are legacies of American colonialism—the foundational institutional history upon which our system has continued to build.  

American colonial rule provided the foundations for municipal, provincial, and national elections (as well as the rudiments of self-government at these levels) but restricted participation1 to the educated and landowning traditional elite.2 Historian Alfred McCoy explains, “from local elections in 1901, to legislative elections in 1907, and presidential elections in 1935, the Americans built electoral politics from the municipality upwards, thereby entrenching provincial families in both local and national offices” along the way up.3

Then, when the Americans dispossessed the Catholic Religious Orders of 400,000 acres of their vast haciendas, it was only the wealthy in the Philippines that could afford to buy it. This further enabled the elite to secure their local power bases in the provinces. Additionally, the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Act included the Philippines’ agricultural exports within the American tariff wall, providing untaxed access to the largest national market, where prices often exceeded international norms.4 Thus, monopolizing local elections, running local governments, and gaining in wealth through export trade and their increased landholdings, the provincial elites entrenched their power. 

From here a visible and truly national oligarchy could cohere for the first time. In this staged development, along the lines and schedule of American political tutelage, the creation of a national Congress centered in Manila offered the provincial elites access to national-level political power.5 For a divided nation, riven by linguistic diversity and factional interests, scholar Benedict Anderson argues that this had a unifying effect. “More than at any previous time, they got to know one another well in a civilized ‘ring’ sternly refereed by the Americans…they went to the same receptions, attended the same churches, lived in the same residential areas, shopped in the same fashionable streets, had affairs with each other’s wives, and arranged marriages between each other’s children. They were for the first time forming a self-conscious ruling class.”6  

“American colonial rule provided the foundations for municipal, provincial, and national elections (as well as the rudiments of self-government at these levels) but restricted participation to the educated and landowning traditional elite.”

The American policy of ‘Filipinizing’ the bureaucracy, or turning it over to Filipino rule rather than maintaining a large-scale American colonial service to administer the archipelago, meant that by 1921 90% of the existing civil service was Filipino, and, at this stage of democratic infancy, owed their employment to political patronage and corrupt urban machines.7 The staged proliferation of elective offices, as the bureaucracy and its Filipinization expanded, also gave the empowered local elite the opportunity to consolidate their power bases by placing family members in the right positions—thereby beginning the Philippines’ long history of political dynasties.8 

Meanwhile, in the backdrop of the Spanish and American empires in the Philippines, and even still beyond, was what David Sturtevant has called the Philippines’ ‘turbulent tradition.’ This is a product of ‘cultural alienation’ and ‘profound conflicts between deep-seated peasant values and modern urban attitudes’9 that has manifested in recurrent, varied forms of popular unrest (from what James Scott terms the ‘weapons of the weak’10 such as foot-dragging, banditry, and evasion, to more direct acts of outright rebellion), and that contest imperial, elite, and urban domination. It is this side to political life in the Philippines that is often forgotten in analyses of patrimonial democracy and elite domination, and that should be given due agency to nuance otherwise top-down readings of the workings of the state. 

2. Post-colonial political-economic entrenchment and its dictatorial apex  

The short Japanese occupation provided opportunities for war-profiteering and collaboration, by which point the patron-client model of mutual security effected between the peasants and their rural landowner patrons had long since completely broken down and become one-sided, resulting in the Hukbalahap Rebellion.  

In the first post-colonial elections of 1946 for the House of representatives, the leftist Democratic Alliance (primarily consisting of former members of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas) won six seats, representing a challenge to the existing elite-control of the political economy and potentially the first substantive, direct incorporation of non-elite interests into the political arena. These elected congressmen, however, were barred from assuming their seats, while President Manuel Roxas sought legislative approval for the Parity Clause (requiring an amendment to the 1935 constitution) and Bell Trade Act, trade and military agreements with the United States that heavily advantaged the former colonial power. Though five of the six congressmen were restored to the seats following the passage of this clause and act, Roxas’s maneuver signaled to the left that their voices and interests would not be represented in Congress even now that they had won independence. Those fighting the Hukbalahap Rebellon thus had little reason to accommodate. 

On the national stage, the presidential election of 1949, from which Elpidio Quirino emerged victorious against Jose Laurel, was notably bloody and fraudulent, and through its fraud, vote-buying, and coercion, represented a progression from pre-war styles of corruption.11 Meanwhile, without the Americans as direct overseers of electoral politics, local powers found in private armies a new tool for the consolidation of their political economic control, thereby beginning the rise of Philippine warldordism. The 1960s saw renewed growth in private armies, and, concomitantly, a rise in the cost of winning elections, which would only further prohibit truly popular representation in the halls of government.  

Overall, the traditional patron-client bonds between the landed elite and the peasant class (and the mutual protections that such alliance safeguarded) were eroding and transformed into a wider, impersonal political machine that resorted to diffusely distributed material inducements (rather than particular relationships and long-term protection) to secure compliance, and that incorporated threat or use of physical violence.12 This instrumental political machine “did not have a stable and permanent character and did not provide structural linkages between the local community and the central state.”  

“The 1960s saw renewed growth in private armies, and, concomitantly, a rise in the cost of winning elections, which would only further prohibit truly popular representation in the halls of government.” 

Though post-colonial tariff barriers rose, steadily closing access to the American market, from 1954-1972, as Benedict Anderson notes, the “oligarchy faced no serious domestic challenges,” while availing of “full access to the state’s financial instrumentalities.”13 Anderson records that, “under the guise of promoting economic independence and import-substitution industrialization, exchange rates were manipulated, monopolistic licenses parceled out, huge, cheap, often unrepaid bank loans passed around, and the national budget frittered away in pork barrel legislation.”14 Meanwhile, the more successful economic clans diversified and land diminished in economic importance.  

The arrangement of “parasitic plundering of state and private resources,”15 however, would see its pinnacle culmination in the dictatorship of President Marcos from 1972-1986, the trajectory of which moved the Philippines from being the most ‘advanced’ Southeast Asian capitalist society in the 1950s to the most depressed in the 1980s under and immediately following President Marcos. As Anderson reminds, by the end of the post-colonial golden era of Philippine economic performance (before the backwards slide under Marcos) “over 70 per cent of state revenues came from regressive sales and excise taxes, and a mere 27.5 per cent from income taxes—largely paid by foreign corporations,” and with the ever-skyrocketing Philippine birth rate this only resulted in the “massive pauperization of the unprivileged.”16 The Communist New People’s Army had the most to gain under the repression and pauperization of the Marcos years, while the educated middle class left the country for better opportunity. 

3. Democracy following EDSA and the growth of patronage politics 

The EDSA Revolution that ended Marcos’s dictatorship is only one example of the popular movements that contested elite-dominated politics and policy flowing from Manila. “Peasant struggles for land reform have been at the core of the Huk rebellion and the Maoist insurgency, and the struggles of Muslims against oppression and discrimination have been at the core of the Muslim secessionist movement,” Nathan Quimpo writes; and, “while many may abhor the [Communist Party’s] ends and means, the intensity and longevity of its armed struggle show the depth of popular opposition not just to Marcos’s authoritarian rule, but also to elite rule in general.”17 The party list system, which was approved in 1995, guaranteed the representation of certain marginalized sectors in the national political arena, and encouraged the deepening of our party system through the creation of political parties that are aligned with different policy agendas, orientations, and sectoral interests. Nevertheless, the post-EDSA regime of Cory Aquino largely facilitated the restoration of the pre-Marcos political elite and its patrimonial politics. 

In the first round of elections following the EDSA Revolution, the provincial and local elections of 1988 restored the greatest number of pre-Marcos political dynasties, but even in the national-level 1987 elections, the Institute of Popular Democracy reported that out of 200 House Representatives, 130 belonged to the ‘traditional political families,’ 39 were relatives of those families, and only 31 Congressmen [had] no electoral records prior to 1971 and [were] not related to these old dominant families.18 Meanwhile, “of the 24 elected senators, there [were] a few non-traditional figures but the cast [was] largely made up of members of prominent pre-1972 political families.”19 Yet, there was a new presence following the EDSA revolution for middle-class reformists and their popular supporters, particularly in and surrounding Metro Manila, and some ‘minor’ dynasties did succeed in breaking up older fiefdoms.20 

Despite the rebuke to Marcos’s politics of plunder, cronyism, and patronage that EDSA delivered, the post-Marcos political system has remained plague by the same. While Presidents Estrada and Arroyo were criticized of corruption in the form of personal enrichment, that is but one form of corruption, and, unfortunately, as Nathan Quimpo has analyzed, President Aquino’s efforts to fight political corruption through patronage politics (which itself can be another form of corruption) has increased and facilitated politicians’ opportunities for personal enrichment.21 Not that patronage politics is new—defined by Martin and Susan Tolchin as “the disbursement [by politicians] of the discretionary favors of government in exchange for political support,” patronage includes favors such as appointments, jobs, awarding of contracts for projects, government concessions, and funding for projects, and ‘pork barrel’ legislative politics has been at work in the country since the 1920s American period.22

Patronage runs the political system, and is one of the methods through which money flows from the center outward. It is also how the President, once elected, attempts to set and achieve his/her policy agenda—in exchange for allocated funding for their districts, projects, and/or selves, Congress members will pass the President’s legislation and support his/her initiatives. Congressmen will then ingratiate themselves with their constituents and backers through this received funding and funds—making good on their own roles as patrons.  

Marcos enhanced the existing, incredible budgetary authority of the executive through new discretionary funds that he could directly allocate to local officials for community projects.23 Then in 1990, President Corazon Aquino established the Countryside Development Fund to allow Congress legislators to fund similarly small-scale and local projects directly.24 Nathan Quimpo records that Senate Minority Floor Leader Aquilino Pimentel declared that the 2005 attempt to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo failed “because Malacañang dangled money, pork barrel projects, government positions, and other juice incentives which proved irresistible to the unscrupulous congressmen.”25 

“Patronage runs the political system, and is one of the methods through which money flows from the center outward.”

In the absence of large national political parties distinguished through ideology and/or cohering around a constellation of differentiable policy positions, the President’s enormous authority over allocation and disbursement of government funds also fuels political turncoatism—with politicians defecting immediately after election to the President’s winning party to avail of presidential patronage. President Benigno Aquino III’s Liberal Party won 45 seats out of 285 in the House of representatives, while Arroyo’s Lakas-Kampi party won 106; however, after the shakedown of political turncoatism, the Liberal Party ended up with 80 seats and a total of 251 members in an Aquino-aligned majority coalition, leaving the minority with merely 34.26 The political turncoats filled the ranks of the Liberal Party and diluted the reformists who had sought to strengthen its political program. “To help ensure the political allegiance of senators and congressmen, the Aquino administration not only retained such pork barrel funds as PDAF and the Congressional Allocation,” Quimpo writes, “but even inflated them.” “It jacked up the budget for PDAF from P6.9 billion in 2010 to P22.3 billion in 2011…and further increased it in 2012 and 2013,” yet even still PDAF “was just a drop in the bucket” for “the Aquino government maintained huge lump sums under the president’s discretion in the national budgets.” Though Aquino accused Arroyo of amassing nearly P1 trillion in discretionary lump sums to remain in power, he neither rejected nor diminished these, but instead increased them—to approximately P1.45 trillion, according to Perry Diaz’s estimates.



The Philippine Commission passed Act No. 60 in 1901, requiring voters to be: male, aged 23 and older, resident of the municipality for a minimum of 6 months prior to the election, and fulfilling one of the following three criteria: proficient in the English/Spanish language; owning property worth at least 500 pesos; have held local government positions prior to the1898 American occupation.


Julio Teehankee, “Electoral Politics in the Philippines,” Electoral Politics in Southeast And East Asia, accessed October 15, 2015, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/237105428


From Alfred W. McCoy’s An Anarchy of Families (1994), quoted in Teehankee op. cit., 4.


Benedict Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” New Left Review I, 169 (May-June 1988): 3-31, 9.






Ibid., 10.




See David R. Sturtevant’s Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840-1940 (1976).


See James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987).


Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” 15.


Nathan Gibert Quimpo, “Review: Oligarchic Patrimonialism, Bossism, Electoral Clientelism, and Contested Democracy in the Philippines,” Comparative Politics 37, No. 2 (Jan. 2005): 229-250, p. 235.


Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” 16.




Ibid., 17.




Quimpo, “Review: Oligarchic Patrimonialism, Bossism, Electoral Clientelism, and Contested Democracy in the Philippines,” 244.


Quoted in Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” 27.




Anderson, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” 29.


See Nathan Gilbert Quimpo’s “Fighting Corruption Through Patronage?” in The Manila Review Issue 4 (Feb. 2014)


Quoted in Quimpo’s “Fighting Corruption Through Patronage?”


Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, “Fighting Corruption Through Patronage?” The Manila Review Issue 4 (Feb. 2014), accessed on November 6, 2015, http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/fighting-corruption-through-patronage

















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