Nathan Gilbert Quimpo is a former lecturer of the Departments of Political Science and Sociology of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. He is now part-time lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, October 17, 2005 edition, page S1/5.

Imbibing a great deal from the political culture of corruption of the authoritarian era, trapo parties have morphed into patrimonialistic parties like Marcos’ KBL. This is hardly surprising, since former KBLs have been happily flitting from one trapo party to another; and since Marcos and his cronies showed how easy it is to steal and get away with much of the loot. The post-Marcos patrimonialistic parties serve as the conduits for the trapos— the political representatives of an increasingly predatory elite—for getting into power to be able to extract as much privilege from the state as possible.

Patrimonialistic parties are catch-all affairs. As a clientelist politician of old put it, politics is addition. It matters not what your political beliefs are. As long as you can help the party or ticket win—especially if you have the money, name, political office, looks or personality—you’re most welcome. In the main, a trapo party operates as an old boys’ network, sometimes as a fans’ club and often also as Mafia.

The “hyperfluidity” of patrimonialistic parties provides great opportunity for trapo opportunism after elections. Many who win under opposition parties switch to the administration side, since that’s where most of the patronage money, juicy government appointments and contracts are. Those who stay with, or switch to, the opposition are not exactly knights in shining armor. They’re just waiting for their turn. Corruption in the Philippines, writes David Kang, swings like a pendulum. Once a faction of the elite gains power, it busily goes about “lining its own pockets, aware that in the next round its fortunes might well be reversed.”

In the Philippines, the presidency, which has been endowed with tremendous powers of appointment to state agencies and state-owned corporations among other things, has become the citadel of patrimonialist politics. According to Randy David, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is a patrimonial president who has become adept at “governance by patronage.” She appears to be much better at it than her populist predecessor. With her patrimonialist charms and with the able support of tried-and-tested Speaker Jose de Venecia, the opposition was reduced to a miniscule minority in the lower house of Congress upon the start of her second term. No wonder the overwhelming majority of congresspersons defeated the motion for her impeachment.

In pre-martial law times, Philippine politics, despite clientelism, managed to produce statespersons of great moral fiber like Lorenzo Tañada, Jose W. Diokno and Jovito Salonga. With today’s patrimonialistic parties, statespersons are fast becoming extinct. Anybody who runs under trapo parties or coalitions gets tainted to some degree. Those who run under these parties or coalitions know very well—but sometimes pretend not to know—that they stand to benefit from the rampant vote-buying that their party- or coalition-mates do at the local level, from cheating and coercion at various levels and from the “protection” of votes through a “Hello, Garci” phone call at the top level.

The Philippines’ elite-dominated democracy allows for a number of reformers to exist in a sea of trapos. There will always be honest public servants managing isles of state efficiency, transparency and accountability. Once their three terms are up, however, it’s back to trapos again. Why? There is no reform-oriented party to carry on what they started. The new managerialists do not really challenge the traditional parties. Many of them have earnestly tried to reform these parties, but have failed, as the trapos are too well-entrenched.

But the Philippines is not all elite politics. It is a contested democracy in which the rule of the oligarchic elite is being challenged by the lower and middle classes: “elite democracy” versus “democracy from below.” The predatory elite seeks to maintain a deficient type of formal democracy that it can dominate and manipulate. Adherents of “democracy from below” desire good governance and transparent, accountable government, and also popular empowerment and social justice. They want formal democracy to become more substantive, to deepen it into a more participatory and egalitarian democracy.

The dismantling of patrimonialist politics in the Philippines and the deepening of democracy can come about only through a long process of change, involving gradual change as well as ruptures (such as EDSA I and II).

The parties of our patrimonial oligarchic state have to be replaced by truly democratic parties of a democratic polity. These parties should have genuine, well-thought-out political programs and should be led by leaders with a track record of fighting for reform. Some of the parties in the party-list system that are fighting for “new politics” and “democracy from below” fit the bill. But few of them have really challenged trapo parties in elections outside of the party-list ballot.

Reform-minded politicians who are in trapo parties should seriously consider leaving them, and get into truly democratic parties or build new ones. By continuing to work in unholy cohabitation with trapos, they only help legitimize and perpetuate the trapo system of patronage, patrimonialism and corruption.