Nathan Gilbert Quimpo taught at the Departments of Political Science and Sociology of the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He now lectures at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, October 10, 2005 edition, page S1/5.

Political corruption and electoral fraud in the Philippines have often been associated with particular politicians, their relatives, cronies and close allies. In the latest kabanata of the country’s seemingly unending soap opera of political corruption and fraud, the focus has been on a president concerned about “protecting” her votes, jueteng-implicated relatives, and the elusive “Garci.” Hardly any attention has been paid to political parties and their possible link to all the corruption and fraud.

The Philippines has a weak political party system. Far from being stable, programmatic organizations, the country’s main political parties are nebulous entities that can be set up, merged with others, split, resurrected, regurgitated, reconstituted, renamed, repackaged, recycled or flushed down the toilet anytime. They are indistinguishable from one another in their professed political beliefs and programs and have weak membership bases.  Most politicians have come to be derogatorily called trapo, which is short for “traditional politician” but ordinarily means “dirty old rag.”

Trapo parties may seem to be feeble, sapless creatures. Collectively, however, they play a key role in institutionalizing political corruption in the country.

The Philippines’ main parties are not political parties in the ordinary sense. A political party is supposed to be an organization of persons pursuing the same ideology, political ideas or platform of government. For Philippine parties, ideologies and platforms are just adornments. A Philippine Daily Inquirer (January 13, 2004) editorial aptly describes what their programs consist of: “The usual motherhood statements are passed off as political programs.” They can be changed or discarded anytime.

Prior to martial law, the Philippines’ main political parties were clientelistic parties. In the mid-1960s, Carl Landé observed that the Philippine polity was structured less by organized interest groups as in Western democracies than by networks or chains of personal relationships stretching from the national down to the local levels-to a great extent, patron-client ties involving exchanges of favors between prosperous patrons and their poor and dependent clients. The two main parties at that time took on “the role of general benefactor, offering to every sort of individual some limited but tangible reward, and rewarding each town which supported them with some visible public works project.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, other political scientists raised questions regarding Landé’s rather placid depiction of Philippine politics, noting that the country’s elections were increasingly marked  by non-personalistic forms of patronage, as well as by fraud and terrorism. In brief, “guns, goons and gold.” Characterizing Philippine politics as clientelistic politics, Thomas Nowak and Kay Snyder described such as a system of exchange which is particularistic, non-programmatic, non-ideological, and not necessarily personalistic.

Under Marcos’ dictatorial rule, political clientelism turned into what David Wurfel termed as patrimonial authoritarianism. (Patrimonialism is a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair.) Making full use of his dictatorial powers, Marcos, his wife, and their cronies, fully exploited state resources for their personal aggrandizement and plunged the country into deep debt. To help him regain legitimacy, Marcos restored elections, a legislature, and set up his own political party, Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement), to dominate these pseudo-democratic processes.

The KBL marked the shift from clientelistic to patrimonialistic party politics. It still used traditional patron-client ties, non-personalistic patronage, fraud and terrorism. But Marcos’ and his cronies’ objective turned into all-out plunder of state resources, besides effective monopoly over state power. Not all in the KBL were corrupt. Some do-gooders perhaps naively thought they could still pursue reforms even under a patrimonial dictatorship. Among them were some technocrats who were close to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Both showered billions of dollars in loans to the corrupt dictatorial regime without investigating where the money really went. (For this folly, Filipinos now pay the price.)

Since Marcos’ fall, the Philippines has been held up as a “restored” democracy. But political corruption and violence in post-authoritarian Philippines have reached such staggering proportions that in recent years, political pundits have come up with damning characterizations of the country’s politics. Paul Hutchcroft describes the Philippines as having a patrimonial oligarchic state, a weak state preyed upon and plundered by different factions of the country’s politico-economic elite, who take advantage of, and extract privilege from, a largely incoherent bureaucracy. According to him, it is no longer just one person and his/her cronies but the oligarchic elite as a whole that engages in plunder. John Sidel depicts bossism as a common phenomenon, showing how “bosses” resort to crime and coercion to monopolize political and economic power within certain areas.