All Politics Is Family in Philippines

All Politics Is Family in Philippines

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MANILA -- His own comeback may have imploded, but former Philippine president Joseph Estrada will have a son in the senate, another in the House of Representatives and an ex-mistress in city hall.

As foreign governments and observers hail the success of the country's first automated balloting, one old practice persists -- the oligarchy and politician clans that perpetuate themselves in positions of power.

In these Southeast Asian islands, politics is all in the family -- or extended family, to be exact.

"The political dynasties are at the heart of our political system," said Ramon Casiple, head of an independent think-tank, the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

One of Estrada's sons, Jinggoy, was re-elected a senator in Monday's elections while another son to an ex-lover, Joseph Victor, won a seat in the House of Representatives.

That ex-lover, Guia Gomez, has also benefited politically from her ties to Estrada and was elected as a city mayor in the nation's capital.

All of them will continue the 73-year-old's legacy and entrench family power even after Estrada lost his bid for the presidency.

But the most remarkable dynastic victory of all was clinched by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos's family.

His widow Imelda, won his old congressional seat, their son Ferdinand Jnr looks set to enter the senate, and daughter Imee is the new governor of their stronghold Ilocos Norte province.

Gloria Arroyo, the outgoing president and daughter of a former president, will join the House of Representatives along with a son and a brother-in-law.

Even Benigno Aquino, the presumed president-elect relied on a patchwork of influential and inter-connected clans to back his bid.

His late mother is former president Corazon Aquino, while one of his cousins, Gilberto Teodoro, ran against him for the presidency and is already being tipped to have a prominent government role in the new administration.

"To me, what we're witnessing now is the last gasp of an oligarchy," said Manuel Villar, a self-made business titan who conceded defeat to Aquino after a presidential campaign emphasising his humble origins.

"And he (Aquino) is one of them," he said. Casiple said rich and politically influential clans are to blame for the arrested development of modern institutions, taking turns at government positions to protect family interests.

"Political maturity cannot proceed without actually undermining the powers of these dynasties," Casiple said.

At times, they induce corruption or inefficiency, because a seat in government is a boon to their business interests, he said.

"They feed on political power itself."

The rule of the families extends to the local level, where the winning candidates at times have a father elected as mayor and a daughter, son or a wife or a cousin as vice mayor.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which has studied the dynasties, says an ever-fluid coalition of between 198 and 210 families has effectively ruled the country since independence in 1946.

About a third of the old clans have withered, another third remain in power and the remaining third are new arrivals reflecting more recent fortunes, said the centre's director Malou Mangahas.

The older generation tended to rule through "guns, goons and gold" to keep themselves in power, but there is a bit of hope, according to Mangahas.

"Some of the younger clan members are better educated, and a few are actually turning out to be enlightened politicians," she told AFP.

Mangahas said the next government would have to broaden the electoral reforms started by automated voting, which analysts say has curbed the capacity of political dynasties to manipulate the vote.

Rene Sarmiento, an election commission member, said the Philippine constitution passed in 1987 after the fall of the 20-year Marcos regime mandated congress to ban family dynasties, but this has not been implemented.

The implementing law, after all, has to be passed by members of dynasties. Sarmiento said tighter restrictions on campaign finance and the further development of political parties are also needed to reduce the power of dynasties.