Dismantling the oligarchy

An oligarchy is governed by a few families and individuals. While wealth is indeed among its members’ more obvious attributes, wealth alone does not make an oligarch. The capacity to influence or control government and governance does.

An oligarch is therefore someone who, by virtue of birth, wealth, religious affiliation, or control over the coercive powers of the state (the police, military, and judiciary) is able to influence government or even rule it in furtherance of his or her individual, family, and class interests, as well as those of his or her associates. If their failure to convince or influence Congress into renewing the ABS-CBN franchise is any indication, the Lopezes, as wealthy as they are, hardly qualify as oligarchs.

During the Martial Law period (1972-1986), Ferdinand Marcos’ cohorts were aptly known as cronies — those individuals who were more than the dictator’s and his family’s friends. They were also his most trusted accomplices and collaborators, who were able to amass wealth because of their closeness to him.

But neither the oligarchy nor cronyism were Marcos creations. The Philippines has always been ruled by a few — the handful of families whose sons and daughters, other kin and in-laws have monopolized political power in this country since the Commonwealth period. Some of these families do fade into obscurity, but they are soon replaced by others — by upstarts such as Marcos was, who have gained enough means to run for public office and to use it to recover the resources they spent campaigning for it, and to accumulate even more. The term “oligarchs” aptly describes them, although some prefer to call them “bureaucrat capitalists.”

What’s wrong with an oligarchy is quite simply it’s being no more than the control by a few over governance, and therefore their capacity to decide and shape the present and future of a country’s population, rather than the majority of that population’s deciding its own fate by delegating their sovereign power to do so through its chosen, duly- and wisely-elected representatives. An oligarchy is antithetical to democracy, which in contrast means the rule of the many.

Though they may not know it, the dismantling of the oligarchy — the rule of the few — is in the interest of the millions in the Philippines who are mired in poverty, injustice, ignorance, and misery that the political dynasties and their foreign overlords have been inflicting on them for decades.

In one of his most recent speeches, President Rodrigo Duterte claims to have done exactly that — to have demolished the oligarchy. The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) edited out of the transcript of his speech in Jolo before the military his admission — no, his boast — that he achieved this earthshaking feat by quite simply shutting down the free TV and radio operations of ABS-CBN network. Those present, including journalists, heard it, and audio recordings from various non-government media organizations prove he did say something to the effect that because the network offended him, he had vowed to demolish the oligarchy if he wins the Presidency — and that that is exactly what he did, without, he crowed, declaring martial law.

Mr. Duterte’s boast that the ABS-CBN shutdown is his doing came barely a week after the House Legislative Franchises Committee rejected by a vote of 70 to 11 to renew the network’s franchise. Before the committee vote, the House leadership had repeatedly assured the public that the House, being an independent body, its committee would vote according to the merits of ABS-CBN’s case. Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson also declared that he is neutral on the issue.

Few believed either. Mr. Duterte had been threatening to do all he can to stop the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise since he came to power in 2016. His last declaration about it was in December last year, when he vowed to see to it that it would be “out,” and also suggested that the Lopezes should just sell the network.

The significance of Mr. Duterte’s admission goes beyond merely confirming once again his power over a supposedly co-equal and independent body of government. It re-affirms as well that Philippine governance is in the control of a few and that, rather than demolishing the oligarchy, government is itself still the oligarchy that it has always been since Commonwealth days.

Additionally, however, because Mr. Duterte’s iron hold on the three branches of government is a reprise of Ferdinand Marcos’ total control over government during the Martial Law period, it also raises the question of how far the systematic destruction of the Republic has proceeded since 2016.

The fundamentals of that Republic after all include the system of checks and balances that’s premised on the independence of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government from each other, as well as representative government’s reflecting and heeding the wishes of its constituents.

The latter principle was of no moment to Mr. Duterte and his House cohort. They ignored the widespread call among the citizenry for the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise, which a Social Weather Stations poll established is at 75%. And as if to further add to the suspicion that it wasn’t to demolish the oligarchy but to further strengthen it that ABS-CBN has been denied a franchise, one of Mr. Duterte’s House allies echoed his December proposal for the Lopezes to sell the network, and said that he would then support the grant of a franchise to the new owners.

Both the suggestion and the statement imply that what the regime wants is not only to get the Lopezes “out,” but also to transfer ownership of the network to someone or some group that’s “friendlier” and more acceptable to it — and who or which will transform ABS-CBN from a news provider into just another public relations flack of government like the PCOO and the state media system it controls.

And then there’s also Mr. Duterte’s saying while he was in Sulu last week that he would be more than happy should those friends of his who have been “helpful” to him grow even richer, adding that they would have to sit down and talk with him “because there is so much that we can do business” (sic).

His spokesperson, who at one point had falsely claimed that the denial of the ABS-CBN franchise was “the decision of the Filipino people,” was quick to deny it. But the only term that best describes Mr. Duterte’s encouraging those close to power to benefit from government by further enriching themselves, and his saying that they (Mr. Duterte and friends) “can do business” is — cronyism.

No one should be under the illusion that the shutdown of ABS-CBN has put an end to the oligarchy. On the contrary. It has widened the field of choice for Mr. Duterte’s friends, whoever they are, not only to enrich themselves further by adding the network to their billions in investments, but also to influence and shape public opinion through the facilities of the largest, most watched, heard, and most influential broadcast complex in the country of our despair.

To dismantle the oligarchy and make democratic rule a reality in these isles of fear, the real oligarchs and their cronies will have to start with themselves. But as this country’s decades-long experience and the failure of any anti-dynasty bill to make it in Congress has shown, that’s about as unlikely to happen as the return of civility and some sense in government.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
July 23, 2020

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