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A civil society ‘dynasty’ to fight political dynasties

Masbate priest Leo Casas

By Jonathan de Santos, VERA Files

It has taken Congress a quarter of a century to craft a law that will make the Constitutional ban on political dynasties real, but Fr. Leo Casas, candidate for governor of Masbate province, says citizens are not powerless against political clans that dominate politics.

At a forum on political dynasties at the Ateneo de Manila University on Friday, he said greater citizens' involvement can counter powerful political clans. "We can fight money with volunteerism and a sense of sacrifice," the priest said.

"We can fight dynasties with a civil society 'dynasty,'" he said, stressing that an "active and vigilant" society can prompt change in local politics.

Already, he said, his political opponents have been forced to reach out to sectors that would otherwise have been ignored. "Lumalapit na sila sa kabataan, estudyante at kababaihan kasi may mga supporters tayo doon (They are reaching out to the youth, students, and women because he have supporters there)," he said.

Camarines Sur race

Lawyer Leni Robredo of Camarines SurLawyer Leni Robredo, widow of the late Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo and a candidate for a seat at the House of Representatives, told the forum that her opponent has also been reaching out to women in the Third District of Camarines Sur, whom she organized herself.

She said, however, that politicians engaging marginalized sectors to court votes does not always mean a change in the political system.

Supporters of Nelly Favis-Villafuerte, her opponent and wife of incumbent Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte Sr., have gotten in touch with women's groups she has organized to offer money and groceries in exchange for registering with Villafuerte's team instead, Robredo said.

Local politics in her district has remained based on patronage, she said, with voters supporting candidates based on utang na loob (debt of gratitude) and for short-term benefits. She said that in one of the barangays she has visited, students have to miss classes when it rains because they can't cross flooded creeks.

"Pinuntahan namin, tapos madali lang naman lagyan ng footbridge doon, pero hindi nilalagyan kasi kaunti lang ang botante (It would have been easy to put up a foot bridge but there are few voters in that area)," she said.

Instead, voters are sometimes won over by gifts of apples and money, Robredo said. She said she has been trying to talk to communities to explain the importance of choosing leaders who will bring development to her district.

Aside from Naga City, she said there is hardly any business in the seven towns in the Third District, and on average, 90 percent of the towns' funds come from their share of the country's internal revenue.

A better-organized citizenry could change that, she said. "With more people engaged in governance, politicians will be on their toes," she explained.

Joy Aceron, program director for the Political Democracy and Reform (Poder) program of the Ateneo School of Government, said good governance has to be more than just about fielding alternative candidates, although that is important too.

During election season, people tend to forget fundamental problems in the political system where the "same people are winning elections," she said.

"Engagement in politics should not end at elections," she said.

Uphill battle

But even just running against a political dynasty is hard enough.

Robredo said most voters in her area do not care if their politicians all come from the same family. Although her husband's death in a plane crash in August put her in the national spotlight, this will not necessarily translate to votes either. "It's really different on the local level," she said.

Casas, meanwhile, admits he was a "witness and a victim" of local politics in Masbate, and that he has even consented to it for more than three decades by not doing anything about it.

Even before the official campaign period starts, Casas said he has already received threatening text messages and one of his volunteers has already been killed.

In contrast, he said, "Ang political army ko lang ay ang (The only political army I have is the) Catholic Women's League."

Abra's Bernardina JosonFor Bernadina Joson, a mayoral candidate in Lagayan, Abra, things are worse still. "Kapag sinasabing Abra, tatak na namin ay 'Killing Fields' sa North," she said at the same forum. She said people who oppose local political families are often killed.

She said, though, that people in her town are desperate for an alternative candidate they can support. "Buhay pa naman ako (I am still alive)," she said.

Joson, a government auditor who had filed a plunder case against members of the Luna clan in public office, said she is running to be a voice for her people because "those whose mouths are shut with fear have plenty to tell." Among those, she said, are complaints against the lack of development in the town.

"Twenty six years is too long to convert a rough road to a concreted one. Too long to turn carabaos (as transportation) into jeepneys," she said.

No legal prohibition on political dynasties

At the forum, Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento gave a presentation on how government can curb political dynasties. Reaching a mostly blank slide on his slide show, he said, "Ayan na po (that's it)."

Aside from the prohibition against political dynasties in the 1987 Constitution, a a prohibition that has yet to be operationalized, there is nothing to keep families from monopolizing political power.

Sarmiento said term limits do little since these are what prompt politicians to ask their relatives to run for the same position. He added the party-list system is now being threatened by the appearance of groups with nominees coming from just one family.

Sarmiento and the Commission on Elections has been trying weed out these groups. "Nakakabahala. Nakakatakot (This is worrisome and scary)," he said.

He added political clans might soon use seats in local government reserved for sectoral representatives as another way to consolidate power.

Although the Comelec's hands are tied against political dynasties until Congress passes a law defining them, Sarmiento said citizens can help make the distribution of power less unfair: They can support candidates with good visions and platforms of government and also push for passage of legislative initiatives that will reform the political system.

Proposed reforms

Among those are the "anti-epal" bills filed in Congress. The bills, if passed, will prohibit the use of government projects as billboards and advertisements for politicians and will require prospective candidates to file a Certificate of Intent to Run for Public Office six months before the filing of certificates of candidacy. After formalizing their intent to run, prospective candidates will be barred from appearing on media for self-promotion.

Another bill is the Political Party Development bill filed by Sen. Edgardo Angara seeking to institutionalize political parties by requiring nominees to be chosen according to a merit system. The bill also penalizes political "turncoatism," with politicians who switch parties losing their office and their right to run in the next elections.

In a press statement in October, Angara said that under the current political system "political parties end up focusing on individuals rather than shared ideals or policy prescriptions."

Sarmiento added it is time for Congress to pass a law to define political dynasties. If it doesn't, however, he said an avenue left for citizens is in the form of a people's initiative.

The Initiative and Referendum Act of 1989 recognizes the power of the people to "directly propose, enact, approve or reject, in whole or in part, the Constitution, laws, ordinances, or resolutions passed by any legislative body."

Ang Kapatiran Party will seek to do just that next year, representatives of the party said at the forum. If it can gather verified signatures from 10 percent of the total number of registered voters, with at least 3 percent of the voters from each district, the Comelec will be duty bound to hold a referendum on the proposed law.

If it gets support from a majority of voters during the referendum, it becomes a law.

Norman Cabrera, party secretary-general, said on Ang Kapatiran's website that citizens have a right to take action when the legislature does not.

"What Filipinos need to do is to exercise this right, to make this law work for them, and to take affirmative action where Congress has failed, then, now and in the future," he said.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")

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