“THE future is not set; there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” That is the famous quote from the Terminator franchise top-billed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor plays the A.I machine or robot which is sent back from the future and saves humankind from what seems to be the world’s downward spiral toward nuclear apocalypse. Disaster however is avoided because the protagonists are able to change their future. But back to the real world, this is not what many observers feel about the immediate future of politics in the Philippines. In contrast, many think that since last year, our tragic fate has already been sealed literally.

What is very conspicuous, of course, is the return of the so-called Empire, to borrow a title from another movie franchise. The Marcoses are back at the helm of Philippine politics, even if many argue that they were never really gone. Various opinion surveys from the 1990s to the present show a nation that has no overwhelming consensus AGAINST them. But more worrisome than the Marcos victory last year was the resurgence of oligarchs or what are commonly known as political dynasties. Not only are they back as well but they seem to be consolidating forces to further entrench themselves in the nation’s politics.

At the local level, this worrisome trend is very apparent. A recent study of the Ateneo School of Government (ASOG) reveals that political dynasties now have a stronghold or stranglehold of the local government. According to their study, in the 2022 elections, 77.8 percent of winning governors belong already to their province’s political families. Their partners, the vice-governors, are familiar faces as well, as 69.1 percent of them also belong to political dynasties. On the other hand, more than half, or 57.2 percent of the winning mayors came from famous families. And as far as the House of Representatives is concerned, 73.1 percent of that supposedly August hall belong to political clans. The same is true of the Senate of course, with the Cayetano siblings and the Ejercito/Estrada brothers, best of all, making a joke of the Constitutional mandate against political dynasties. 

This controversial issue about political dynasties, one may say, is old and hackneyed. Alfred McCoy’s “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines,” has famously documented this phenomenon and traced the origins or the rise to power of these few families. But what the new studies or researches, like that of the Ateneo School of Government, provide is further empirical data that prove the long term negative impact of the existence and spread of these political clans. In sum, for instance, ASOG’s research points, first, how political dynasties are responsible for the rise of political violence in the country (30.6 % in 2022 elections), and, second, how these clans have caused the under-development of provinces and regions specifically outside of Luzon. In Dinagat Islands, for example, ruled by the Ecleo clan since 2007, poverty incidence remains high at 37.1 percent; in Lanao del Sur, dominated by the Adiong clan since 2004, poverty incidence was a whopping 73.8 percent in 2018. Sulu which has been ruled by the Tans since 2004 is worse off with poverty incidence at 80.4 percent in 2021. In other words, just as monopolies are not good for business, so too are political dynasties bad for the economy.

Now, while the local elections have always been historically dominated by political dynasties, what makes the 2022 elections special and historical is the teaming up of these families to forge a winning ticket for the highest elective post of the land. Ostensibly, the Marcoses, the Dutertes and the Macapagal-Arroyos joined forces and resources to win the elections. Bong-Bong Marcos would never have won without the help of Sarah Duterte. Leni Robredo had defeated him before in 2016. But through the veteran mediation and machinations of GMA, Sarah Duterte gave to Bongbong Marcos the Mindanao votes which went to Leni Robredo in 2016. The North and South alliance was therefore achieved, resulting in a landslide victory. 

Alfred McCoy already wrote about the rent-seeking behavior of Filipino political dynasties. That is, these local overlords or warlords would curry favor to Presidentiables by delivering for them votes from their locales. In exchange, the national candidates would promise them “rents,” aka, sensitive government posts or public contracts. But now, it seems, the stake is higher. The Office of the President itself. Already, many are saying, Sarah Duterte will succeed the President; then the revolving door will probably go to another Marcos or a Romualdez or the next pick of the almighty oligarchs. They have figured out the algorithm to a sure electoral win: the unity among oligarchs, an electorate dominated by the poor classes that are susceptible to media or social media manipulation, and an indifferent middle class. Do you still think then that you can decide your fate? Or are we just pawns or playthings to the gods of Olympus? 

In the blockbuster film MATRIX, Neo, the main protagonist, discovers that the world he lives in is only an illusion. Everything is controlled by the Matrix or the robots or artificial intelligence, including the freedom that humans think they have. Neo is made to choose. To take the red pill which is to live in this comfortable but make-believe world or to take the blue pill which is to live in the true and real world via the painful path of change and sacrifice. Which will we take?