THE PHILIPPINES: Political Parties and Corruption

By Quimpo, Nathan Gilbert | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

THE PHILIPPINES: Political Parties and Corruption


Quimpo, Nathan Gilbert, Southeast Asian Affairs


The Philippines, it is often said, has mediocre or weak political parties and an inchoate or ill-developed political party system. A political party, as defined by the country's Omnibus Election Code, is an organized group of persons pursuing the same ideology, political ideas, or platform of government. Political activist and analyst Joel Rocamora quips, however, that nobody can accuse any of the Philippines' main parties of being such an animal.1 Dominated by the country's politico-economic elite, they are built around personalities, rather than around political programmes or platforms. In fact, ideologies and platforms are just adornments for them. A major Philippine daily newspaper aptly describes what the parties stand for: "The usual motherhood statements are passed off as political programmes".2 Apart from being indistinguishable from one another in their political beliefs and programmes - or lack of these - the Philippines' main parties have weak membership bases and seem to come alive only during election time. Elections are often marked - or marred - by lavish spending, vote-buying, fraud, and violence. In Philippine party politics, turncoatism is a venerable tradition3 - politicians flit like butterflies from one party to another. Post-Marcos parties, in particular, are said to reflect the undeveloped or malformed character of the Philippine political party system. Far from being stable organizations, they have proven to be nebulous entities that can be set up, merged with others, split, resurrected, regurgitated, reconstituted, renamed, repackaged, recycled, or flushed down the toilet any time.4 Most politicians belonging to the main parties have come to be derogatorily called trapo, which is short for "traditional politician", but ordinarily means an old rag used for wiping off dust and dirt that often becomes grimy or greasy.

A scrutiny of Philippine trapo parties leads one to question certain prevailing notions about political parties and about the relationship of political parties and party systems with political development and democratic consolidation. First, in the new typology of political parties drawn up by Richard Gunther and Larry Diamond, there are two types of elite-based party - the traditional local notable party and the clientelistic party.5 Under this typology, the Philippines' trapo parties would be classified as the latter. However, I argue that the trapo parties have gone far beyond simple clientelist politics and morphed into patritnonialistic parties, instruments of an oligarchic elite for the predation of the state and its resources through various means - the use of traditional patron-client ties, non-personalistic forms of patronage, rent-seeking, outright corruption, fraud, coercion, and violence.

Secondly, the institutionalization of political parties and party systems is often regarded as being very important or even crucial for a country's political modernization and democratic consolidation. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have tended to draw a linear development of parties and party systems from weak to strong, from uninstitutionalized to institutionalized.6 Under the traditional characterization of political parties and party systems, the Philippines' main parties and its party system would be regarded as weak and uninstitutionalized. I argue that while seeming to be feeble, sapless creatures, the trapo parties, taken collectively, are quite rapacious and formidable. The system of chameleonic and patrimonialistic trapo parties has, in fact, become the foremost institution of the Philippines' "patrimonial oligarchic" or "predatory" state. The degeneration of Philippine parties from clientelist to patrimonialist politics and the institutionalization of the trapo party system indicate that the building of strong and truly democratic political parties and party system in the Philippines is turning out to be an excruciatingly difficult and complicated process.

From Clientelistic to Patrimonialistic Parties

Traditional patron-client relationships have long been an important feature of Philippine politics. …

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