KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 1 / January-February-March 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Trapo Parties and Corruption

by Nathan Gilbert Quimpo

The Philippines, it is often said, has wishy-washy political parties and a weak political party system. The country’s main parties are too personality–oriented, and not program–oriented. In fact, they are indistinguishable from one another in their political beliefs and programs. They have weak membership bases and operate only during election time. Political turncoatism is a venerable tradition, as Felipe Miranda puts it. Post-Marcos parties, in particular, are said to reflect the undeveloped or malformed character of the Philippine political party system. Far from being stable, programmatic 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 anytime. Just as a butterfly-politician flits from one party to another, the party flits from one “coalition” to the next. Most politicians have come to be derogatorily called trapo, which is short for “traditional politician” but ordinarily means “dirty old rag.”

There’s much more than meets the eye, however. The Philippines’ trapo parties may seem to be feeble, sapless creatures, but collectively, they play a key role in the institutionalization of political corruption in the country.

The Philippines’ main political parties are not political parties in the ordinary sense. A political party, as commonly defined and as defined by the Omnibus Election Code, is an organized group of persons pursuing the same ideology, political ideas or platform of government. Joel Rocamora quips that nobody can accuse any of the country’s main parties of being such an animal. Ideologies and platforms are just adornments for them. An editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (January 13, 2004) aptly describes what their programs consist of: “The usual motherhood statements are passed off as political programs.” They too can be changed or discarded anytime. Any group that hankers to be called a political party can go to Claro M. Recto Avenue and have a neat collection of motherhood statements (aka program of government) produced overnight.

 Prior to martial law, the Philippines’ main political parties were clientelistic parties. In the mid-1960s, Carl Landé observed that the Philippine polity was structured less by organized interest groups as in Western democracies than by networks or chains of personal relationships stretching from the national down to the local levels — to a great extent, patron–client ties involving exchanges of favors between prosperous patrons and their poor and dependent clients. The two main parties at that time took on “the role of general benefactor, offering to every sort of individual some limited but tangible reward … and rewarding each town which supported them with some visible public works project.”

In the late 60s and early 70s, other political scientists raised questions regarding Landé’s rather placid depiction of Philippine politics, noting that the country’s elections were increasingly being marred - or marked - by non–personalistic forms of patronage, as well as by fraud and terrorism. In brief, “guns, goons and gold.” Money politics and violence apparently reflected the intense contestation among factions of the country’s politico–economic elite for economic and political power. The concept of political clientelism evolved. Characterizing Philippine politics as clientelistic politics, Thomas Nowak and Kay Snyder described clientelist politics as a system of exchange which is particularistic, non–programmatic and non–ideological, and not necessarily personalistic.

Under Marcos’ dictatorial rule, political clientelism turned into what David Wurfel termed as patrimonial authoritarianism. (Patrimonialism is a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair.) Making full use of his dictatorial powers, Marcos, together with his wife and their cronies, fully exploited the resources of the state for their personal aggrandizement and plunged the country into deep debt. To help him regain legitimacy, Marcos restored elections and a legislature, and he set up his own political party, Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement), to take part in, and dominate, these pseudo–democratic processes.

The KBL marked the shift from clientelistic to patrimonialistic party politics. It still used the methods of old— traditional patron–client ties, non–personalistic patronage, fraud and terrorism (or guns, goons and gold). However, the objective of Marcos and his cronies had changed: all–out plunder of state resources, apart from effective monopoly over state power. Not all in the KBL were of the patronage, influence–pandering, corrupt or plundering types; there were also some do–gooders, who perhaps naively thought they could still pursue reforms even under a patrimonial dictatorship. Among these do–gooders were some technocrats, who were close to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which, dumbly enough, showered billions of dollars in loans to the corrupt dictatorial regime without realizing where the money really went. (For this folly, Filipinos now pay the price.)

Since the fall of Marcos, the Philippines has been held up as a “restored” democracy. Political scientists, however, have tended to qualify the country’s democracy with a variety of depreciatory adjectives: elite democracy, cacique democracy, oligarchic democracy, low–intensity democracy, a “weak state” captured by an oligarchic elite, etc.

Political corruption and violence in post–authoritarian Philippines have reached such staggering proportions that in recent years, political pundits have come up with even more damning characterizations of Philippine politics, showing how corruption has become very much imbedded in the country’s political system. Paul Hutchcroft describes the Philippines as having a patrimonial oligarchic state, a weak state preyed upon and plundered by different factions of the country’s politico–economic elite, who take advantage of, and extract privilege from, a largely incoherent bureaucracy. According to him, it is no longer just one person and his/her cronies but the oligarchic elite as a whole that engages in plunder. John T. Sidel depicts bossism as a common phenomenon in the Philippines, describing bosses as strongmen who achieve monopolistic control over both coercive and economic resources within certain areas.

Like the clientelistic parties of the pre–authoritarian era, the post–EDSA–One parties recognize, and operate within, the country’s formal democracy. Today’s traditional politicians and parties are quite skillful in the ways of the good, old pre–martial law days. To win elections, trapos and trapo parties sometimes still rely on deferential patron–client ties. Often, however, they tire of the kumpare–kumare bit, and simply resort to less personalistic forms of patronage. When this still does not suffice, then perhaps vote–buying or a bit of vote–fixing or coercion would do the trick. In extreme situations, the boss–politician and his party–mates could resort to the full regalia of “guns, goons and gold.”

In one crucial sense, however, the main political parties of post–authoritarian Philippines have “outgrown” the clientelist politics of pre–authoritarian times. Imbibing a great deal from the political culture of corruption of the authoritarian era, the trapo parties have morphed into patrimonialistic parties like Marcos’ KBL. Not at all surprising, since former KBLs have been happily flitting from trapo party to another. And since Marcos and his cronies have shown how easy it is to steal and get away with much of the loot, and flaunt your wealth. The post–Marcos patrimonialistic parties serve as the conduits, the instruments, for trapos — the political representatives of an increasingly predatory elite — for getting to power to be able to extract as much privilege from the state as possible. Or to paraphrase the Iron Butterfly, to show just how they are smarter than others.

Patrimonialistic parties are catch–all affairs. After all, as a clientelist politician of old put it, politics is addition. It does not really matter what your political beliefs are. For as long as you can help make the party or ticket win — and especially if you have the money, name, political office, looks or personality — you’re most welcome. Candidates do not need to have political, organizational or management experience; media savvy and winnability are more important. Showbiz and sports stars provide glitter and entertainment and attract crowds. Because of the nature of their real aims, trapo parties do not work like real parties. In the main, a trapo party operates as an old boys’ network, but sometimes also in part as a fans’ club and often also in part as mafia. Sometimes, the top man is called “boss.”

The hyper–fluid character of patrimonialistic parties provides great opportunity for trapo opportunism after elections. Many of those who have won under opposition parties switch over to the administration side. There’s a very simply reason for this: that’s where most of the patronage money and the juicy government appointments and contracts are. What happens to the platforms these trapos carried when they ran under the opposition banner? Down the drain, of course. What principles are you talking about?

Those who stick it out with, or switch to, the opposition are not exactly knights in shining armor. They’re just waiting for their turn. Corruption in the Philippines, writes David Kang, swings like a pendulum. Once a faction of the elite gains power, it busily goes about “lining its own pockets, aware that in the next round its fortunes might well be reversed.” An Estrada crony once remarked, somewhat indiscreetly, right on television, “Weather–weather lang yan.”

Under the Philippines’ presidential system, the presidency, which has been endowed with tremendous powers of appointment to state agencies and state–owned corporations among other things, has become the citadel of patrimonialist politics. According to Randy David, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is a patrimonial president who has become adept at “governance by patronage.” She appears to be much, much better at it than her populist predecessor. With her patrimonialist charms and with the able support of tried–and–tested Speaker Jose de Venecia, the opposition was reduced to a miniscule minority in the lower house of Congress upon the start of her second term. Is it any wonder that the overwhelming majority of congresspersons defeated the motion for her impeachment?

In pre–martial law times, Philippine politics, despite all the clientelism, still managed to produce statespersons of great moral fiber like Lorenzo Tañada, Jose W. Diokno and Jovito Salonga. With today’s patrimonialistic parties, statespersons are fast becoming extinct. Anybody who runs under trapo parties or coalitions gets tainted to some degree. Those who run under these parties or coalitions know very well — but sometimes pretend not to know — that they stand to benefit from the rampant vote–buying that their party– or coalition–mates do at the local level, from the cheating and coercion at various levels and from the “protection” of votes through a “Hello, Garci” phone call at the top level.

Not everyone in the trapo parties is corrupt. There are the out–and–out corrupt types and there are those who engage in a bit of corruption. Then there are patronage types, who provide jobs and positions, and expect political support in return, and maintain that there is nothing wrong or illegal in what they do. (To hell with the merit system; Philippine politics is palakasan or weather–weather — the spoils system.) The old–style patrons extend very personalized favors, and expect utang na loob. And then there are the reformers, who think they can reform the “party” or delude themselves into believing such.

The Philippines’ elite–dominated democracy allows for a number of reformers to exist in a sea of trapos. There will always be some of the Galing Pook type — honest public servants managing isles of state efficiency, transparency and accountability. Once their three terms are up, however, it’s back to trapos again. Why? There is no reform–oriented party to carry on what they started. Espousing World Bank–style “good governance” and “new public management”, the new managerialists do not challenge the traditional parties. Almost all of them, in fact, are members of these patrimonialistic parties. Many of them have earnestly tried to reform these parties, but their efforts have always come to naught as the trapos are too well–entrenched. They have often ended up condoning the patrimonialists’ behavior or being swallowed up by the system. The trapos welcome the reformers as it is good for the former’s own image to be seen in the latter’s company. The patrimonialistic parties woo the do–gooders and, once they do get them, put them on show windows as the poster children for good governance.

Some scholars have long bemoaned the lack of institutionalization of Philippine political parties and the political party system. On one hand, one can say that there is no point in working for the institutionalization of “parties” that are nothing more than instruments of patronage and patrimonialism. On the other hand, one can say that trapo “parties,” taken collectively, have already become institutionalized precisely as such instruments. Their fuzzy or nebulous character suits their purpose to a T. Patrimonialistic parties are institutions of a patrimonial oligarchic state, and they have played a key role in the institutionalization of political corruption in the Philippines.

Contrary to what many scholars have depicted, Philippine politics is not all elite politics. The Philippines is a contested democracy in which the rule of the oligarchic elite is being challenged by the lower and middle classes – “elite democracy” versus “democracy from below.” The increasingly predatory elite seeks to maintain a deficient type of formal democracy that it can dominate and manipulate. Adherents of “democracy from below” desire not just good governance and transparent, accountable government, but also popular empowerment and social justice. They want formal democracy to become more substantive, to deepen it into a more participatory and egalitarian democracy.

The dismantling of patrimonialist politics in the Philippines and the deepening of democracy can come about only through a long process of change, involving gradual change as well as ruptures (such as EDSA–One and Two). One crucial reform is reform of the country’s political party system. To rid the country of patrimonialistic parties, a change from the presidential to a parliamentary system will not suffice. The patrimonialistic parties would just resurface in regurgitated form.

The patrimonialistic parties of a patrimonial oligarchic state have to be replaced by truly democratic parties of a democratic polity. These parties should have genuine, well–thought–out political programs and should be led by leaders with a track record of fighting for reform. Some of the parties in the party–list system that are fighting for “new politics” and “democracy from below” fit the bill. Unfortunately, few of them have actually challenged the trapo parties in elections outside of the party–list ballot. (In this regard, the party–list groups aligned with the “national democratic movement” and the Communist Party of the Philippines cannot be considered as democratic parties, as they merely seek to replace the current patrimonial oligarchic state with a Stalinist–Maoist one–party dictatorship.)

Reform–minded politicians who are presently in trapo parties should seriously consider getting out of these patrimonialistic parties and getting into truly democratic parties or building new ones. By continuing to work in unholy cohabitation with trapos, they are only helping to legitimize and perpetuate the trapo system of patronage, patrimonialism and corruption.

Nathan Gilbert QuimpoABOUT THE AUTHOR:

taught at the University of the Philippines (Diliman), the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and was an Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Tsukuba in Japan for many years.

He is the author of Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines after Marcos (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies and Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2008), and co–editor, with Patricio Abinales, of The US and the War on Terror in the Philippines (Anvil Press, 2008).

We have the following articles written by Nathan Quimpo in the CPCA library and we´d be happy to send you copies for the cost of photocopying plus postage. Contact CPCA at the address below:

  • What Muslim Mindanao Really Means to Arroyo
  • Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines
  • Trapo Parties and Corruption
  • Red leaders afraid Kintanar knew too much, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28 January 2003.
  • The Left and Democratisation in the Philippines
  • Peace Movement and Credible Mediator Needed to Save Talks
  • Balikatan: Tripwire to a Bigger, Internationalized War?, Conjuncture, Vol. 14 No.1, Jan-Feb 2002
  • Internal Struggle in CPP: Sisons vs. Tiamzons, part 1 of 2, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13 August 2001.
  • Different styles, same goals: The struggle continues, part 2 of 2, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 14 August 2001.
  • The Revolutionary Left: Back to centre stage?, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 24 June 2001.
  • Options in the Pursuit of a Just, Comprehensive, and Stable Peace in the Southern Philippines, Asian Survey, Vol. XLI, No. 2, March/April 2001.
  • Options in the Pursuit of a Just, Comprehensive, and Stable Peace in Mindanao, paper delivered at the forum Kalinaw! The Quest for Lasting Peace in the Philippines, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands, 29 September 2000.
  • Colonial Name, Colonial Mentality and Ethnocentrism, Public Policy, Vol. IV No. 1, January-June 2000.
  • Dealing with the MILF and Abu Sayyaf: Who´s Afraid of an Islamic State?, Public Policy, Vol. III No. 4, October/December 1999.
  • Barrio Utrecht, Sunday Inquirer Magazine, 7 November 1993.
  • Toward a Revolutionary Strategy of the 90s, published under the pseudonym Omar Tupaz, Debate, Issue No. 1, Sept 1991, quarterly journal of the Kalinaw Foundation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 10, 1991.

CPCA (Brisbane)
PO BOX 112