The ‘oligarchy’ smoke screen

Orlando Oxales, President of Stratbase Research and Intelligence (SRi) and Lead Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines

One of the President’s most quoted digressing remarks during his penultimate SONA, an expected element every time he speaks in public, was his renewed tirades against the two telcos, threatening to “expropriate” their operations because of, “less-than-ideal service that the public is getting” and reprising his anti-oligarch theme.

In another public statement, he claimed that he had single-handedly destroyed the “oligarchs” without deploying the martial forces at his command. What an amazing and revolutionary feat that no one in the world has achieved, if it were true.

When it comes to complex political dynamics, the best source of sound analyses are always the experts. Fortunately, there was a virtual town hall discussion last Thursday organized Stratbase ADR Institute, Democracy Watch Philippines and Transparency International Philippines where an excellent panel of the country’s top political analysts had an engaging discussion on the “Continuing Political Development Toward a Better (New) Normal: Making Public Institutions Matter.”

The dean of the Ateneo School of Government, Dr. Ronald Mendoza, defined oligarchy as a small group of powerful individuals or groups that can shape society as it is in politics or in economics. A description that indeed fits political dynasties which I agree with since this concentration of political power is quite obvious in our country.

Their control on regulatory policies directly creates risks or opportunities to industry players, depending on whether one is an ally or competitor. A position of power that highly regulated operators must “satisfy”—or else.

Relating to the President’s populist tactic of demonizing the biggest business groups, Dean Mendoza rightly pointed out that “size in competition policy is not necessarily a bad thing. If you use size to promote innovation, if you use size to promote export market growth and generate jobs, size does have its advantages, and we need some of those advantages from a development point of view.”

In the context of the pandemic, Dean Mendoza said: “Rather than directly address the health crisis in a timely and decisive manner, some of our leaders burn precious weeks focused on highly divisive issues: the Anti-Terrorism Law, and the failure to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise.”

He warned that abuse of regulatory powers, especially in the case of franchises will attract less investments and the wrong kind of investments; those that disregard institutions, contracts, and rule of law.

Dr. Julio Teehankee, Full Professor of Political Science and former Dean of the De la Salle University College of Liberal Arts, further reinforced Dean Mendoza’s discussion saying that, “In economics, if ever there is a monopoly or an oligopoly, more often than not this is considered to be a market failure. The same can be said of our political market…If a handful of families have managed to control all elected and appointed positions, in practically all the local government positions and national (sic), then that is an indication of a political market failure.”

Dr. Teehankee stated: “One president’s oligarchy is another president’s crony…This system is perpetuated in collusion with the elite of power or the political class, and in the Philippines, the political class is largely composed of political dynasties.”

“If you just target one or two families and then you ignore the others, if you don’t consider totally changing what is wrong with the structure and the system, then that is not reform, that is simply partisan politics,” said Teehankee.

So true. We have lived through the martial law years of Marcos where the ruling class of political and industrial elite were forcibly removed and taken over by his own cohort of cronies. It looks like we never learned from history and it’s happening again.

The experts clearly refute the President’s claim of defeating the oligarchy. His two targets may be the biggest business leaders, but like all of us, are subject to the laws and policies made by the political oligarchy of some two hundred families who have been in political power for at least two decades.

Dr. Teehankee articulated what I felt was the common sentiment of the esteemed forum panelists. “If the President, or even the Speaker is genuine about the dismantling of the oligarchy…then he should start in his own backyard, the House of Representatives, and start to pass a genuine anti-political dynasty law.” A law that prevents the concentration, consolidation, or perpetuation of political power by persons related to one another.

We are still waiting for a clear direction to address the raging health and economic crisis because of the coronavirus. The focus must be on real solutions and uniting the people instead of alienating the private sector who at the end of the day, will be the front line drivers who will invest, take the risk, and create jobs to save our economy from total ruin.




This article was originally published in Manila Standard. 

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