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Keeping It All in the Family
Despite term limits, the same names are showing up in public office

By Antonio Lopez / Manila
Asiaweek, May 8, 1998

IN ELECTION AFTER ELECTION in the Philippines, many of the same names appear as candidates - at least the same family names. The big clans possess a great deal of clout. Their political and business power feed on each other. The more influence, the more wealth; the more wealth, the more influence. And the more difficult to dislodge members of such families from their posts.

After the 1986 People Power revolt, the government of the then president, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, tried to do so. It placed limits on the terms elected officials could serve. The move stemmed from the national trauma resulting from the dictatorial rule of the late Ferdinand Marcos, who kept himself in power for 20 years and had his family members named to various political positions.

The restrictions are great on paper, not so in practice. To this day, incumbents whose time is up skirt them by fielding spouses, children and seemingly endless streams of other relatives to ensure plum posts remain within control of their clans. This time, even Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. and herself part of a major clan, is deep into the
game. She has the most number of relatives trying to hop into public office.

Aquino's 33-year-old son, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, is running for Congress in the second district of their home province of Tarlac north of Manila. His slogan is: "Ninoy Yesterday, Noynoy Today." Cory's sister-in-law, Tessie Aquino Oreta, wife of the mayor of a suburban Manila town, is running for senator. (Tessie's brother has himself been senator since People Power and is now trying for Congress.) Cory's own brother, Congressman Jose "Peping" Cojuangco Jr., cannot contest again, having already served the maximum number of three terms in Tarlac's first district. He is instead backing someone unrelated. If Peping's protégé loses, it will likely be to a nephew - so Peping wins either way. His wife is running for her third term as
Tarlac's governor. An uncle of Ninoy's, Herminio Aquino, is her vice-gubernatorial running-mate. A longtime Peping political ally is opposing his wife, so, again, he cannot lose. An Aquino relation is seeking the third congressional district seat given up by Herminio after he hit the three-term limit. Get the picture?

It's not just the Aquino/Cojuangcos. Clannishness is a nationwide trait. In central Cebu province, for example, the Osmeñas are so numerous they can form a baranggay (village) of their own. Patriarch Emilio "Lito" Osmeña, a former Cebu governor, is running for president while his cousin, Sergio, is the vice-presidential running-mate of Lito's rival, Alfredo Lim. Lito's elder brother, John, is running for senator under the party of Vice President Joseph Estrada. Assorted cousins are pitching for other official jobs. Despite the large number of Osmeñas seeking office, "we are not a dynasty," in-sists Lito. "There are just so many of us."

Dynasties are not just for the established clans. Outgoing president Fidel Ramos's sister, Senator Leticia Ramos Shahani, is running for governor of their home province Pangasinan. Shahani's son is seeking re-election to Congress, while another Ramos nephew is already a congressman. In fairness to Ramos, Shahani had originally wanted to be either a presidential or v.p. candidate, but her influential brother refused to endorse her.

Why are so many contests family affairs? The head of Subic freeport, Richard Gordon, blames "the lack of a real two-party system." This, he says, means too little fresh political talent to contest top posts, leaving the clans to fill the gaps. Gordon should know. He took over from his mother as mayor of Olongapo City, gateway to Subic, after she herself had succeeded her husband. Now the job belongs to Gordon's wife.

Are dominant clans bad for politics? Not necessarily, says Gordon (but then he would). When wife Kate was in Congress, she authored the conversion of Subic into a freeport. "Without Kate, it would not have happened," says Gordon. In any case, he adds, political families "do not inflict themselves on the people." Peping Cojuangco agrees: "It is the people who make the choice." They just have fewer choices.


Dynasty, Philippine Style


Some of the country's top political clans:

THE COJUANGCOS. The ruling class of Tarlac province north of Manila. Two wings at opposite ends of the political spectrum. One led by Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, ex-president and widow of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. She supports Manila mayor Alfredo Lim for president. The other faction headed by Eduardo Cojuangco, a Marcos crony and majority owner of beer and food giant San Miguel Corp. He backs leading presidential contender Joseph Estrada.

THE OSMENAS. Dominant in central Cebu province. Former patriarch Sergio Osmeña was Cebu governor at 25, speaker of the national assembly at 28 and president from 1944 to 1946. Current patriarch Emilio "Lito" Osmeña wants to follow in Sergio's footsteps. Himself a former Cebu governor, Lito is running for president, while his cousin is the running-mate of presidential rival Lim.

THE MACAPAGALS. Their bailiwick is Pampanga, second-largest province of vote-rich Central Luzon. Senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of ex-president Diosdado Macapagal, is the running-mate of the ruling party's presidential candidate, Jose de Venecia. Gloria's sister, vice governor of Pampanga, is seeking the govenorship.

THE BAGATSINGS. Possess huge landholdings in Manila. Patriarch Ramon Bagatsing Jr. was mayor for 15 years. One Congressman son is running for mayor, another for the Senate and a grandson is contesting a city council seat.

THE LOPEZES. Highly influential in central Iloilo province and nearby Guimaras island. Congressman Alberto Lopez and his w ife, who is governor of Guimaras, want to exchange places. Alberto's cousin, Eugenio, heads: Benpres, controlling shareholder of power giant Meralco; the huge ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp.; plus franchises for tollways, water services and power generation.

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