Oligarchy (noun): (Government by) a small group of powerful people –Cambridge Dictionary
The word “oligarchy” has been tossed around the Filipino vernacular for decades, pointing to how the country has been ruled in the past (and, in many cases, today) by a small group of people. The current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to smash the oligarchy, however, it remains to be seen just how far along he is with fulfilling that campaign promise. However, today, Negros Occidental is seeing the formation of a formal oligarchy, shrouded under the guise of “unity.” In the end, looking deeper into the matter, the dissolution of the two primary political coalitions in the province is, essentially, an institutionalized oligarchy.
As of late, the major political players in Negros Occidental have been lauding the elimination of coalitions and formation of one party, which will supposedly bring cohesion to the province. While it does end conflict between rival coalitions, it also has a side effect; the people are no longer left with the power to choose.
Basically, if the entire province falls under one banner, from top to bottom, candidates for office will be selected by a group of political elite; all political aspirants will run unopposed and leave voters with no reason to cast their ballot – if an oligarchy is defined as a government run by a small group of powerful people, wouldn’t this situation fit the bill?
For now, voters will still be starry-eyed and idealistic, believing the rhetoric that suggests the province will be one unified and happy family – some farcical utopia where everybody is expected to support the same policies believe the same ideas (another step further and Negros Occidental enters the realm of fascism). In reality, many places can be construed as being oligarchical in spirit, but it is a rarity to see political figures proudly declare an oligarchy and, in doing so, leave voters helpless.
Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, penned a piece for the New York Times in 2013, where he mapped out how Russia’s oligarchical system works.
“Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well,” he wrote. “Putin enjoys nearly limitless power, having brought the oligarchs to heel [and] recentralized political authority.” Fundamentally, Putin’s power came from gathering the influential into one sector; for a contemporary parallel, the local political elite have now gathered together into one party, able to unilaterally dictate how the province moves.
He also quoted Harvard University medieval historian Edward L. Keenan, who explained how the Russian czarist system worked.
“A system dominated by elite groups of boyars (the top rung of the aristocracy and the forebears of today’s oligarchs) and bureaucrats, who imposed constraints on the country’s ruler, became so entrenched in the political culture they deliberately shrouded the system in secrecy and exaggerated the role of the czar to maintain their freedom to maneuver and keep outsiders at bay,” the article noted.
Seeing what was witnessed decades ago in Russia, the powerful elite dominating the system and, after becoming so involved, shaped their world to ensure they maintained control while keeping others out of the process, it is hard to separate the basics of their modern oligarchical rule to what is being labeled as “unity” in Negros Occidental politics.
In a column published on Rappler.com in 2016, Ronald U. Mendoza notes, “Oligarchs are not unlike the political dynasties; both are essentially there due to lack of competition.” The inclusion of dynasties adds a whole other level to the discussion as they have also dominated local politics, with family members turning local elections into a game of musical chairs – and voters are complicit in submitting themselves to the will of these influential families (a likely reason why the new political orders believes island residents will just sit back and allow the power of their vote usurped).
In the upcoming elections, if the powers that be have their way, every level of government will be selected by this group, their choices will run unopposed and make the thousands who registered to vote look pathetic – their voice will not matter because the winner was already selected before anybody could even cast a ballot. For the all the uproar made about the administration of former President Ferdinand Marcos, with cries of deprived freedom, it would appear the same thing is being implemented today but with better marketing.
“There is only one true cure for oligarchy and the rule of a few,” Mendoza wrote. “The advent of strong competition in both the market economy and the political sphere.”
Unfortunately, at this point, while the move is being made to eliminate competition in the political sphere, the province will have to experience a few years of being openly governed by elites before realizing it’s not really a democracy when every candidate is consistently running unopposed.
Similar circumstances ushered in the 1987 June Struggle in South Korea, after President Chun Doo-hwan appointed his successor, Roh Tae-woo. The move sparked the public to protest and demand elections. If the province is left with one party picking and choosing who to run, voting will be unnecessary as it will merely depend on who the person in office wants as their successor. Similarly, the 2014 Umbrella Movement saw Hong Kong residents take to the streets to protest the government requiring the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong chief executive. In the same way, party leaders of the unified coalition will direct the people who their candidates are and not the other way around.
Last August, Anne Sraders wrote a piece about the concept of oligarchy for financial news firm, The Street, where she discussed how oligarchies form in the first place (and her definition rings all too familiar).
“Oligarchies have formed for many reasons, but mostly when an elite class (either those who are very skilled or informed in certain areas, very rich, or very powerful by other means) decide to take over control of a government,” she explained.
“Oligarchies tend to increase income inequality, which helps the oligarchy grow in power and wealth,” Sraders added. “Oligarchies can perpetuate bad policies by keeping those who are similar to them in power, which can create an unhealthy corporate or government community.”
It may not be the current situation, as everybody is still optimistic about the imaginary harmony about the beset the province for centuries to come, but having such superiority brandished in the face of voters, with some races already determined well before Election Day, along with influential figures publicly declaring their hopes of diminishing elections on all levels from the public electing a person into office to a group handpicking their preferences, one day, people will grow sick of having their choices made for them./WDJ