Dynastic Appeal


It is an interesting time to be a political cartoonist and satirist in 2020. The world is on fire from the pandemic. Many nations are writhing under modern populism, with leaders relying on irresponsible and abrasive sound bites to appease their base instead of steering the country in the right direction. It is a challenge for political cartoonists and satirists to make fun of these leaders when these leaders write the jokes themselves with their impunity, lack of accountability, brazenness, and more than occasional idiocy.

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Detail from Jose Ardivilla's MFA Thesis exhibition of magnification of political cartoons to situate the current problems of the Philippines

Why, just recently, the Philippines — despite having one of the worst COVID-19 infection rates due to the lack of a coherent plan to curb the spread of the virus — bore witness to a drama. Not just any drama, but a family drama. And not just any family drama, but an inter-family drama. It was a spectacle that we Filipinos already knew too well. It involved squabbling between the political dynasties of the Philippines. Once again, national issues that affected the lives of millions were reduced to the petty histrionics of people who really should be prevented from crafting the laws of the land.

Political dynasties are not the sole clutch of the Philippines. In Southeast Asia alone, there are many examples of dynastic entrenchments in society — from monarchies to the informal designation of political bailiwicks. Cultural conditioning portrays running the government, overseeing the economy, or being an emblem of the nation as tasks that demand the so-called familial touch. This explains why these political dynasties inspire confidence in some people and trigger exasperation in others. If the latter were an Olympic event, then the Philippines will surely bag its first Olympic gold.

From late September to early October 2020, the Philippines’ Lower House was in the process of passing the 2021 budget. But there was a power struggle between two representatives who were vying to be Speaker of the House. When it comes to Philippine politics, this sort of conflict often affects an interconnected network of families who are each itching to serve their own interests. Broken or (intentionally) misunderstood promises and fragile egos complete the rotten picture.

Then House Majority Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano had a term-sharing deal with Representative Lord Allan Velasco. Both lawmakers belong to clans with several members in politics. Arguably, Cayetano’s clan is the more entrenched political dynasty — what with his own wife serving as a representative in the district next to his in Taguig City and his younger brother being the mayor of that same city. To top it all off, Cayetano’s sister Pia is a senator. (It’s worth noting that the senator and her congressman-brother Cayetano both opposed the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill.)

Scenes from the Snake Pit

At the start of his term, Cayetano had a term-sharing deal with Velasco. Cayetano had initially agreed that after he held the position for 15 months of the 18th Congress, he would relinquish the speakership to Velasco. The latter would then take over as Speaker for the rest of the 21 months. Interestingly enough, this deal was arranged and brokered by the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who also has his own political dynasty). However, after 15 months as Speaker, Cayetano refused to relinquish his post. This angered many of his cohorts in Congress. Yet, Cayetano seemed oblivious to the chaos that he caused. At one point, he claimed that he was holding on to the position because he wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday as Speaker for “sentimental reasons.”. Velasco did not agree and he sought the help of a  “higher power” so that the Speakership would be delivered to him. Interestingly enough, the “higher power” being referred to in this instance is not the President of the Philippines. It is actually the President’s daughter, Sara — the current mayor of her clan’s bailiwick Davao City. She was the catalyst of the humiliating downfall of Alan Peter Cayetano.

Sara’s role in the fall of Cayetano is important because this proves that she is a major political player in the country. It demonstrates her growing power as a kingmaker. I suspect this is Sara’s sweet way of flexing her political muscles, a preview-of-sorts for the  members of Congress (many of whom are part of political dynasties) who are vital for her clan’s political machinery in the 2022 elections. While Duterte’s presidential term will end in 2022, his children are there to carry on the political legacy. Aside from Sara as mayor of Davao City, Duterte’s sons Paolo (a congressman representing  Davao City’s 1st District) and Sebastian (the vice mayor of Davao City) are also in politics. There is talk that Sara is poised to run for president after her father’s term. If she ends up winning, then it would be yet another notch for political dynasties in the Philippines.

It’s exhausting, right? This is but one sordid episode of many (too many) that span generations in the Philippines. I mean Philippine politics is a lot like Game of Thrones, except in this case the monsters are elected to office or their positions are handed to them by the powers that be. Fortunately, we are spared from seeing any gratuitous sex scenes from the major players. Thank goodness for small mercies. Then again, a political opponent of President Duterte and an elected official with an ongoing term, Sen. Leila Delima, was demonized by pro-administration supporters for having an alleged sex tape, which the President and his cronies claimed to have watched in disgust. If anything, that is a demonstration on the depths of depravity one expects from the highest seats of power in the Philippines to protect the status quo. (Aside: De Lima was imprisoned on drug charges which many see as drummed up. Many see her imprisonment as a means to silence her and to cast a pall of fear over Duterte’s critics. One suspects that this is like an overwrought tale befitting among the great satirical novels Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Only the allegories here are real and have violent implications. The personified punchlines can literally punch a people further down in squalor and despair.

Animal Instincts

I did preface this article with political cartoonists and satirists. I say this as a political cartoonist and a student of Art History when I view these cartoons in the equation of punch + lines = political cartooning as a weapon, sometimes the only weapon. Many political cartoons envisage politicians as animals or hybrids (which are monsters) to situate messages of condemnation and of calling out. Animals are a vital supply of imagery for political cartoonists not just for accessible metaphors but to exact the base animal ferocities or beastly actions of our targets. In the heat of the power struggle between Cayetano and Velasco, the political cartoonist Manny Franciso did an apt portrait of Velasco as an octopus whose tentacles are clinging to power. Political cartoonists utilize a bestiary to align certain politician’s character and/or actions. The octopus is a staple for those who are depicted as avaricious. Even in the recent reissue of Ricardo Manabat’s exposé on the documented plunder of arguably the most visible political dynasty, the Marcoses. The new cover art retained a certain figure that was found in the old design. The book cover for Some Are Smarter than Others: The History of Marcos’ Crony Capitalism features an octopus enshrined at a heraldic emblem reminiscent of the Philippine Presidential seal. Some salient points pertaining to the octopus as political imagery: (1) tentacularity, (2) cronyism, (3) Suction as entrenchment.

The octopus’ tentacles are indicative of the operations of the political dynasties’ tentacularity over power and influence. Tentacularity or pertaining to the reaches of the tentacles, is a base of dynamism on clinging to power by enmeshing in power networks. Be it to connect with other political dynasties’ tentacles via marriage and other arrangements, the tentacles have been seen dipping into fields that are seen as vital for political resonance. One of the biggest and most powerful political dynasties would be the Aquinos who saw two presidents from their clan. Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was an intelligent ebullient figure who was the lead opposition figure against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Ninoy came from a political clan and then he married into one of the Philippines’ wealthiest families, the Cojuangcos. Ninoy was assassinated which eventually led to the installment of his wife Corazon “Cory” Cojuangco Aquino to the presidency from the popular ouster of the Marcoses. Tentacularity is not what else you can do, but who else can you reach out to.

It is part of the Filipino election campaign period to watch a freak show also known as political candidates dancing (our dear President showing his political will via dance moves can be seen here: https://youtu.be/kRv7gIRpaC4)

instead of discussing deeper and more pressing issues. Another sure way for sustained relevance is when a politician marries a celebrity. That way, the politician rides on the coattails of the goodwill and star power of the celebrity partner and its attendant glamor and perception. Occasionally, when the politician’s term ends, the spouse takes over until one of their scions would be good and ready to lead the family business. These “tentacles” are a solution to the Constitutionally-mandated term limits of people holding onto offices.

Another bout of tentacularity is cronyism. The tentacles dip into many cookie jars and honey pots, but somebody has to pry open the lids and hold out those goodies for plunder of the political octopus. It is worth noting that while the octopus is spineless, it is considered to be among the smartest animals on earth. The levels of metaphors political cartoonists can work with that is astounding. The spinelessness may be an attribute to political dynasties in the Philippines of not really keeping their word. Palabra de honor or word of honor is just something to say and not something to do. Case in point, the term-sharing agreement between Cayetano and Velasco was not met. Another case in point? The current president Duterte is now railing against his predecessor, former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (also a member of a political dynasty), despite evidence of Duterte’s allegiance and support for the Aquinos in the past. This inability to stand one’s ground is a symptom of cronyism wherein allegiances shift and are made based on personal interests.

As for the suction and entrenchment, I submit to the wisdom of this video demonstration: https://youtu.be/j1oByXmohhU

Octopus attacks live-streamer as she tries to eat it alive in China - South China Morning Post

video-thumbnailWatch on YouTube

This situation shows how hard it is to extract political dynasties from the Philippine sociopolitical and cultural landscapes. The political dynasty is not a mere label, it is a system of engagements typified by power shifts and disenfranchisement. Political dynasties are not a new emergence. As historian O.W. Wolters noted in his book History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, political dynasties are extensions of monarchic  power play. Wolters wrote: “Kingship ties are the idiom of social organization in the region and part of its history (Wolters 1982: 5).” Wolters explained that in this setup, rapport as tantamount to personal satisfaction when one is choosing or aligning with a leader. The Philippine political dynasties exude what Wolters write as “‘men of prowess’ [which] brings with it the possibility of mobilizing extended kingship ties within and outside a settlement or network of settlements (Wolters 1982: 8).” When the American William Howard Taft led the Philippine Commission to scope out the USA’s new acquisition, the census published cited the Filipinos as needing guidance: “I am now describing the great body of the people who are to be distinguished from the ilustrados, or educated members of the community. With the friars gone, and no control exercisable through them, they (the Filipinos) are subject to influence by any one of their people who has wealth and education. They can be led about by the nose.”

Led about by the nose is an interesting animal imagery of farmers leading beasts of burden for productivity. Based on this quote, we find out that (1) Taft understood the political dynamics of the local intelligentsia elite over the masses; (2) that the masses are easily led because of lack of education; which resulted in (3) the American colonial machinery employed the native elite in subjugating the Philippines. Alfred McCoy cited this co-parasitic relationship as pertinent to American expansion across the Pacific: “Unlike other European powers which demanded, above all else, political passivity from the colonized, America required that the Filipino elite play an active role in the colonization of their own country (McCoy 1985).” The suckers of the political dynasties’ tentacles are relentless and they have engorged deep into the shifts across the history of the Philippines.

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Hybrid animal forms and dismembered human body parts are part and parcel in political cartooning tradition.

Going to the Dogs

Back in 2017, when the entry Year of the Dog was to be celebrated, Rappler (an online news organization that has been accused by Duterte and his cohorts as attacking the administration) posted an infographic on the different Duterte government officials who are born in the Year of the Dog (as designated by Chinese astrology charts). Lo and behold, one of them is the aforementioned in this article who clung to his speakership. In a lengthy Facebook post, Cayetano bemoaned their depiction as dogs. This is because in the Filipino vernacular the term “tuta” (puppy) is used to refer to those who seem to be at the beck and call of their masters or benefactors. According to Cayetano, the Rappler infographic implies that he and the other politicians born in the Year of Dog are at the behest of the president and willing to do tricks at the president’s commands. Yet, the original post from Rappler is not an overt political cartoon depicting this wanton cloying need of belly rubs from the president, but stating a fact that these officials are, indeed, born the Year of the Dog. It just so happens that the illustrator placed their likeness as heads on dogs’ bodies which is a tool of political cartoons for generations. This illustrative association — nay, embodiment — of himself and his fellow politicians as pets clearly triggered Cayetano to write a passive aggressive Facebook post. His social media tantrum forced Rappler to apologize for this post.

Associating politicians and officials with animals has been a tool for political cartoonists for centuries and across many nations. It is a visual shorthand of the political persona which can be transmitted and can be reissued into different people. It takes a deeper cultural turn in the Philippines when “hayop ka” (You Animal!) is an insult to people who are shameless. Kahayupan or being beastly is when politicians and people in power act in impunity. Shamelessness is making impossible promises to whet the appetites of the voters only to ignore, forget about them once elected. Shamelessness is assigning crucial government posts or plum institutions to family and friends. Shamelessness is protecting the dynasty’s own interests at the expense of the people. Shamelessness is a dog licking its own genitalia out in the open. Hence, I understood why Cayetano was so riled up as being depicted as a dog. Do I agree with this depiction? All I can say that the Political Dynasties are the true rabies of the Philippines: Infectious, violent, and no cure.

Some Cracks

Although I have to say that there are “advantages” or at least welcome developments in political dynasties. One of them is gender-based. Women were and are elected to office because of the brand names of their dynasties. The Philippines recently elected its first transwoman into congress. Gender advocates were elated by this. Although it has to be said that this transwoman Geraldine Roman is a scion of a political dynasty. Voters tend to seek comfort in the familiar and political dynasties are most familiar, ergo most damning in their contempt as well.

The sins of the older generation are not directly demonstrated by the younger set. Vico Sotto is the 31-year-old mayor of Pasig City who ousted the entrenched political dynasty of that city.

Yet, Sotto can be classified as a hybrid of political dynasties and local showbiz. For starters, his parents are celebrities. His father is comedian Vic Sotto and his mother is actress Coney Reyes. The name Sotto comes from a lineage made popular by a nationalist firebrand (his great-grandfather and former senator Vicente Sotto) and his uncle (Vicente “Tito” Sotto III) is currently a senator. Yet, the young Sotto has earned glowing praises for his insistence of transparency in government transactions, his being proactive and compassionate to the citizens of Pasig city, and his drive for good governance. This earned him the ire of the President and his cohorts for daring to take initiative (some even say eclipsing the national government’s response to the pandemic). The young mayor was threatened with charges for his efforts to innovate. This early, there are people who are already anointing Sotto as “the future President of the Philippines.” Due to such praise, the online troll factories of political dynasties have been lobbying insults against the young mayor. These dynasties clearly see him as a threat to their existence.

Yet, the “advantages” and progressive bent of the political dynasties are few and far in between. This is not to propose an eradication of the political dynasty, but to ask the general public to be more mindful and rigorous of their choices. Just because the candidate has a familiar last name, makes you laugh with his rape jokes and he has been a leader for his town for decades does not mean he is capable for the presidency. And yet, here we are.

There Are Some Holes in this House

The 18th Congress in the Philippines will linger in the memory of the Filipinos not just because of the dogfight between Cayetano and Velsaco for the Speakership, but because of the passage of certain bills into law that have irked people. One of them is the Anti-Terror Law which prescribes extremely draconian measures. In the guise of strengthening national security for stability, the anti-terror law can mark anybody who is deemed to have been making commentary such as a meme, sharing of a meme, drawing a political cartoon that can be cited as instigating fear that will affect the economy and health of the nation will be marked as a terror suspect. It all boils down to the interpretation of intent. The thing is, who will interpret one’s intent? The Anti-Terror Council that has been formed by the President and his cohorts. Ergo, it is not wrong to suspect that such a law surveilled by allies of the powers that be can be abused to protect their interests and silence the opposition.

Amidst this fracas of power struggles and categorizing terror, the 18th Congress also saw the filing of the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill which seeks to curtail the spreading of influence of the entrenched political dynasties. Opponents of this bill — with Representative Cayetano among them — cites that this disparages the choices of the voters who seek trust in the families they are familiar with. Those who support the bill say that this will curtail the power hungry clutches of the political dynasties. One of the authors of the bill, Sen. Franklin Drilon, cites it is greed that motivates the political dynasties and service to the people may be an afterthought. This bill is going to die on the plenary floor. The last time this bill was in the news cycle was a few months prior to the power struggle which is a great metaphor on what is really seen as more important by some lawmakers. This bill is of important note because the current president and his minions peddle the figure of Duterte as who hates the oligarchy. Yet, the president is friends with oligarchs — specifically the oligarchs who support his agenda. Those from this special set of oligarchs are already reaping the financial rewards of their loyalty.

The Aquino clan is currently the de facto object of hatred of Duterte fans. Ironically, President Duterte was given his foothold on power when President Cory Aquino appointed him as officer-in-charge vice mayor of Davao City back in 1986. Duterte’s mother, Soledad, had been a Cory supporter who organized groups to attract even more supporters. In fact, Duterte’s mother is often cited as the leader of the Mindanao-based Yellow Friday Movement, which opposed the Marcos administration in the 1970s to '80s. She was the one who was originally offered the vice mayoral position, but she begged off because she felt she was already “too old” (she was 70 years old then) and tapped her son Rodrigo for the position instead.

Arguably, Duterte’s regime was a catalyst from his current political opponent’s family’s rise to power. This is the final animal to align with political dynasties: the political butterfly. This is a creature that flits and flicks from one party to another, stopping briefly to feed on the most powerful political party/patronage. This animal will pledge its loyalty to whichever personality or party that is beneficial to its interests. When a personality or party loses luster, the political butterfly looks for a new feeding station. Such is the survival tactic of many political dynasties in the Philippines.

The political butterfly is the species that needs to be rendered extinct in the Philippines.

Works cited:

McCoy, Alfred, and Alfredo Roces. Philippine Cartoons: Political Caricature of the American Era 1900- 1941. Quezon City: Vera-Reyes, 1985. Print.

Wolter, O.W. History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982. Print.