How to Get Ahead in Politics in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines delivering the State of the Nation address at the House of the Representatives in Manila last month. Credit Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines delivering the State of the Nation address at the House of the Representatives in Manila last month. Credit Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

Native to the Philippines is a tart fruit called the balimbing. Ridges down the length of its oblong sides give it multiple faces, which is why many of our politicians are colloquially compared to it. Such criticism of our rulers’ kaleidoscopic loyalties is usually apt, and it’s always uttered with contempt.

Last year, Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency under the slogan “Change is coming.” But the corruption and deception of those under him belie that promise. Mr. Duterte’s policies and methods have caused controversy worldwide, yet it is the chronic dysfunction and selfish ambition across the political spectrum that most prevent the changes we Filipinos deserve.

Few politicians exemplify what ails Philippine politics as well as Pantaleon Alvarez, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, and his ally Rodolfo Farinas, the House majority leader.

As the new speaker, Mr. Alvarez, who claims he helped persuade Mr. Duterte to run, has been loyal to the president’s agenda, pushing bills to reinstate the death penalty and lower the age of criminal liability to 9. But what really put Mr. Alvarez in the headlines this year was his admission of having had many extramarital affairs and fathering eight children out of wedlock. His wife of three decades says that he abandoned her when he achieved his current prominence.

Those salacious details were brought to the fore after an incident in which Mr. Alvarez’s mistress reportedly fought with the mistress of another Duterte crony, Antonio Floirendo Jr., over seats at a cultural festival. Mr. Floirendo had bankrolled Mr. Alvarez’s recent congressional candidacy, yet he soon found himself slapped with a graft complaint in which the speaker alleged anomalies in a government contract involving a banana plantation. Mr. Alvarez denies any personal agenda, just as he does in answering the allegations that he will benefit from a bill that he is pushing to legalize divorce, which for decades Congress has refused to do in our predominantly Catholic country.

All this may be just Philippine politics as usual, but Mr. Alvarez has further embarrassed himself by getting into a very public dispute with Mandy Mercado Anderson, a lawyer at the Bureau of Customs. Ms. Anderson says she received a letter from the speaker insisting she promote an unqualified candidate in her department. She refused. According to reports, Ms. Anderson was then summoned for a scolding by Mr. Alvarez, threatened by a member of his staff and linked to a cover-up of a case of drug smuggling.

She now faces disbarment. She also had to appear in front of lawmakers for calling Mr. Alvarez “an imbecile” on her personal Facebook page and criticizing his threats to dissolve the Court of Appeals, the Philippines’ second-highest judicial body.

Those threats had come after the court threatened Mr. Alvarez with contempt for refusing to release six people who had been arrested through the efforts of his congressional collaborator, Mr. Farinas, the majority leader. Known as the “Ilocos Six,” after the northern province that includes Mr. Farinas’s district, they were detained and cited for contempt for refusing to give evidence against Imee Marcos, the governor of Ilocos Norte and one of Mr. Farinas’s political rivals, who is accused of misappropriating some $1.3 million.

Ms. Marcos, whose family stole billions of dollars that have not yet been recovered when her father was dictator, was also threatened with being held in contempt after she put off testifying in the investigation. (She eventually agreed to appear.)

That the newly empowered Mr. Farinas, with Mr. Alvarez, is standing against the Marcoses is of no small significance. The dictator’s family has in recent years been resurgent, enjoying the unwavering support of President Duterte. Ms. Marcos’s brother, Ferdinand Jr., lost his bid last year for the vice presidency by only about 2 percentage points. The family has recently paid the $1.3 million necessary for a recount, and there is a distinct possibility that Mr. Marcos may soon own the vice presidency.

Mr. Farinas is seemingly unperturbed. He is renowned as an effective majority whip in a congressional bloc that consists of, according to one congressman, 267 out of the total 297 seats. He is powerful indeed. This is despite his checkered past, which consists both of accusations that abuse led to his wife’s suicide and his well-known fealty to the past administration, members of which he and his colleagues now shamelessly attack.

In Philippine politics, it seems that loyalty is first always to the self, and a far second to the country. Our rulers, however, would have us believe they are our heroes.

When Ms. Marcos refused to abandon her six employees, she invoked popular culture. “The north remembers,” she said defiantly. It’s a line from the television series “Game of Thrones,” which is about powermongering and backstabbing among rival rulers who believe dominance is their destiny.

As with the show, Filipinos can only watch and wait for the next episodes of deceit, betrayal, impunity and corruption. Meanwhile, our rulers readily wield accusations of contempt against any who refuse to cooperate. They miss the obvious irony. The contempt is ours, for them. For respect is earned, never demanded. They forget who, in a democracy, has every right to demand leaders worthy of our respect.

Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.

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