Marcos Year 1

[ANALYSIS] Danger signs in an oligarchy: Political violence and intrigue

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo

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[ANALYSIS] Danger signs in an oligarchy: Political violence and intrigue
'At the rate that the political violence has been continuing, will Marcos be able to prevent major episodes of violence from breaking out?'

In an oligarchic state such as the Philippines, an assessment of the first year in office of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. should not focus simply on glowing GDP growth figures and other economic achievements. Such growth, as in periods of high growth in the past, has not been inclusive.  With millions of Filipinos still living in poverty even as the elite – the oligarchs – accumulate more and more wealth, the assessment of Marcos’ first year has to be taken from a different perspective – the country’s oligarchic politics. 

Over the past year, the oligarchic state has experienced great difficulty in constraining the foul behaviors of oligarchs and dynasts such that these could reach pathological levels in the coming years. In a previous article, I discussed how corruption, facilitated by rent-seeking and patronage, could turn really profligate. Two other areas of concern also bear close watching: political violence and intrigues. 

Political violence

A particular feature of oligarchy in the Philippines is that the country’s politico-economic elites have never been fully disarmed. Many of them, Winters points out, “continue to field private armies and others can readily purchase coercive forces when needed.”

In managing intra-oligarchic competition, the Philippines’ oligarchic state has to prevent major incidents of violence from breaking out. Moderating oligarchic violence, explains Winters further, means “keeping it mainly in the provinces, [and] restricting it to middle and lower rungs of the oligarchy.” It further entails thwarting attempts by oligarchic factions to organize secret cells in the military and police that could stage a coup. 

Filipinos are used to political violence, as it has long been a common feature of the country’s politics. Since Philippine independence in 1946, the government has engaged in bloody and often drawn-out wars, including extrajudicial killings against communist insurgents, armed separatists, and terrorists. 

This article, however, focuses on another type of violence – that centering on or involving politicians or public officials, and their supporters. Competition among politicians, particularly those belonging to political clans, sometimes becomes so intense that it erupts into violence. Other factors promoting such violence are the institutionalization and proliferation of political dynasties, the profusion of “loose firearms,” the continuance of private armies, and a long history of impunity.

Elections in the Philippines are always marred by significant levels of violence. Studies conducted by various research institutions, notably Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-Philippines, Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and ASOG, show that every national and midyear election since 1986 has been bedeviled by numerous incidents of election-related violence (ERV). Dozens of people have been killed in each election, with fatalities going beyond 100 in many elections. Not surprisingly, Philippine elections are regarded as being among the most violent in Asia

In recent years, scholars have developed a new prism for examining political violence: keeping track of the targeted killings of politicians. The findings of Peter Kreuzer, who developed a dataset based on Internet research on newspaper articles, are astounding. He writes that the murder of politicians is “a cottage industry” in the Philippines, explaining:

“[F]or the period January 2006 to June 2021, [the Philippines had] a total of 999 attempted targeted killings of incumbent elected politicians, in which 945 politicians died; 163 were reported injured, and 91 escaped unharmed. In addition, there were 131 assassination attempts on former officeholders and 55 attempts on candidates who ran for public office without also being incumbents. These resulted in a further 210 deaths. These figures do not consider the victims among companions (bodyguards, employees, friends, family members, and bystanders), who account for several hundred more fatalities. Not included are also targeted killings of non-elected public officials, other state employees, followers, or relatives of politicians.”

According to Kreuzer, the victims in the targeted executions were almost exclusively barangay and municipal politicians. Hired killers carried out the great bulk of the killings, and rival politicians were often the principals. In a country with “deeply ingrained patterns of violent electoral competition,” the peaks of the killings of politicians occurred during elections – the campaign period and the immediate aftermath.  

Fatal violence targeting politicians in the Philippines, appraises Kreuzer, is of a “globally exceptional magnitude.”  Compared with other countries notorious for the murder of politicians, such as South Africa, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, the Philippines has a far higher rate, with at least 60 politicians and candidates killed annually – more than twice that of the next (Colombia). Kreuzer’s figures suggest that in terms of targeted killings of politicians, the Philippines may well be No. 1 in the world. (Caveat: The other countries mentioned do not elect officials at the village level.)

Since the targeted killings of politicians in the Philippines has become the focus of scholarly research only in recent years, not many Filipinos may yet be aware of the phenomenon as such. But just as election-related violence, loose firearms, and private armies have often been shrugged off and accepted by the political culture as normal and natural, the targeted killings of politicians will go the same way.

In Marcos’ first year as president, there have already been a good number of targeted killings and attempted killings of politicians, including two governors. Last February, gunmen ambushed Lanao del Sur Governor Mamintal Adiong, Jr., wounding him and killing four of his aides. Then, last March, unidentified assailants shot and killed Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo and nine others in a gathering just outside his home in broad daylight. 

As of April 20, reports Rappler, 28 elected officials and five former officials have already been killed under the Marcos administration. The figures may appear lower than the usual, but the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections are fast approaching. 

At the rate that the political violence has been continuing, will Marcos be able to prevent major episodes of violence from breaking out? Will he be able to limit the violence just to the provinces, and just to middle and lower rungs of the oligarchy?


In the 2022 elections, the country’s two foremost political clans – the Marcoses and Dutertes (the clan of Vice President Sara Duterte) – took political dynasty-building to new heights…or depths. According to Aries Arugay, the two clans connived to build what he describes as a “dynasty cartel” that could elect “another Duterte, another Marcos for decades and decades to come.”

In less than a year in power, however, the “dynasty cartel” seems to have started to unravel. The factions of the ruling elite are now squabbling. Malacañang and the halls of Congress are now awash with intrigue. 

The triggering factor was the unceremonious and humiliating demotion of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from senior deputy speaker to deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. Talk was rife that she had been conspiring to oust Martin Romualdez, Bongbong’s cousin, from the House speakership. 

Sara Duterte, who is close to Arroyo, resigned from Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) Party, of which she was chairperson, and Romualdez, the president. She posted a cryptic message on her Instagram: “In your ambition, do not be tambaloslos.” The Visayan word tambaloslos roughly translates to “thick-faced” or “shameless.”

The dynasty cartel appears to be degenerating into a battle royale of the dynasties. On one side is the Marcos clan, which is allied with, or includes, the Romualdez clan and the Araneta clan, to which Bongbong’s wife, Liza, belongs. On the other side are the Dutertes and the Arroyos.

It must be clarified at this point that the Duterte clan has undergone considerable internal strain over the past two years. The Duterte patriarch had groomed his daughter to run for president in 2022 and she was leading in surveys. Against his wishes, however, she opted to become the running mate of Marcos instead. Sara continues to distance herself from her father. But he still wants his daughter to become president…in 2028. 

The Dutertes fear that Marcos may renege on the “deal” that he would support Sara’s bid for the presidency in 2028. Again there is much talk that within the Marcos camp, some forces are advocating: “Since we’re already in power, why not keep it in the family.” Plausible “presidentiables” within the Marcos clan are Imee Marcos, Liza Araneta-Marcos, and Martin Romualdez.

Tambaloslos apparently refers to Romualdez, who has accumulated much power as House speaker and Lakas-CMD president. The House speakership, after all, plays a key role in the management of rent-seeking and patronage. Since Marcos’ Partido Federal is virtually an empty and worthless shell, he has to rely greatly on Romualdez’s leadership of Lakas-CMD, which is not only the biggest party in the House but also has an alliance with at least seven other parties. 

Although Sara is vice president and the secretary of education, she does not have much command over resources. But she remains very popular, garnering even higher approval ratings than Bongbong in surveys of Social Weather Station, Octa Research, and Pulse Asia

Marcos Jr. and former president Duterte have clashed on foreign policy – the South China Sea dispute and Bongbong’s pivot to the US. A great risk here is that the two global powers, US and China, could be drawn into some involvement in the heated rivalries of the political dynasties of the Philippines, with each power extending some form of support to one side of the conflict. No less than US President Joe Biden welcomed Marcos to the White House in an official visit last May. On the other hand, no less than China President Xi Jinping welcomed his “old friend” former President Duterte in Beijing early this month. 

Thus far, the tensions between the Marcoses and the Dutertes-Arroyos have not burst into open rupture between Bongbong and Sara. The relations would even appear to be more than cordial. Less than a week after Sara’s tambaloslos outburst, Bongbong gushed to her during a ribbon-cutting ceremony: “With all the mess that’s happening, I have appointed myself as your self-appointed BFF [best friend forever].… I am still your No. 1 Fan.” A week later, she told him in another public gathering, “You know that I love you.” But she also said that she could not bring herself to mention his middle initial (“R” for Romualdez).

The vice president has kept silent on the US-China issue and some other important matters related to her father. Resisting strong international and domestic pressure Marcos has made decisions favorable to the elder Duterte in two instances. 

Marcos has refused to release former senator Leila de Lima, one of the most vocal critics of both former presidents Duterte and Arroyo, who has been imprisoned for over six years on apparently trumped-up drug-trafficking charges.   

Moreover, Marcos has ruled out future dealings with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is investigating killings related to the war on drugs during the periods when the elder Duterte, the drug war architect, served as Philippine president and, earlier, as Davao City mayor. Sara, who has been vice mayor and mayor of Davao City several times in the past, could herself be issued a “summons” by the ICC.

It is still very well possible, however, that Marcos could still bow to international, domestic, and/or family pressure, and change his mind on the De Lima and ICC cases.

Some political pundits are already predicting that the ruling coalition will break up in the 2025 midterm elections (or even before it), with the Marcoses and the Dutertes-Arroyos fielding their respective slates at different levels (senatorial, congressional – district and party-list, and local). But there could already be some skirmishing in the barangay and SK elections this October.

Unconstrainable oligarchs 

After only a year of the Marcos Jr. presidency, it is already becoming evident that the country’s oligarchic elite run the risk of falling into such pathological excesses as profligate corruption, extreme political violence, and destabilizing intrigues. 

As the sugar and onion fiascoes and the Magalong exposé have shown, rent-seeking and patronage are still very much in vogue and have led to widespread corruption. The whole economy, charges former Presidential Adviser Ronald Llamas, is now “cartelized.” Tulfo’s exposé is most disturbing, as it links the country’s top clan, consistent with family history, to corruption. A new state-owned investment fund, with a built-in weak governance structure similar to Malaysia’s notorious 1MDB, promises to be a magnet for rent-seeking, patronage, and corruption. As the Philippines is now on its third year of deficit-spending, the competition could be become cutthroat.    

Fatal violence targeting politicians in the Philippines has become, as Kreuzer put it, “a natural, taken-for-granted part of [the country’s] politics.” Most Filipinos are not even aware that the Philippines is a world leader in the targeted killings of politicians. Over the past year, dozens of politicians and public officials have been killed, as in previous years. In the management of intro-oligarchic competition, the oligarchic state has not been able to limit the violence to the barangay and municipal levels. As Negros Oriental and Lanao del Sur have shown, the violence has now reached the provincial level.  

With worsening rifts within the country’s ruling coalition, the Philippines now finds itself in political intrigues galore. The rifts between the Marcoses and the Dutertes-Arroyos could lead to a rupture by the time of the 2025 midterm elections. This could very well upset the “normal and natural” level of the country’s political violence – an already high threshold by international standards. The clash of the two camps on such a hot-button foreign policy issue as the South China Sea dispute threatens to drag the two global powers, the US and China, into the internecine conflict of the Philippines’ political dynasties.

Will Marcos be able to tame the Philippines’ wild oligarchy? Most unlikely. To be able to do so, Bongbong would have to follow in his father’s footsteps and impose a full dictatorship. According to Winters, Marcos Sr. did not seek to dismantle the oligarchic order or to eliminate other oligarchs when he declared martial law. He merely sought to dominate and control them. He did not disturb the properties and businesses of those who accepted his autocratic rule. The dictator ended up, however, descending into the pathological excesses of plunder and extreme repression.    

In the midst of the mire of corruption, political violence and intrigues of a wild oligarchy, is there still some leeway for reformists in government to eke out some significant economic and political reforms? Certainly. In times of fiascoes and crises, some trapos suddenly present themselves as do-gooders and push for reforms. Even the scion of a kleptocratic dictator can fashion herself into a champion of anti-corruption overnight.  Reformists in government can seize on such openings and challenge these trapos to deliver.

In the ultimate analysis, the choice is not just between a wild or a tamed oligarchy. There is still the option of ending oligarchy. 

Only the broad unity of anti-oligarchy and pro-democracy forces fully engaged in active accumulation of forces can bring about an end to oligarchic rule. This will entail a long and painstaking process of building a strong political and electoral base from the grassroots upwards. It will require a critical and non-condescending examination and redressing of a political culture that has long tolerated or even accepted such iniquities as corruption, patronage, and impunity. It will call for devising tools and technologies that would counter all the old and new dirty tricks that trapos have concocted, mastered, and utilized in manipulating elections. It will mean doggedly pursuing political and economic reforms and building inclusive economic and political institutions even in times of the oligarchs’ and dynasts’ pathological excesses. The bedrock of the fight against oligarchy is the conviction that the people will ultimately prevail. –

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo is an adjunct professor (semi-retired) at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. He is the author of “Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines after Marcos” and co-author of “Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years.”

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  1. ET

    Thanks to Prof. N.G. Quimpo for another inspiring article from him. Most notable is the statement: “The bedrock of the fight against oligarchy is the conviction that the people will ultimately prevail.” The problems with our People are: 1) Their minds are already engulfed by the Disinformation and Political Repression Machinery and 2) Their economic lives are captivated by the Corruption Machinery – both Machineries being created, maintained and managed by the Political Clans and Dynasties of this Country. That “bedrock”, unfortunately, may have long been broken, disintegrated and liquified by those Machineries and hence already formed a part of the Ground Water.

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