Duterte and the Oligarchs

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Teo S. Marasigan

Teo S. Marasigan is a Filipino activist and researcher. He is the author of "Na Kung Saan" ("In Which"), a collection of essays, published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2018.

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President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to destroy the grip that billionaire oligarchs have on Philippine politics—but in reality, he merely conformed to a long standing pattern in Filipino politics where he sought to replace opponents with allies.
Rodrigo Duterte - New Naratif

In August 2016, more than one month into his six-year presidency, Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech: “My plan is to destroy the oligarchs that are embedded in government” (Corrales 2016). This was the first time that he mentioned the O word, even as his propaganda machinery has been using and popularising it during his campaign in the historic presidential election.

Duterte may have named the oligarchy as an enemy only after being elected, but his entire campaign and early presidency, anchored on the war on illegal drugs, employed a populist discourse that pitted virtuous people against a corrupt elite. The liberal elite, according to his narrative, was so enamoured with human rights and rule of law while protective of its own that it ended up being soft on illegal drugs and crime. Duterte comes from political families in the Visayas and Mindanao islands, held power in the Davao region for decades, and was supported by the biggest political families in the country. Despite this, he projected himself as an outsider from dominant politics, an underdog, a provincial mayor who was aspiring to become a national strongman to battle it out with the oligarchs enthroned in “imperial Manila” and Luzon (Thompson 2016, Abao 2016, Kusaka 2017). 

Duterte’s predecessor, Noynoy Aquino; Aquino’s anointed successor, then-senator Mar Roxas; and their allies were vulnerable to being criticised as oligarchs—coded into their political colour, “Yellows.” Aquino is a son of a former president while Roxas is a grandson; both belonged to well-known political families whose economic power rests on large landholdings that trace their roots to the Spanish colonisation and were resistant to the government’s land reform campaigns. They were seen as representatives of the country’s elites who held local power before Spanish colonisation, grew in strength as provincial and regional elites under Spanish colonialism, further became stronger under decentralisation efforts during American colonialism, and subsequently took hold of the independent state (McCoy 1994a). They were among the hacienderos and oligarchs who were sidelined by Ferdinand Marcos’ martial rule (1972-1986), staged a comeback in electoral politics after the 1986 Edsa “People Power” uprising, and became a prominent presence in Philippine politics after that. Noynoy Aquino won the presidency after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s failed reformist rule (2001-2010).

Like many of his controversial statements, Duterte’s vow against oligarchs quickly became talk of the town. Conditions in the country would prove to be welcoming to this rhetoric: Under Aquino, the country’s economy grew but growth did not trickle down to the poor; unemployment and poverty remained widespread; the billionaires raked in bigger profits; and inequality increased (Mendoza 2019).

Political scientist Paul Hutchcroft defines oligarchy in the Philippines as a “class that enjoys an independent economic base outside the state, yet depends upon particularistic access to the political machinery as the major avenue to private accumulation” (1998, 12). These are the extremely rich families (the “1%”, to use a popular slang) who legitimise their wealth accumulation and exploitation of the Filipino people through their access to political power.  Not all very wealthy people, therefore, are oligarchs; only those who use their access to the state to boost their business and wealth. In the Philippines, the concept of oligarchy has been important in explaining the country’s long standing underdevelopment amidst rich natural and human resources (for example, Hutchcroft 1998, Rivera 1994, McCoy 1994a). It has been potent in the context of some of the main coordinates of Philippine politics: strong families, weak state, predatory elites.

Duterte said the word “oligarchs” with contempt. His negative appraisal of oligarchs matches with research about how oligarchs negatively affect the country’s economy and politics, even as oligarchs can exist in different political systems and modes of production (Winters 2012). The Philippine oligarchy has been faulted for not creating a coherent policy for economic development as it uses the state machinery to accumulate wealth while hindering reforms (Hutchcroft 1998), stifling competition by securing contracts through connections, undertaking insider trading and other illegal activities, and getting special deals by controlling regulatory institutions (Mendoza 2023). It is also seen as responsible for controlling the electoral system, politicising the military and preventing the institutionalisation of power, and making the electoral system respond to its needs rather than that of the majority (Caouette 2012). It degrades and destabilises democracy by undermining the rule of law, civic participation, political competition, vertical and horizontal accountability, freedom, equality, government responsiveness and peace and security (Quimpo 2015).

Oligarchs are vulnerable to be targeted by populist presidents like Duterte who, in political scientist Mark Thompson’s influential framing, use a “rich versus poor” narrative and are explicitly anti-elitist, even as they often belong to the elites too. Thompson contrasts populists with reformists, who claim to speak on behalf of the entire nation, not of particular classes, and are opposed to corruption and abuse of power. While both rely more on direct appeals to people and less on clientelist connections, populists get more support from the poor while reformists are often supported by the middle and upper classes and other sections of society (Thompson 2010, 157-158). The struggle between populists and reformists is important in understanding Duterte’s actions in relation to oligarchs. 

More than one year and a half  after Duterte left office, this short article asks: How did he handle the country’s oligarchs during his presidency? It examines Duterte’s actions in relation to two prominent wealthy families who often figured in discussions about the oligarchy, namely the Lopezes whom he attacked and the Villars with whom he allied. Using publicly available sources, it presents the two families’ relations with the state through the years and Duterte’s actions towards them. This article argues that, contrary to his rhetoric, Duterte strategically attacked an old section of the oligarchy critical of him but aided a relatively new one close to him. It underscores Duterte’s hypocrisy (saying one thing and doing another), challenges his demagoguery (appealing to the public’s resentment against their poverty while not addressing its root causes), and exposes his subterfuge (making a spectacle out of attacking an oligarch while silently favouring another).

The Lopezes

The Lopezes form an old oligarchic family that traces its roots to Basilio Lopez, a Chinese mestizo, and Sabina Jalandoni who lived in Jaro town of Iloilo province in 1834.* Basilio’s son Eugenio accumulated the vast landholdings that gave the family its early wealth and prominence in the Western Visayas region. Eugenio’s son Benito became Iloilo governor at the turn of the century, but was assassinated while in office. Benito’s sons Eugenio and Fernando continued the family business in sugar plantations and expanded it to newspapers, transportation, food, and real estate in the region. After recovering their properties expropriated by the Japanese occupiers during World War II, the two moved to Manila, signalling the Lopezes’ expansion of interests to the national level.

After World War II and before Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law in 1972, the Lopezes steadily gained wealth and power and were visibly involved in high business and politics. Fernando was the politician while Eugenio was the businessman, and they worked closely together, with Eugenio quoted as saying: “To succeed in business, one must engage in politics” (McCoy 1994b, 448). The Lopezes used their connections in government, especially their alliances with presidents, to expand their business empire. Their record until Martial Law exemplifies “rent-seeking” among the country’s elites, accessing the government’s immense resources and violating its regulatory powers for their own benefit (McCoy 2004). They have also used their media ownings to aggrandise their public image and that of their allies while attacking their enemies. 

Fernando had a long political career: appointed Iloilo City mayor in 1945, elected senator in 1947, and served as vice-president while also secretary of agriculture and natural resources to Elpidio Quirino (1949 to 1953), and vice-president to Ferdinand Marcos (1965 to 1972). Eugenio managed and expanded the family business, and through his leadership and influence in the formal organisation of sugar barons and ownership of The Manila Chronicle since 1947 gave advantage to their candidates through intensive coverage and to their businesses through extensive advertisements, even while printing negative stories and commentaries about opponents. He also owned and bought the two corporations that in 1967 combined to create ABS-CBN, the country’s top television station for many years (Vera Files 2016a). 

In the 1960s, the Lopezes, then the most prominent political family in the Philippines, attracted the ire of president Diosdado Macapagal (1961-1965). Macapagal was angry at them for financing the campaign of his rival in the previous election, reelectionist Carlos P. Garcia (1957-1961), and was determined to counter Fernando Lopez’ plan to run for the presidency in the next elections. For over four years, Macapagal accused the Lopezes of using their influence in all three branches of government to control and get loans from government banks and financial institutions. Cases of export violations, tax evasion, and corruption in a land purchase were filed against them. Even Eugenio’s 1961 purchase of the Manila Electric Company or Meralco, which made him “the country’s leading capitalist” (McCoy 1994, 445), had been rushed under Garcia.

Fighting back against Macapagal, Fernando Lopez ran as Ferdinand Marcos’ vice-president, won the 1965 elections and got re-elected in 1969. In 1971, however, the Lopezes accused Marcos of wanting shares in their family corporation, while Marcos accused the Lopezes of demanding concessions from the government. The Manila Chronicle published expose’s of graft in government and Marcos’ hidden wealth (McCoy 1994). Marcos criticized “the oligarchy” as the cause of the Philippines’ underdevelopment and attacked the Lopezes, particularly their supposed intention to monopolize oil in the country. After a few months of conflict, Marcos sought reconciliation. 

When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, however, Lopez businesses were either seized by the government or, in the case of Meralco, sold cheap to the government. In 1973, the Lopezes’ assets amounted to USD 300 million (McCoy 1994, 445). Marcos imprisoned Eugenio’s son, Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr, threatened to execute him, and successfully used him to coerce the Lopezes to give up their businesses. The Lopezes were barred from government posts and did not seek elective positions, even as they participated in the anti-Marcos struggle during their political exile in the US.  

After the 1986 “people power” uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, the Lopez family regained its businesses and properties, with the help of president Cory Aquino. The Lopezes rebuilt a successful business empire, with television network ABS-CBN at the center. According to a 2016 profile, the family’s main earnings come from mass media even as they have businesses in “power and energy generation and distribution, property development, financial services, and manufacturing.” They also had previous investments in “water services, telecommunications, and tollways” (Vera Files 2016a). 

ABS-CBN is co-owned by Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III, son of Geny. Other co-owners are Gabby’s uncles Oscar and Manuel, aunt Presentacion, cousin Federico, and sister Gina. Manuel, meanwhile, serves as chairman of the Board of the Manila Electric Company. ABS-CBN’s declared revenue was PhP 38.278 billion in 2015, which increased to PhP42.835 billion in 2019 (Vera Files 2016a, WSJ n.d.). In the 2023 Forbes Magazine’s list of 50 richest Filipinos, Federico Lopez made a debut as he took over the Lopez Group of businesses from his father Oscar who died earlier that year. He ranked 42nd in the list with a USD 300 million wealth (Cabuenas 2023).

While the Lopezes are not known for holding elective or appointive positions in government, they wielded significant influence through ABS-CBN. After it was returned to the Lopez family in 1986, ABS-CBN immediately became the country’s No. 1 television channel in terms of reach, audience share and profits (Limos 2020). It was No. 1 at a time when the majority of Filipinos watched television, and television was the most trusted source of political information (Vera Files 2016b).

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ABS-CBN became so popular that it was capable of creating, as said by journalist Luz Rimban, not only showbiz stars, but also political stars. Its broadcast journalists and celebrities who have shows on the channel ran for public office and won, and got appointed to Cabinet positions. Its star actors and singers became much coveted endorsers during electoral campaigns while some politicians started shows in the television network hoping to gain or maintain popularity (Rimban 2005). ABS-CBN has also been accused of being a kingmaker, throwing its considerable influence behind, or criticising, presidents and other politicians (Tiglao 2020). 

How did ABS-CBN’s influence in government and the public contribute to the growth of the Lopezes’ empire? Well-respected journalists Coronel and Rimban said: ABS-CBN considers some entities as sacred cows, especially Lopez companies as well as allied businessmen and politicians (Coronel 2001, Rimban 2005). Politicians who come from ABS-CBN or feel themselves beholden to the television network will tend to not criticise its sacred cows either (Rimban 2005). For example, the Philippines has the highest electricity costs in Southeast Asia—more than resource-poor Singapore, which is the most expensive city in the world (Ravago 2023)—and, until 2009, the Lopezes held a significant amount of shares in Meralco (Vera Files 2020). There were instances when ABS-CBN’s coverage of electric power issues showed only Meralco’s side or, along with other media outfits, lacked important information about electricity rates (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility 2006; Macale, Magadia and Martin 2008; Magadia and Martin 2008).

Duterte attacked the Lopezes in a high-profile, headline-grabbing manner. In the Philippines, television licences are granted by the government—the legislature and the president—through a law. With its licence, issued in 1995, set to expire in May 2020 without a renewal, and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issuing a cease and desist order, ABS-CBN had no choice but to shut down. After many Congressional moves championed by Duterte’s allies and buoyed by his statements, Congress voted in July 2020 to reject the law giving ABS-CBN a new franchise (Abad 2020).

For months, the ABS-CBN franchise saga dragged on, with numerous accusations about the network’s and the Lopezes’ supposed misconduct flying left and right, from within the lengthy congressional hearings and from without. The hearings did not unearth any legal violation or crime committed by the network or the Lopezes—let alone a serious one deserving of being shut down. What they did was raise some issues that were promptly and adequately addressed by the network but already served as grist to the mill of the Duterte propaganda machine, especially in social media (Divinagracia 2023).  

Various reasons were invoked for denying ABS-CBN’s franchise extension: the Lopezes supposedly used subsidiaries to avoid paying taxes and even employed a dummy (Abad 2020). The solicitor general, the president’s lawyer, claimed ABS-CBN allowed foreigners to control it, and legislators raised the American citizenship of company CEO Gabby Lopez as well as supposed unfair labour practices in the network (Lopez and Jalea 2020). Government agencies, however, cleared the network of any wrongdoing: no tax issues according to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, no labour issues according to the Labour Department, and no violations or penalties according to the NTC (Abad 2020). The Justice Department clarified that Lopez remains a Filipino citizen and the Securities and Exchange Commission affirmed that dual citizens are considered Filipinos and can therefore own media companies (Lopez and Jalea 2020).

At the end of the day, it was Duterte’s grievances against the TV network that stood out. Duterte said ABS-CBN did not air his television ads despite receiving payment for these during the 2016 presidential campaign, and did not return his money. He also took umbrage that the network aired an advertisement critical of him, which was commissioned by a rival politician. In its defence, ABS-CBN said it aired all the P117-million worth of national ads paid by Duterte, but not all of his local ads because of some difficulties, and that it has returned P4 million to Duterte even as P2.6 million has been delayed. It also said that the ad critical of Duterte is legitimate, raising relevant issues (Abad 2020). Legislators deciding on the network’s franchise, however, echoed the president’s accusations and condemned the network for “irresponsible journalism and unfair coverage.” 

The effects of ABS-CBN’s closure on the Lopez family business are immense. Around 11,000 employees around the country had to be laid off (Cabico 2022). The company is also reported to have lost billions in revenues from advertisements and closed down other legacy services. The shutdown forced the network to migrate to digital platforms, and it lost revenues from its legacy services that previously funded the digital platforms (Subingsubing 2021). Three years after the shutdown, ABS-CBN content was still being broadcast in many channels, but its reach has already dwindled to a third of its previous reach (ABS-CBN News 2023). The network’s revenue dropped from PhP 42.835 billion in 2019 to PhP 19.197 billion (USD 339.5 million) in 2022 (Vera Files 2016a, WSJ n.d.)

Many of the reasons for the shutdown cited by observers and commentators point to a pattern of stifling voices critical and independent of Duterte’s government — from the Left all the way to the elite opposition. Duterte’s first criticism of ABS-CBN was related to the network’s critical coverage of the “war on drugs.” Shutting down ABS-CBN not only weakened a critical and popular voice, it also caused a chilling effect on mass media platforms across the board (Subingsubing 2021). It went hand-in-hand with the government’s attacks on leading newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer and website Rappler.com and other media groups and workers. It also contributed to increasing the influence of social media in which Duterte’s disinformation machinery enjoys a disproportionate strength and which a pro-Duterte columnist hails as having weakened “the Yellow’s hegemony over Filipinos’ minds through their control of mainstream media” (Tiglao 2022). Needless to say, the shutdown of ABS-CBN went hand-in-hand with the human rights crisis in the Philippines under Duterte’s rule.

At the same time, the Lopezes are widely considered as allies of Cory (1986-1992) and Noynoy Aquino (2010-2016), reformist presidents and who are considered leaders of that group. Two sectors of society identified by Thompson as siding with reformist politics defended ABS-CBN: the Catholic Church and civil society. The late Luis V. Teodoro, a well-respected media critic and observer, said that on the whole, ABS-CBN’s reporting about the government and other entities in recent years can be characterised as “relatively fair” (Teodoro 2020). There are even claims that, during his presidency, Noynoy Aquino’s allies in Congress considered ABS-CBN’s criticisms of the president “unfair” and almost “nit-picking,” showing that the network also criticised its allies (Cabacungan 2016).

Given the importance of political dynasties in Philippine politics, another, more historical explanation can be given: the shutdown as a vendetta of political families supporting and supported by Duterte. Among these are: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, daughter of president Diosdado, the first president to attack the Lopezes; and the Marcos family, who continues to stand by its patriarch who declared war on oligarchs and closed down ABS-CBN during Martial Law. These political families are considered enemies of the Aquinos.

The Villars

The Villars, meanwhile, are a new oligarchic family. Their wealth and political influence have been increasing for decades and continue to peak at present. The Villars have successfully allied with incumbent presidents, especially the populist ones, and avoided being singled out and demonised as oligarchs.

The Villar family is led by Manuel “Manny” Villar, Jr., the richest Filipino in 2023 according to Forbes Magazine, with an estimated wealth of USD 8.6 billion and investments in property and retail, especially in mass housing and memorial parks (CNN Philippines 2023). Another profile describes his businesses as “a wide range of residential subdivisions, condominiums, supermarkets, shopping malls, healthcare facilities and more” (Tatler, n.d.) Known in some circles as “the brown taipan,” he first became Forbes’ richest Filipino in 2019, replacing Chinese-Filipino mall king Henry Sy whose death in 2019 resulted in the division of his wealth among his children (Gonzales 2019). Manny served as a legislator in both lower and upper houses of the Philippine legislature, leading the first in 1998-2000 and the second in 2006-2008 and becoming the first politician to lead both houses since World War II. He also ran for the presidency in 2010, but was defeated by Noynoy Aquino.

Unlike the Lopezes, the Villars became a political dynasty as years passed. Cynthia, Manny’s wife, replaced him as representative of the lone district of Las Piñas city to the lower house when he ran for and became senator in 2001. She served in that position until 2010, while her husband was serving in the upper house. After exhausting the nine-year term limit in the lower house, she ran for and became senator in 2013. She again ran for the position in 2019 and was reelected, this time topping the race.

Manny and Cynthia’s son Mark replaced Cynthia as district representative in 2010. In 2016, he was appointed secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) by Duterte. In 2022, he ran for the Senate and won, joining his mother in the upper house of the legislature. His sister, Camille, became district representative in 2019, became deputy leader of the lower house in 2021, was reelected in 2022, and retained her position in the lower house. His wife, Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, was appointed undersecretary of the Justice Department in 2018 but resigned to campaign for her husband’s senatorial bid in 2022.

The Villars have been described as a “fat” political dynasty, in which family members hold elective positions in government simultaneously. The label stands in contrast with “thin” dynasties where family members serve in elective posts in succession (Tomacruz 2022; Mendoza, Jaminola, and Yap 2019). Cynthia, known for being candid, once admitted that her family is a dynasty, but asserted that it is a “good” one. She said that they always follow the law, are only few and therefore cannot occupy many government positions, and cannot fool voters who are intelligent (Ager 2019).

The Villars are also the current leaders of the country’s oldest party, the Nacionalista Party (NP), which wields a significant, though by itself not decisive, number in the legislature. In preparation for his 2010 presidential electoral bid, Manny rebuilt the NP by raiding other parties starting in the 2007 mid-term elections. 

Being in both big-time politics and business, the Villars have found themselves embroiled in various controversies in which they stand accused of using their positions in government to expand their business empire.

Most controversies that the Villars faced were in the area of land and their real estate business. They have been poked fun at on social media for amassing large tracts of land—but not for using access to the government to do so. In 2010, shortly before the presidential election for which Villar was an early frontrunner, the C5 road controversy broke out. The Senate found sufficient evidence that Villar influenced the DPWH to change the original planned route of a major highway in order to make it closer to his real estate properties and connect to another road that is closer to his commercial lands. Not only will this increase the value of his properties, but it will also mean that the government gives him right of way payments (Dedace 2010). Another report states that the government was also disadvantaged by the pricing (Rufo 2010a). Villar even inserted PhP 200 million in the national government budget for 2008 for the road extension project (Dedace 2010). 

A series of investigative reports released in 2010 exposed other alleged wrongdoings of Villar. In Norzagaray, Bulacan, the billionaire is accused of reviving dead companies and using fake land titles in cahoots with a local government registry office to acquire indigenous people’s lands (Rufo 2010a). In Imus, Cavite, one of Villar’s companies is accused of conniving with the government’s land management agency to create fake titles and disappear existing ones in order to make claimants in a land dispute win, who then sold their properties to Villar’s company (Rufo 2010b). In Alabang, Villar’s luxury residential communities and leisure activity areas stand on land initially alloted for low-cost housing for the poor, but were awarded to Villar companies with no less than presidential backing (Rufo 2010c). The Villars dismissed these accusations as election-related black propaganda, which came from a lawyer whose ego was bruised by Villar company’s evaluations of him. The same lawyer also tried to blackmail the company in exchange for keeping mum on these stories (Rufo 2010c).

In November 2022, Cynthia Villar figured in a heated discussion in the Senate when Raffy Tulfo, a TV personality and fellow senator, raised the issue of agricultural lands being converted into residential subdivisions in Cauayan, Isabela and other parts of the country. Cynthia said Villar companies do not buy agricultural lands, but defended the creation of the residential subdivisions in question. The other senator asserted the need for a National Land Use Plan, the absence of which allows local governments to make decisions that disadvantage farmers and benefit real estate developers. He even wondered aloud why after four presidencies, the country still does not have a law that states its land use plan (Bordey 2022).

Duterte favoured the Villars in quieter ways than his attack on the Lopezes. When the ABS-CBN franchise saga ended, many were shocked when the news broke out that a company owned by Manny Villar was given the frequency previously given to the broadcasting giant. In January 2022, documents from the NTC showed that Villar’s new company, the Advanced Media Broadcasting System (AMBS), was given the permit to use ABS-CBN’s analog frequency Channel 2 for test broadcast purposes, as well as the digital frequency Channel 16, in Metro and Mega Manila. This effectively blocked the Lopezes and ABS-CBN from regaining these frequencies.

The news immediately met many criticisms. The process followed by the NTC was not clear, as there was no public competition for the frequencies. AMBS’ capacity to run a television station was also not clear, and records show that it is a fledgling company. The documents also showed that the Justice Department and the Office of the Executive Secretary, both under the president, reviewed the decision, and did not object to granting AMBS the permits (Camus 2022). These have prompted an opposition senator to call on the NTC to explain its selection process (Talabong 2022). Fears were raised about the impact on the political economy of media, particularly media pluralism, in the Philippines (Gonzales 2022).

A case of “blatant conflict of interest” was how one columnist described the Villars’ actions in relation to the ABS-CBN franchise (Chanco 2022). In the Senate, Cynthia Villar was among the few who did not support a bill for the ABS-CBN franchise extension (Ager 2021). In Congress, Camille Villar voted against franchise renewal for ABS-CBN (Perez-Rubio 2020). And Emmeline Aglipay-Villar was Justice undersecretary when the department’s approval for frequencies’ awarding to Villar was sought (Rey 2022). While Manny Villar said his interest in the frequency takeover is only for business purposes and not political revenge, he has been quoted previously as saying that he lost the 2010 election because his opponent was depicted by ABS-CBN as a son of a saint (Gonzales 2022). Given all this, a progressive lawmaker claimed that the frequency award is a “last two-minute crony payback” and the Villars are Duterte’s “own favoured oligarchs” (Talabong 2022).

When Mark Villar was appointed secretary of the DPWH, concerns were raised about conflicts of interest given the nature of the family’s business and the department’s mandate. Mark stated that he will not allow family businesses to benefit from his position (dela Paz 2016). Despite this, his father expanded the family business in the water sector by partnering with local water districts. The districts are under the Local Water Utilities Administration, which in turn is an agency attached to the DPWH. Consumers are also complaining that service is bad while rates have increased (Chanco 2022; Ramos 2023). The DPWH is among government agencies that are most notorious for graft and corruption, and Duterte once stated that corruption remains “rampant” in the agency. Despite his promise of sacking officials on the basis of a “one whiff of corruption,” he professed trust for the younger Villar (CNN Philippines Staff 2020). 

The Villars’ political alignment with Duterte partly explains his treatment of them. Manny Villar shot to political fame in 2001, when, as leader of the lower house, he forwarded the impeachment case against then-president Estrada to the upper house. This placed him as an ally to former presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, both considered reformists, and Macapagal-Arroyo, who was at first a reformist president who replaced Estrada after the Edsa People Power 2 uprising.

In her long, nine-year term, Arroyo became a lapsed reformist politician. She was accused of cheating in the 2004 elections against a populist candidate, and her family was embroiled in many graft and corruption scandals afterwards. She faced mass protests and a few failed coup attempts. From running as senator under Arroyo’s popular ticket in 2001, Manny Villar ran as an opposition candidate in 2007 and won.

Despite this, in the 2010 presidential election, Villar lost the top survey position and eventually the race largely because of one moniker — “Villarroyo.” He was accused of being Arroyo’s secret candidate, secret because she officially supported another candidate. While the reformist candidate Aquino rode on the popular anti-Arroyo sentiment and made opposition to Arroyo the centre of his campaign, Villar, running on a populist-lite platform, did not criticise Arroyo. After he lost the elections, however, his NP coalesced with the winning Liberal Party, throwing the support of its 30 congressmen and five senators behind the Aquino government (Gutierrez 2013).

In the 2016 presidential elections, the Villars supported Duterte’s candidacy: a person associated with the Villar’s business donated to Duterte’s campaign funds (Philstar 2016), while Duterte claimed Manny gave him a bag of money for the campaign (ABS-CBN News 2019). The NP provided Duterte’s losing vice-presidential candidate, Alan Peter Cayetano (Teehankee 2020). The Villars and their party immediately expressed support for Duterte’s new presidency (Ranada 2016). At the start of the Duterte administration, the 50 NP members at the Lower House joined Duterte’s “supermajority” coalition (Cabacungan 2016). Cynthia and Camille aligned with the Duterte government’s positions on major issues including the ABS-CBN shutdown, heroes’ burial for dictator Marcos (Elemia 2016), and the war on drugs.

The Villars’ alliance with Duterte, similar to their alliance with Noynoy Aquino before him and with Marcos Jr after him (Atienza 2022), is consistent with the NP’s declared “guiding principle…: work with the party in power” (Gutierrez 2013). At the same time, their support for Duterte and Marcos Jr’s candidacies for president show a keen sense of who will win in elections — even as this contrasts with Manny Villar’s lost presidential bid in 2010.

Conclusion

In yet another much-talked about speech in July 2020, months after the ABS-CBN shutdown, Duterte bragged: “Without declaring martial law, I dismantled the oligarchy that controlled the economy…” (Pareño and Mendez 2020). Initial news reports about the speech said Duterte did not mention the Lopezes. A video recording of the speech surfaced later, revealing that Duterte indeed mentioned the Lopezes as well as other media outfits critical of him (Ranada 2020).

This boast did not go uncriticized. Even when Duterte declared his intent to destroy the oligarchs in the country early in his presidency, commentators immediately cast a cynical eye. Many stated in chorus: Duterte may attack a segment of the oligarchy, but he will only replace it with his allies — and he will definitely not destroy the oligarchy. As political scientist Julio Teehankee memorably stated, in the Philippines, “One president’s oligarchy is another president’s crony” (quoted in Oxales 2020). Immediately after the reign of Marcos Sr, the first president to declare war on the oligarchs, scholar Benedict Anderson already had the assessment that “Marcos had no interest in upsetting the established social order. Those oligarchs who bent with the wind… were mostly left undisturbed.” Marcos also assembled his cronies from old oligarchs, his relatives, and new people (1988, 22).

Nothing in the current government of Marcos Jr would indicate trouble for the country’s oligarchs. Running for the president after Duterte has demolished any opposition, Marcos Jr campaigned using “the influencer culture of good vibes and toxic positivity,” without any of Duterte’s grand campaign reform promises (Curato 2022). As president, he has been concerned mainly with “rebranding” the discredited family surname (Rivera 2023). He does not intend to rock the boat, and does not even pretend to. Despite Duterte’s verbal and actual attacks on some oligarchs, the oligarchy remains intact, could even be depicted as happy, under Marcos Jr. 

Indeed, many observers have shown how other segments of the oligarchy remained untouched, or were aided, by Duterte—despite his rants against the Lopezes, the Ayalas, Manny Pangilinan and other oligarchs. A famous upstart is Dennis Uy, who hails from Davao del Norte, calls Duterte a “mentor,” and has been swiftly amassing wealth, including bagging the contract to become the country’s third telecommunications company, since Duterte rode to power (Almendral 2019). Another is Enrique Razon, who expanded his presence in the power and water sectors and leads his National Unity Party, which has 38 representatives in Congress, allied with Duterte (Castañeda 2020). Yet another is Ramon Ang, who handled the business of top Marcos Sr crony Danding Cojuangco Jr and has benefitted from being in Duterte’s good graces (dela Paz 2017).

There is a need to revisit and reconsider supportive and enthusiastic research—noticeably in the field of philosophy—about Duterte’s statements on ABS-CBN, the Lopezes and the oligarchs. Did Duterte really “confront the powers that be” given “the reality of conflict… between the elite and the poor”? Filipinos may be “fed up with elite politics in the country,” but did Duterte faithfully serve as a vehicle for their demands (Maboloc 2020, 43)? Indeed, the dominant media is controlled by the country’s elites, but did Duterte really act as an “adversary to the vested interests that… elite groups try to protect through the media they control”? Is social media “a platform that truly voices out the sentiment of the people better than the self-serving corporate media” (Mansueto and Ochave 2018, 201)?

This article showed that Duterte indeed attacked an old section of the oligarchy, the Lopezes, by shutting down the crown jewel of their family business, the ABS-CBN television station. It also showed that the former president allowed, even helped, a newer segment of the oligarchy, the Villars, to thrive mainly by letting them benefit from the shutdown of ABS-CBN and appointing one of them to a government position very closely related to their businesses. He attacked the Lopezes because of their political alignment with his reformist opponents, and within the frame of his populist narrative. He allied with the Villars because of their political alliance with him and his closest allies.



* The account of the Lopezes until the Marcos Sr dictatorship is drawn largely from McCoy (1994b) and Roces (2000).

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  • Duterte and the Oligarchs

    Posted by Rohin on 24 June 2024 at 3:56 pm

    President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to destroy the grip that billionaire oligarchs have on Philippine politics—but in reality, he merely conformed to a long standing pattern in Filipino politics where he sought to replace opponents with allies. Read more.

    • This discussion was modified 2 weeks, 4 days ago by  Rohin.
    • This discussion was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by  Bonnibel.
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