Just my opinion
By Raïssa Robles
On its own, the Catholic Church can greatly help reduce corruption and political dynasties by banning all elected officials from standing as “ninong” or “ninang” in weddings and baptisms of those not related to them up to the second degree. The ban can be lifted the moment the politician leaves office.
I know it goes against the grain of Philippine culture. And I know I sound naive, maybe even un-Filipino. But let’s face it: this is one practice that has enabled politicians to extend their political influence way beyond their bloodline. It has allowed them to convert non-relatives and strangers into one vast, extended political network based on personality, favors and largesse. The unspoken agreement is that the newlyweds will be obliged to the politician-sponsor never mind if he had been involved in an anomaly or he was non-performing. In return, the politician might give jobs, government contracts or other political favors to his “inaanak” (godchild) or the latter’s parents.
I am asking the bishops to do this because they have long advocated a change in the political culture of patronage and this will be an immense contribution to that change. I am also challenging them to walk their talk.
Because of this practice, Filipino politicians have always focused on building political networks based on personal ties, gratitude and favors (paid for perhaps using taxpayers’ money) rather than on political principles or public service Government procedures in hiring and bidding and licensing are bent to accommodate godchildren and their parents.
In the Catholic faith – at least according to the priests who give couples a spiritual talk before marriage – wedding sponsors are people expected to guide the newlyweds in their new life, including in the spiritual aspect.
But this is just mostly talk. The reality is that the “godfather” practice has long been perverted by politicians as a way to keep them in office indefinitely. I remember Joseph Estrada, when he was a mere senator, telling us Senate reporters that his days were filled with going to every “kasal, binyag, libing” all over the country. He credited his vast network of “inaanak“, which he started building up as a town mayor, to his election to the upper legislature.
When the crowd started gathering along the Edsa highway to pressure Estrada to give up the presidency in January 2001, then Cavite Governor Ramon “Bong” Revilla stepped onto the makeshift stage at Edsa and shouted, “Ninong, bumaba ka na.” (“Step down, Godfather.”)
The fact that Revilla called Estrada “Ninong” showed that the relationship had meant something to him.
The practice is rampant and socially acceptable, it seems. Some journalists even ask sitting high officials to be their wedding sponsors.
The Catholic Church and Philippine politics have long allowed the practice of ordinary people acquiring a powerful “Ninong” politician.
However, the same is also practiced by wealthy businessmen whenever they marry off their children or have them baptized in Church. It is in these situations where the practice can seriously pervert governance and lead to corruption, especially when these wealthy businessmen need government approval of franchises or contracts or licenses or state permits for their corporations. How many times has a high government official overruled a disapproval by a subordinate official in order to favor a godchild or a parent of his godchild?
That politicians expect something in return for becoming a “ninong“or “ninong” – and this relationship was not just for any spiritual or Christ-like purpose – was brought home to me by some remarks made publicly by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. In his published memoir, Enrile indicated that he expects some form of gratitude from his godchildren, and they should help him in turn when he is in need.
On page 672 of his memoir, Enrile talked about how one of his godchildren failed him big time when he was arrested by the government over the 1989 coup attempt. He wrote:
“that coup attempt forced the government to act against me with even more vehemence. No less than then Secretary of Justice Franklin Drilon who came from ACCRA, the law firm which I set up years before and who was my wedding godson when he married his first wife, Violata Calvo, ordered me to be charged with the crime of ‘rebellion complexed with murder and other serious offenses’ – a crime that the Supreme Court had long ruled as non-existent in the landmark subversion case of People vs. Hernandez and People vs. Lava.”
Again in 2013, when Enrile delivered a privilege speech in the Senate lambasting fellow Senator Miriam Santiago, he also pointed to the fact that Senator Miriam was his godchild:
“But levity aside, what I know, Mr. President, is that after her graduation from the UP College of Law and her bar examination, I hired her in 1969 to work for me in the Department of Justice where I was then the Secretary of Justice. When she got married, she asked me and my wife to be her wedding sponsors.”
Dear Bishops, please ask around – how many godchildren does the average Filipino politician have? Or the top politicians have? And where do you think they get the money to buy the wedding and baptismal gifts? Do they charge it to their office representational expenses – in other words, to our taxes? How many political favors have they granted to their “inaanak” and their parents? How many political favors have they asked in return?
Do you think this “religious” relationship leads to better governance? Or perverts democracy?
Please remember that the most famous “godfather” in literature was that created by Mario Puzo in his novel – and while the fictitious character wasn’t an elected politician he operated exactly the same way Filipino politicians do – through personal favors that would be called in.
Banning elected officials from being “ninong” and “ninang” in weddings and baptisms of Filipinos not related to them by blood or marriage up to the second degree does not even need any congressional legislation or Comelec-administered referendum. All it needs is a directive from you all in the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Which is expected to meet at the start of every year.
There are sitting politicians who no doubt do not like the practice — and implications — of being made godfathers. But when strangers or prominent businessmen come to their office to request such a favor, how do they say “no” without angering them? So a ban will help politicians say “no” and not spend much needed money for gifts.
I don’t know about you, but I believe it will go a long way to leveling the political playing field and reducing that bond of gratitude that prevents many Filipinos from throwing out rogue politicians from office.