MANILA // From Abra in the far north to Mindanao in the south, the political landscape of the Philippines is dominated by family dynasties that have ruled their particular area of influence for decades like feudal landlords through violence, fear and intimidation. They rule with impunity, knowing national political leaders rely on them for support and votes. Political rivals are usually dealt with through the barrel of a gun rather than the election box.
The political dynasties have amassed vast wealth, businesses and influence in a country of 90 million people where more than half live on less than US$2 (Dh7.3) a day. Monday's massacre of at least 46 people - including the wife of a candidate running for governor, a number of his relatives and 12 journalists - in Maguindanao on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was unprecedented even by Philippine standards of political violence.
Marites Vitug, a journalist and author of a number of books on Mindanao, said: "The shear scale of the attack has shocked everyone. "Even Ferdinand Marcos never did anything on this scale," she said. Marcos was president from 1965 to 1986. The dictator died in 1989. As police combed the scene for more bodies yesterday, evidence mounted implicating Andal Ampatuan Jr, son of Maguindanao's powerful governor, Andal Ampatuan. A number of witnesses who have gone into hiding fearing for their lives have indicated Mr Ampatuan Jr was behind the deaths.
The dilemma facing the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is that Governor Ampatuan is one of her most ardent supporters and delivers votes. Analysts say the next 48 hours will be crucial to see whether Mrs Arroyo is true to her word that "no one will be spared" during the investigation. But words and deeds do not necessarily follow, especially in Philippine politics. Vitug said: "One story doing the rounds today is that the killers were high on drugs so they didn't know what they were doing - it sounds crazy as a defence, but in Philippine politics most things are possible."
What complicates matters in this case is the fact that the perpetrators and most of the victims were Muslims. For decades the focus of successive governments in Manila and the international community for that matter has been fixed on the rebellions in Mindanao of Muslims seeking a homeland. Inter-clan warfare or blood feuds, known locally as rido, were largely ignored. Vitug said: "Mrs Arroyo not only faces a political problem here but the possibility that there may be massive retaliation or rido.
"When it comes to rido, women, children and old people are never touched. But Monday's atrocity has changed all that." In sending his wife and a number of female relatives to the provincial capital to file his nomination papers to run for governor next year, Ismail Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan, believed Muslims would not attack women. Carloads of local journalists followed the convoy as Mr Mangudadatu was challenging the powerful Ampatuan clan and in Maguindanao this was a big story.
The Ampatuan clan has dominated all facets of Maguindanao politics for nearly a decade after effectively "neutralising" the previous ruling family, the Candaos. Andal Ampatuan defeated Zacaria Candao for governor in 2001 in elections said to have been heavily tainted by fraud. Two years later, Candao's brother was killed. The family blamed Andal Ampatuan, but no charges were ever laid against him.
Julkipli Wado, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, said the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans were "once very close". "The failure to form a political alliance probably led to Monday's unprecedented attack," he said. "Political dynasties have become the reality of Philippine politics." Vitug said: "The big question now is whether Mrs Arroyo is willing to forgo the political support of the Ampatuans in order to seek justice for those killed."
Pete Troilo, a director with Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a political risk consultancy based in Manila, said: "Local power politics have trumped class, gender and religion in this latest case. "While the targeting of women and journalists is shocking by any standard, the Ampatuan clan's unremitting show of force since they claimed power over Maguindanao in 2001 and willingness and capacity to strike fear in the community make this event somewhat less surprising," Mr Troilo said.
"It is characteristic of an elite Philippines political family willing to go to any lengths to hold on to power." Mr Troilo said the Ampatuan private army, numbering in the hundreds and well-armed, is the only one of its kind in Maguindanao and perhaps the most formidable force across Mindanao. The fact that the Ampatuan clan has some support from Mrs Arroyo has, Mr Troilo said, "added to its feelings of local invincibility".
Governor Ampatuan has thrived on the fact that he can deliver crucial votes to whatever party is in power nationally. According to the online news magazine NewsBreak, Mr Ampatuan managed to deliver 193,938 votes from Maguindanao's 27 towns for Mrs Arroyo in the 2004 presidential election while her closest rival, Fernando Poe, a film star, only managed 59,892 despite being widely popular in the province.
In the midterm elections in 2007 he demonstrated his dogged loyalty to the administration when he delivered to the administration a clean sweep in Maguindanao. "In the same poll, 19 candidates, including members of the opposition, received not a single vote from 20 of Maguindanao's 22 municipalities," NewsBreak said. Under the law Mr Ampatuan, who has served three terms as governor, cannot run for a fourth term, leaving the field open. But he is said to want the dynasty to retain power through his son and not someone outside the family, and in the politics of violence in this country the ends, in many cases, justifies the means.
Mr Ampatuan Jr has yet to file his candidacy papers.