Padrino System (Philippines)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Padrino system 🇵🇭
Philippines map.png
Location: Philippines
Definition: Network of symbiotic relationships between a patron (godfather or godmother) and a client (godchild) within the context of Catholic values and interpersonal bonds
Keywords: Philippines Southeast Asia Godparenthood Personal connections Network Kinship Fictive kinship Religion Catholicism
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Co-optation Patron-client networks
Author: Pak Nung Wong and Kristine A. Joyce Lara-de-Leon
Affiliation: Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, University of Bath, UK and Cagayan State University, Philippines
Website: Profile page at UB, Profile page at LinkedIn

By Pak Nung Wong and Kristine A. Joyce Lara-de-Leon, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, University of Bath, UK and Cagayan State University, Philippines

In the Christian Philippines, the Spanish word padrino literally means patron. The padrino system refers to the network of symbiotic relationships between a patron (godfather or godmother) and a client (godchild) within the context of Catholic values and interpersonal bonds. Although such relationships may be formalized by religious rituals such as wedding ceremonies and baptism in church, they may also be forged outside the religious realm, as an exchange relationship between a more powerful and resourceful patron and a recipient-client of the patron’s favours. While it is safe to say that the padrino system is a network of patron-client relations, its instrumental ‘interest-coordinating’ aspect is inseperable from its emotive-moral contents. In other words, social transactions are both constrained and enabled by such Filipino-cultural codes as the ethics of ‘debt of gratitude’ (Filipino: utangnaloob) and the psycho-social notion of ‘shame’ (Filipino: hiya). These cultural codes constitute the local knowledge system informing how insiders should interact with each other and manoeuvre social relations. Thus, the padrino system is a tacit knowledge system governing the self and others[1].

The padrino system also encompasses the Filipino bilateral kinship system within which patron-client relations often take place. The padrino system highlights the importance of the Filipino idea of the ‘family’, especially in the making of political decisions. Within the radiating bilateral networks of kinsmen and ritual-kinsmen, an individual Filipino necessarily forges selective personal alliances to negotiate his or her way through the complexities of intra-familial and inter-familial politics. Reinforcing this social fluidity, actual kinship relations are often superseded by the influences of personal alliances and antipathies. In political terms, the Filipino conceptualization of the ‘family’ does not simply mean household, nor does it only mean blood-tie kinship. The political-economic role of ‘family’ is better understood as a combination of blood-tie kinship and ritual-kinship networks. A kinship network is a working coalition drawn from a larger group related by blood-ties, marriage and ritual kinship as well as friendship. As elite families bring such flexible kinship ties into the political arena, elections often assume a kaleidoscopic complexity of coalition and conflict, making Filipino politics appear volatile[2].

In terms of etymology, the padrino system traces its roots to the Spanish colonization (1521-1898) of the Philippine archipelago. Similar to its Malayo-Polynesian neighbours in maritime South East Asia (e.g. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste), the Philippine archipelago prior to Spanish colonisation was ruled by a constellation of competing tribal chieftains, who were generally known as the ‘headman’ (Filipino: datu). Datu-ship operated (and continues to operate to the present day at the political level) very much in line with the Polynesian ‘big-man’ system. The headman as big-man forges patron-client relationships with multiple small-men to form a local patrimonial polity [3]. Moreover, the pre-colonial business community was already dominated by the Chinese, who were ethnically Hokkien from Fujian province, China. The ethnic Chinese operated a compatible patron-client system called the ring-leader or boss (Hokkien: towkay). The Spanish relied on and therefore absorbed the native datus and Chinese towkays into the colonial governance system as local political and economic elites. Gradually, the Spanish evangelised the Malayo-Polynesian natives and the Chinese merchants into Christians, and Filipino chieftainship and Chinese ring-leadership were absorbed into the Catholicised padrino system. In the post-colonial Philippines, the padrino system combines the essences of the Malayo-Polynesian datu-ship, Chinese ring-leadership and Spanish patronage, forming a hybridised practice in present-day Philippine politics and business[4].


It is important to note that the padrino system has a two-faced characteristic. On the one hand, a padrino is expected to act benevolently to the protectorates/clients in order to win and sustain their loyalty. On the other hand, a padrino must act competitively and sometimes coercively to the rivals/enemies in order to protect one’s own turf. As competitions often lead to versatile political dynamics, a padrino can easily turn him/herself into a turncoat (Filipino: balimbing), who may seek flexible tactical alliance with rivals and rivals’ rivals according to strategic necessity at any given moment.

Balimbing/belimbing literally means the star-fruit in Malayo-Polynesian languages. The shape of a star-fruit signifies a person who possesses multiple faces/personalities and often flexibly changes allegiance. One may need to change face or assume another personality in order to suit the need of a different interactional context, changing political circumstance and interest-alliance. Apart from the Philippines, such Janus-faced performative versatility is also found in Indonesian political culture, much reflected by the Javanese practice of double-faced politics (Bahasa Indonesian: mukadua)[5]. In Thailand, the godfather-like local power-broker-cum-politicians – boss (Thai: jaopho) is another regional variation which performs similar functions[6]. Beyond South East Asia, the padrino has analogous practices in Europe such as patronage in Italy [7], the caciquismo in Latin America[8] and ‘warlord politics’ in Africa and Asia[9][10]. Methodologically, the padrino system and its associated practice of balimbing are best studied by qualitative research methods such as extended case studies, discourse analysis, ethnography and comparative historical sociology.

The padrino system has three major implications for the study of Philippine society, politics and foreign relations. Firstly, the padrino system is key to explaining the rise and endurance of the Chinese mestizo oligarchs from the colonial to the post-colonial Philippines. For example, presidents Corazon Aquino (1986-1992) and Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) are the mother and son respectively from a powerful Chinese mestizo oligarchy, the Cojuangco-Aquino clan of central Luzon. While other Chinese mestizo oligarchs such as the Osmeña family of Cebu have managed to occupy state offices from local to national levels across the Spanish, U.S. and post-colonial regimes up to the present, the family patriarch, the former Philippine Commonwealth President Sergio Osmeña Sr. (1878-1961) is already a showcase padrino. When Sergio changed his original Chinese surname ‘Go’ to his Spanish godfather’s family name ‘Osmeña’, he had already paved the solid path for his successors to practice the padrino system all the way up to state power. By conflating economic power (Chinese capital) with political power (political connections), one of the most enduring locally hailed oligarchies in the Philippines was forged[11].

Secondly, the padrino system serves as a key informal institution of reciprocal political brokerage in Philippine statecraft. On the one hand, local power-holders are able to broker economic interests and political authority from the centralising state power as the representatives of frontier/local societies. On the other hand, through the padrino system, state sovereignty is brokered into the frontiers through local power-holders in the ways of counter-insurgency, the institutionalisation of the local government, electoral politics and the rule of law[12].

Finally, the balimbing aspect of the padrino system is key to understanding the Philippines’ approach to international relations. The Aquino III regime (2010-2016) has boldly adopted a balimbing-style strategy to hedge its relations between the two competing patrons of the Philippines, China and the United States. While the Philippines intends to continue to enjoy flourishing economic and trade relations with China, Manila also successfully invited the US to re-open its military base in the Philippines as a strategy to deter China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. As Manila continued to profit from its relations with both China and US, the balimbing-style hedging strategy has served as an exemplar for how a small Asian power could thrive in the midst of global geopolitical competition between the great powers[13].


  1. Wong, Pak Nung. 2010. The Art of Governing the Self and Others in the Christian Philippines. Journal of International and Global Studies 1 (2):110-146.
  2. McCoy, Alfred W., ed. 2002. An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines. Quezon City, Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
  3. Sahlins, Marshall. 1963. Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 5:285-303.
  4. Wong, Pak Nung. 2011. Following the Grain: State Formation and Trans-local Grain-trading Networks in the Philippines. Journal of Contemporary Asia 41 (4):584-609.
  5. Wong, Pak Nung. 2014. 從印尼管治困境看南海變化和後佔領香港 [Speculating South China Sea Change and Post-Occupation Hong Kong through the Lens of Indonesian Governance Imbroglio]. Hong Kong Economic Journal, 11/12 October 2014, A21.
  6. Chantornvong, Sombat. 2000. Local Godfathers in Thai Politics. In Money and Power in Provincial Thailand, edited by R. McVey. Singapore and Chiang Mai: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworm Books.
  7. Boissevain, Jeremy. 1966. Patronage in Sicily. Man (N.S.) 1:18-33.
  8. Kern, Robert, ed. 1973. The Caciques: Oligarchical Politics and the System of Caciquismo in the Luso-Hispanic World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  9. Wong, Pak Nung. 2008. Towards a More Comprehensive Analysis of Warlord Politics: Constitutive Agency, Patron-Client Networks and Robust Action. Asian Journal of Political Science 16 (2):173-195.
  10. Wong, Pak Nung. 2012. Discerning an African Post-Colonial Imbroglio: Colonialism, Underdevelopment and Violent Conflicts in D. R. Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. African and Asian Studies 11 (1-2):66-94.
  11. Wong, Pak Nung. 2009. In Search of the State-in-Society: Re-Conceiving Philippine Political Development, 1946-2002. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM VerlagDr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft& Co. KG.
  12. Wong, Pak Nung. 2013. Post-Colonial Statecraft in South East Asia: Sovereignty, State Building and the Chinese in the Philippines, Tauris Academic Studies. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.
  13. Wong, Pak Nung, and George Klay Jr Kieh. 2014. The Small Powers in World Politics: Contours of an African-Asian Realism. African and Asian Studies 13:13-32.