Déjà vu with a difference

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Those of us who were already around just before martial law was declared in 1972 have seen this before. I refer to the killings and other forms of violence, apparently politically- motivated, that have taken place in recent weeks.

Before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, the warlords of Northern Luzon were constantly at each other’s throats, sometimes literally, over the various posts Philippine elections made available every two years.

Local elections were in fact particularly bloody. In most cases, it was the political leaders, goons and assorted hangers-on of the politicians who ended up dead on some dusty street in the wilds of the Ilocos provinces.

Occasionally a politician-cum-warlord himself would get killed, triggering an even bloodier round of retaliation which did not necessarily lead to the rival politician’s death, only to that of his followers. But the usual innocent bystanders would now and then be killed as well. In addition to the many threats they already posed–for example to sanity, civilization and the English language–politicians were also a threat to life and limb.

Most observers blamed the guns in the hands of various groups as well as individuals for the violence of Philippine politics. Every Philippine election inevitably provoked a rack of articles by foreign journalists on “Asia’s Wild West,” where restaurants, bars and other public places prominently displayed signs asking patrons to “deposit your firearms here.” The point of these articles was that you couldn’t expect peaceful elections in a country where practically everyone was armed, and home- grown gunsmiths made the illegal manufacture of guns a thriving cottage industry.

But the guns were only among the reasons. The vast opportunities for enriching one’s self that being a congressman offered was certainly what made the risks worthwhile. There were also the perks of power, among them the sense, while being driven in a convoy of vehicles with sirens blaring, that one was the master rather than the servant of the people. The machismo culture also helped. Shooting it out in the streets was as much a matter of proving one’s manhood as it was about showing the voters whose name they should write on their ballots.

Martial law put an end to all that. Marcos abolished Congress and confiscated the guns, thus making himself the country’s only warlord, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines serving as his private army. An occasional assassination, among them one in the Vigan Cathedral, was enough to whip the stubborn into line. Marcos did allow elections to the parliament he cooked up. But since the results were a foregone conclusion, there was hardly any occasion nor need for pre-1972 violence.

The overthrow of Marcos in 1986 meant the temporary return of elections not as closely scripted, and with it, the possibility of renewed violence as a new president under military threat assumed power. The concentration of power in Malacanang crumbled further when congressional elections were held, in effect reestablishing warlord power in communities still ruled by kinship and the patron-client relationship inherent in the land tenancy system. Today congressional districts are virtual fiefdoms over which the president wields some control only through the power of the purse, among them the disbursement of pork barrel funds.

The return of pre-martial law political violence has been proceeding apace, the casualties prior to, during and after elections having steadily risen since 1987. But it does seem that the May elections will be particularly violent. Among the reasons is the fatally flawed character of the Arroyo regime.

Concerned solely with political survival at whatever cost, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has chosen to surrender whatever oversight she has over the police and the military. These institutions are crucial to keeping warring factions apart. A president more certain of police and military support could use them for that purpose, by holding the police to their primary responsibility of enforcing the law rather than taking sides in local political conflicts. The military a stronger president with a clear mandate would not be afraid to use to maintain order in those critical areas an independent Commission on Elections would identify.

Both institutions as well as the Comelec not only have to be nonpartisan and to do their respective duties; they also have to be so perceived. This has become impossible with Mrs. Arroyo’s determined use of these institutions to assure her political survival.

This means that she has to assure as well her coalition’s dominance in the May 2007 elections–assuming there will be elections. That agenda is known to every politician worthy of the name. Among other consequences, that awareness will trigger efforts among many politicos to prevent administration candidates from using the advantage of incumbency and identification with the Arroyo regime. Some administration candidates, confident that they can get away with it, are also likely to use violence against their rivals.

But the sense that they can get away with it is the major factor feeding actual and potential violence. “The culture of impunity” is the phrase media groups use to describe the non-prosecution of the killers of journalists, but is also aptly used to describe the unpunished killing of political activists. The non-prosecution of the assassins of journalists and political activists certainly has a lesson to impart to this country’s unreformed and incorrigible politicians. That lesson is simple enough: We can get away with it, what are we in power for? It’s déjà vu, but with a difference.

(Business Mirror)

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