Illusions

Standard

The results of the May 14 elections–and they’re likely to be the voters’ surprise of the decade– will not be known until weeks from now. But what’s certain is that they were primarily a contest between the administration and opposition coalitions. Except in rare cases at the local level, the candidates of smaller parties and groups won’t make it to the corridors of power. As representative as they were of the frustrations and hopes of the middle class, the candidates of the tiny Kapatiran Party didn’t stand a chance.

Philippine politics is about money, organization and name recall, with generous helpings of intimidation, bribery and fraud. The key element in all these is money, whether the candidates’ and their parties’– or, what’s more usually the case, that of the taxpayers, to which those in power now have limitless access.

Excluding the costs of vote-buying and the hiring of thugs to intimidate voters, candidates for local office (councilors, mayors, governors, provincial boards and congressmen) could spend up to P30 million to cover the cost of posters, flyers, sample ballots, and media ads. This does not include the cost of transportation, food and allowances for poll watchers. Those running for national office can spend hundreds of millions on “a credible campaign,” while going for the presidency now costs billions.

These figures don’t include funds diverted from government coffers. In 2004, one NGO estimated that the Arroyo campaign had cost P15 billion more than what it reported, if costs such as the hiring of street sweepers with Mrs. Arroyo’s name emblazoned on their t- shirt chests, the erection of multicolored billboards with her face on them, and the distribution of PhilHealth cards among others were to be tallied. But the cost to the taxpayers may never be known.

Money and lots of it in the form of disposable government funds is also the key factor in police and military involvement in elections, whether as bribes for police and military officers at the local level, or, at the national level–and as has become specially pronounced during the Arroyo reign– in the form of continuing and promised largesse for the corrupt police and military bureaucrats charged with insuring order and defending democracy in this vale of tears.

The “machinery” the Arroyo regime has shamelessly boasted will make a 12-0 regime sweep in the senatorial elections inevitable through “command votes” is similarly sustained by taxpayer money. Name recall, which used to be the media celebrities’ edge over the entrenched political families, is easily gained through media exposure via costly TV ads as well as bought-and-paid-for media hacks who, for a fee, will guarantee prominent mention in a news story on the front page, or an interview in a radio talk show.

The result is the dominance of money politics, the corruption that has metastasized throughout the entire political system, and a singular focus on keeping things the way they are. The most formidable obstacle to reform is Philippine politics as an enterprise in which only the very wealthy, the very corrupt, the already powerful, or those who’re all three, can ever hope to win the political power that could drive democratization, mitigate poverty, and jump-start the development the country needs.

Winning power is of course the precondition for the realization of platforms of government. Since 1946, however, among the putrid gang of politicians this country has spawned, winning power hasn’t been the precondition for anything except the opportunity to plunder the treasury–and to remain in power to continue doing so.

Into the fetid swamp of Philippine politics 2007 stepped Zosimo Paredes, Martin D. Bautista and Adrian O. Sison as candidates for senator of Ang Kapatiran (The Brotherhood). Although armed with such sterling elite credentials they could pass for members of the US’ Skull and Bones, in a laboriously constructed platform Paredes et.al. claimed that they were for the poor and underprivileged.

The same platform declared the party as committed to “putting God at the center of politics.” It pledged a host of initiatives that included “reorient[ing] mass media towards fostering values that contribute to the formation of national commitment that is maka-Diyos (pro-God), maka-bayan (pro-country), and maka-tao (pro-people).”

For all the enthusiasm it generated among civil society types, the Kapatiran platform was no different from those of individual candidates from the established parties who have made the same pledges to end violence, promote development, protect the environment, etc., etc., the only difference being Kapatiran’s micro-management pledge to ban fraternity initiations, gambling and guns; censor movies, television, and other media including bill boards; and ban “pro-gun stickers” and gun exhibits, and even tinted car windows!

There is nothing wrong with these motherhood pledges except those which come dangerously close to a promise to suppress free expression and press freedom in the mistaken (and so middle-class) belief that it’s the ticket to cleansing the country of the corruption and moral decay that’s ruining it. But what made the Kapatiran platform so dismissible was not that no one could argue with much of it. It was the sense that only a miracle could put its candidates in the Senate.

But even such a miracle would not have guaranteed that Paredes et.al. would then have been able to implement their God, motherhood and country platform, which in the first place suffers from the fatal flaw of not being based on any coherent analysis of Philippine society.

As serious a flaw as that was, there’s also the fact it’s not just one or two or three well meaning crusaders’ winning seats in the Senate that could begin the vast changes–whether it’s to put God at the center of politics or to put human beings at the core of governance–this country so desperately needs. For that one needs to elect a legion of reformists–in short, a political party with a mass following armed with a credible analysis of the state of this country and a plan on how to address its problems.

The electoral system, which makes money the critical–and often, the only–factor in winning power, makes the election of reformists in sufficiently large numbers impossible, which is why the first priority in this country is to reform the way we conduct elections. Dismantling the Commission on Elections would be a good start. It will take some doing. But it’s in the doing that real reform in this country can even begin to be possible. Everything else is either naïve, an illusion, or worse, a cruel deception.

(BusinessWorld)

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