WHAT’S A Philippine election for that one should once more be inflicted on us?

It’s certainly not so the citizenry can elect new leaders–or even remotely better ones, that possibility being nil with the dominance of a handful of dynasties over the political system. Neither is it so the political system can demonstrate how peaceably power is won, and the validity of Philippine democracy re-affirmed. As occasions for violence and for ringing in the same old leaders and the same old policies, elections demonstrate how damaged democracy is in this country.

The 2013 election season was practically inaugurated by incidents of violence shocking even for these murderous isles. As if to underline how much a condition of existence blood and gore and plain stupidity have become, the new year was ushered in by the usual reports of people maimed by firecrackers and killed by stray bullets, among the incidents of which was the death of a child in a Caloocan City neighborhood where, apparently, idiots had either been allowed legal access to guns, or had managed to get their hands on them through the many ways the mindless of all classes, sexes and sizes manage to indulge their fantasies.

The trigger-happy and corrupt among the police and the military have no such fantasies: their legal monopoly over the violence their guns represent is quite simply part of their reality, as was amply demonstrated in that police-versus-police ambush in Atimonan, Quezon, when to describe what hit two SUVs and killed 13 people as a hail of bullets would be an understatement.

If police and military people can pack pistols and be photographed with Presidents firing them, among the poor and powerless, owning even the semblance of one is pure fantasy, the power guns represent in this archipelago of violence being what eludes them most. (Practically part of the furniture in every gun store in this country is a group of men who can’t afford any of the weapons displayed, but who spend entire afternoons in the vicinity, drooling over guns as both symbol of, and means to, that most absolute of all powers, the power of life or death.)

That of course is what the near-universal obsession with guns in this damaged society and that other gun-obsessed country, the United States, is all about: about power and about the lack of it. The obsession with guns and the consequent epidemic of shooting deaths in the US is qualitatively different from the Philippine obsession in that the former’s a power over others, while the latter is one of those over whom it has power. In the former it’s an expression of the dominance over the rest of the world 55 million gun-owning Americans see as their peculiar mandate. In this country it’s an expression of the wish for and the reality of power over others: over one’s neighbor at least, or for the politicians, over the entire country.

The powerful wield guns legally in this country, while the powerless don’t. In the gun-possession as in most other issues in these isles, class divisions rule, and common folk are covered by so-called gun bans which have never prevented killings during election seasons, while their rulers, from the President and Vice President to members of the Cabinet to senators and congressmen, aren’t.

Warlord and tyrant guns rather than public will decide elections most at the local level. But at every level of Philippine society, they also decide which factions, whether among politicians, the police or the military, will prevail at any given time in the division of the spoils of corruption and crime.
Most of all do guns keep the poor and powerless at bay, and the already wealthy and powerful wealthier and in power. Guns are thus absolute necessities in preventing any change in the ruling system, most specially by preventing the marginalized, the voiceless, the poor and the powerless from ever taking power. Guns are also the chosen means of resolving disputes among politicos from families that not only eventually reconcile, they’re even related to each other.

The violence among individual politicians and political families does demonstrate differences, if only of the superficial, though often deadly, kind. These are not differences in ideology or policy, but over who’s going to be in power or not–which question decides who will have the better and the more lucrative access to public funds.

This is the context in which Philippine elections have been held since 1947 and in which elections 2013 will take place. It is a culture of violence the politicians and their police and military accomplices have encouraged through example, and for which they are also directly responsible.

At some point limited as a way of life mostly to the political class and its armies of goons, the culture of violence has metastasized throughout Philippine society and has become the ruling condition of existence in it. Violence is the inevitable means of resolving the littlest dispute, and the first resort in addressing large ones in both city and countryside.

The result is a crime rate that annually falls only in the imagination of the police and other so-called “law enforcement agencies.” Even among these creatures, shootings with government-issued firearms when that’s convenient and with loose firearms when necessary to resolve disputes over territory, or the division of the spoils from the drug trade or “jueteng,” occur so frequently they have become the new normal.

A gun ban is in place for the 2013 elections, and a total gun ban has been proposed to halt the country’s slide into violence. The first has never prevented election-related killings, the ban on the carrying of firearms being usually observed by those who have the licenses and permits for them, and the politicians’ goons usually having the political clout to keep on carrying them. On the other hand, the criminals–whether from the police and military or the civilian population–have the means to acquire and conceal them as well as the audacity to use them.

The hundreds of thousands of loose firearms in this country–the consequence of equally loose enforcement of the gun-possession laws–constitute an arsenal that will continue to be the source of gun-related violence unless the police undertake a sustained, nationwide and no-exception effort beyond the issuance of glowing press releases. It is the primary condition that can make a total gun ban successful, but it is also the one thing they cannot and will not do, among other reasons because the politicians’ goon squads–which often include the police and the military–need those guns, and need them most during election season.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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