Real-Politik: Pinoy Style
by: Ruby Lavarias
Ever heard of the matsing (monkey) series of tales regarding politics in the Philippines? Try this one: One tale tells of a vehicular accident that happened in one of our expressways in Manila. The accident involved a family. The car was a total wreck. All the members of this family died and the lone survivor was their pet monkey. During the investigation, the police investigator found that the monkey was capable of answering his inquiries. He asked the monkey, “What were the adults in the car doing?” The monkey gestured that they were quarreling. Then he followed up with, “What were their children doing?” He gestured that they were also quarreling. Then finally the policeman inquired “What were you doing” Then the monkey gestured that he was at the stirring wheel driving the car. Hilarious or tragic?
This satire brings us to the reality that incompetent leadership is always disastrous. And often we tend to overlook the possibility of this happening in our own nation. We have had elections after the so-called restoration of democracy in 1986 but we have continued on with the traditional brand of elections that is based on popularity and money, giving rise to governments that only know of power and wealth, and not power for service.
Why hasn’t the experience of two people powers changed the structure of leadership in the Philippines? What is it in our culture of leadership and politics that renders the so-called democratic process ineffectual?
Our political culture cannot be separated from our history as a people. Our history of colonization has left an indelible impact on the nature, character and dynamics of our political system.
Historically, the Spanish colonization aborted our indigenous development as a nation. They stirred up wars between Christianized Filipinos and Muslims, the impact of which we still experience up to the present. They also institutionalized a highly centralized unitary form of government, thus establishing power in ‘Imperial Manila’.
The American colonial rule, on the other hand, brought us the concept of elections, party system, an independent judiciary and a professional civil service. Although they introduced the concept of political participation as a process of training Filipinos for self- governance, the privilege of suffrage was limited to those who had held office under the Spaniards, the educated class and the propertied class.
This would explain why our party system only strengthened the political hold of dominant landed families which had used our quasi-feudal strategies such as political patronage to gain electoral following. Parties depended on wealth and personal loyalty of followers rather than on principles and interests. The observation that wealth and power go together, and in fact complement and reinforce each other is validated in the history of the Philippine legislature.
Pinoy Politics Is About Personal Relationship
The patron-client mode of relationship dominates the agricultural economy where landlords dispense favors, and the workers reciprocate through services and loyalty. The relationship, which originated as a social custom, crossed over into politics and became entrenched there. Allegiance to kinsmen and political leaders became depended largely upon utang na loob (debt of gratitude) arising from the ability of the patron to bestow benefits upon his sakop (people within his turf). And so, local clans became the regional kingdoms which later developed into political dynasties.
The reason why the Anti-Dynasty bill has not been passed into law is the composition of our legislature itself. Its members are dominantly from political clans. An in-depth study of the composition of the 9th Congress showed that more than two-thirds of the members of the House came from families who have held public office and maintained political influence for at least one generation. One out of every three representatives comes from a family that has been in power through several generations despite changes in presidents and regimes. Indeed, politics in the Philippines is an “all in the family” affair. It is this phenomenon that makes the distribution of power less than ideal.
Our patron-client system would explain why a Filipino would approach political life in terms of personal relationships that are expected to yield benefits to him or his own family rather than a political culture oriented towards creating a leadership structure that would be for common welfare.
Pinoy Politics Is About Money and Machinery
Coupled with patronage politics is the reality of an elitist politics. As the clients, people tend to gravitate towards the elite in the community for economic and personal benefits. For a candidate to win in Philippine elections, he or she must have the money and the machinery. The character of our elections today is reminiscent of the election of 1946. Vying for the position of President at that time were Sergio Osmena and Manuel Roxas. Historian Teodoro Agoncillo described the characteristics of the two presidential candidates:
Several factors favored Roxas. On the positive side, he was younger, a go-getter, brilliant, an effective orator, and backed up by General MacArthur and Mrs. Aurora Quezon, the late President’s wife. On the negative side, Osmena was a passive man who, many people believe, was ‘too slow’ in the face of a natural crisis. Moreover, he refused to go out to campaign and satisfied himself with saying that the people knew his forty years of honest and faithful service to the country. The people of course knew all this, but they missed the magic of his personality in numerous meetings throughout the country, while on the other hand, they were transfixed (by) the fiery oratory of Roxas who promised to bring heaven to earth. The people who had enough of the hardships suffered during the Japanese occupation, refused to heed the warnings of the pro-Osmena camp that Roxas was a collaborationist and should, therefore, not be elected.
Agoncillo’s account vividly manifested the importance of visibility and support of prominent personalities in winning the elections. But for one to be able to travel around the seven thousand one hundred islands of the country, one must have the logistics as well as the money.
Elections in the Philippines have been money-based. This is why ideologically-based parties like the Partido ng Bayan could not win political power in the 1987 Elections. They simply were unable to match the financial resources of the other parties.
Politics and Pinoy Entrepreneurship
Politics in the Philippines is also a politics of opportunism. The electorate takes advantage of the election period to sell their votes to the highest bidder. Businessmen vote for candidates they believe have high probability in winning an election in exchange for contracts and similar favors beneficial to their business. Civic organizations and churches take the chance to ask donation and favors from candidates in exchange for votes. Small businesses such as art signs and printing presses make windfall profits through contracts that furnish individual candidates with campaign gimmicks like t-shirts, stickers, tarpaulins, calendars, and these days, use of social media.
The Bottom Line is the Person and his Charisma
Our politics is also personality-oriented. This is because Filipinos are also very personal and relational. Like in 1946, people could not identify with Osmeña, simply because he was ‘faceless’. People could not simply identify with his good track record. They needed to see him and hear him speak.
We have the common perception that a leader should be endowed with characteristics and traits like courage, influence, prestige, economic power, political astuteness, oratorical skills and social privilege. Leadership is often equated with “hero worship” or the Robin Hood appeal. Leaders are transactional in their relationship, wherein the electorate endows a candidate with legitimacy because of his ability to produce tangible benefits for them. Gloria Arroyo’s “pagkain sa masa” slogan during the vice-presidential race in 1998 was a very tangible offer of food sufficiency. This was also the reason why Roxas’ promises, though unachievable, appealed to the people. It was an alternative to the scarcity they were experiencing at that time.
Apart from the enticing offers of candidates, they should also possess the quality of being inspiring. For Filipinos, leaders must be able to articulate and personify the hopes and aspirations of the people. He or she must be able to impart meaning to the actions and sufferings of the masses. Estrada’s Asiong Salonga packaging and the Erap Para sa Mahirap slogan appealed to the sentiments of the masses. It worked for him, and many of our people still believe in this image.
Similarly, Rodrigo Duterte’s tough-guy image, and his kalye language, seems to connect with those who are sick of elitist politics and have no use for the niceties of polite society.
Above all, a leader must be charismatic. He or she must be able to satisfy the psychological needs of the people. This would explain why movie actors, actresses, broadcasters, basketball players and comedians are elected to public office. Above all, the leader is an ‘idol.’
Realpolitik in the Philippines is not about choosing the best leader who will work for the common good. For most of us, election is not about choices. It is more of a fiesta, an occasion for merry-making, profit-making, and, for the poor, an opportunity for income generation. Decades of experience in elections would show that while our politics need to be transformed, to change the mind-set that has operated since the 1946 election seems nearly impossible. But there is hope.
Today, as we make choices in the coming May elections, we have an opportunity to maximize the tools and technologies available to us to make our opinions known and our votes count for a new era in our politics. If not, we will just continue to have monkeys in control of our lives.
Ruby Lavarias is a UP-trained community development organizer and used to be Program Manager in ISACC. She now resides in the US.