Friday, December 18, 2009

Popular Culture and Elections

An election is not only regarded as a legitimate way to choose a political leader in the Philippines but also enjoyed as a spectator sport or a game of chance. The popularity of the game of chance as an activity and symbol is linked to the folk belief that life itself is an adventure or a risky undertaking: Ang buhay ay isang pakikipagsapalaran. Thus, for many of those who want to become overseas Filipino workers, the desire for adventure comes as a close second to the desire for economic improvement. They might have grown tired, too, of the age-old adventure of life on these islands with its generous share of sunshine, rain, typhoons, volcanoes, earthquake faults, floods, flawed laws, and flawed officials. There are few places on earth where all these can happen in a year: the sun dries the rice, lava snaps trees, ash falls and pours, storms level homes, waves and floods drown, and laws catch only small fish and flies but no crocodiles.

Popular culture has to be taken into account by those who want to become elective public servants in a democracy. Popular culture comprises traditions, expressions, and sentiments “common to the general public that in the Philippines is the Filipino masa” (Felice P. Sta. Maria). Multi-awarded journalist Sheila Coronel wrote in a 2004 PCIJ study on lawmakers: “Those who rule must be able to clothe their power with the cloak of legitimacy by tapping into popular belief or ideology. The most successful political families have been able to do this” (The Rulemakers, 84).

An example is the Payumo family, which has ruled the town of Dinalupihan, Bataan, after the ouster of the Marcoses in 1986. Its most prominent member is Felicito ‘Tong’ Payumo, an engineer-industrialist who became a three-term member of the House of Representatives from the Eighth to the Tenth Congress, before he became chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority for six years. Like many successful politicians, he has used expressions that resonate with the masses.

For instance, in a miting de avance in San Isidro village, Dinalupihan, during the 1992 electoral campaign, Payumo asked the crowd to vote for his team of candidates para tuloy-tuloy ang daloy ng biyaya mula sa itaas hanggang sa baba (so that grace will flow freely from high above to down below). “Biyaya” is a Tagalog term used in both official and popular religion to refer to grace as a gift or help from God, who is usually pictured as dwelling in the heavens above. It is also widely believed that the gift or help reaches the recipient through a mediator like a patron saint. Payumo also referred to Lucy, his sister-in-law, then the mayor running for re-election, as a mother not only to her children, but to her constituents as well.

In January 2007, boxing legend Manny Pacquiao announced over national television that he would run for Congressman of the 1st District of South Cotabato, which includes his hometown of General Santos City, “upang maging tulay” (to serve as a bridge) to link the poor of his district with the national government in Metro-Manila. He lost to the 2nd-term incumbent, Darlene Antonino Custodio, a member of the Antonino political dynasty of South Cotabato and whose father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother had been members of Congress.

In general, the cultural tendency of the masses to seek mediators, patrons, and parent-like authority figures is understood better by traditional politicians and members of political dynasties than by reform-minded citizens out to challenge them. Similarly, according to Joel Rocamora, “those who exploit the peasantry are more adept at the rituals and the languages of peasant communities than those who would defend them.”

A sufficient grasp of popular culture, which is part of the intangible heritage passed on within a political dynasty, helps ensure electoral victory, besides the considerable resources of the dynasty to maintain a patronage system. As they are raised and socialized, the offspring of political clans become familiar with the language and practices of the prevalent political culture, and they “get used to a retinue of followers and to entertaining ward leaders and favor seekers” (Rulemakers, 59).

In some locales, dynasties allocate resources for bribing election personnel and hiring goons to intimidate voters and inflict violence on opponents. Perhaps unlike the phenomenon of warlords or brutish bosses among some governors and mayors, the PCIJ study on legislators says: “the so-called warlords in Congress, politicians who keep armed goons and terrorize their constituents, have largely died out” (Rulemakers, 48).

For example, the descendants of Ramon Durano Sr. of Danao City in Cebu, and Ali Dimaporo of the Lanao provinces, specifically Tourism Secretary ‘Ace’ Durano and Lanao del Norte Representative Abdullah Dimaporo, have cosmopolitan manners and high educational credentials and have gone beyond the crude coercive ways of their fathers. “In part, this is because they did not have to muscle their way to power as their fathers and grandfathers did. The descendants inherited the political base and the electoral machine put in place by their fathers.” (Rulemakers, 48)

While congressional warlords are mostly gone, the reality of political dynasties is not on the verge of dying out, as this description from the same PCIJ study shows:

“In the Eighth Congress, the first post-Marcos legislature, 61 percent or 122 of 198 representatives were from political clans….In the 12th Congress, which was elected in 2001, 61 percent or 140 of 228 representatives came from political clans. In the 11th House, it was 62 percent. If the percentages are computed without the party-list representatives, however, the numbers increase to 65 percent for the 11th House and 66 percent for the 12th.” (Rulemakers, 47)

In my review of the 216 single-district representatives of the House in the 14th Congress, a sizeable 69 percent, or 150 representatives, are from political clans.

Dynasties can spend so much to keep themselves in power. Says PCIJ: “A congressional campaign in 2004, according to campaign insiders, can cost up to P30 million in Metro Manila. In rural areas, the price tag is much less: P10 million on average, although campaigns can be run for P3 million or less in smaller districts where the competition is not too intense.” (Rulemakers, 86) In this light, reform-oriented citizens who are not members of political clans find the pursuit of an elective office difficult, distasteful, and demoralizing; thus, many of them become cynical about Philippine elections, politics, and democracy, and surrender electoral politics to traditional politicians by default.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

State and Family in the Philippines

To Alfred McCoy, a historian and observer of Philippine politics, our republic is a “weak post-colonial state” where “the interaction between powerful rent-seeking families and a correspondingly weak Philippine state has been synergistic” (An Anarchy of Families, 19). This essentially means that these families and their rivalries have been both cause and effect of our weak State.

Over the years, beginning with the 1907 Philippine Assembly elections under the tutelage of the United States, members of provincial families who have risen to national offices have used their positions to obtain “rents” or economic values through government regulations, permits, or low-interest loans that give their families an artificial advantage, special access, or even a monopoly over the markets of goods like sugar and copra, and services like banking and broadcasting.

The Lopezes of Iloilo, for example, have shown how business and politics can mix and feed off each other. In the period between World War II and the Marcos dictatorship, Eugenio Lopez Sr (1901-1975) became a successful entrepreneur who controlled several large corporations including the Manila Electric Company and ABS-CBN, among the nation’s top broadcasting networks. His brother Fernando (1904-1993) became mayor of Iloilo City, a senator, and then vice-president for three terms.

“Fernando’s political success afforded Eugenio access to government contracts for his business concerns. Indeed, this symbiosis of political influence and corporate growth was a key factor in Eugenio’s spectacular rise from provincial bus operator to the Philippines’ most powerful entrepreneur in only a quarter of a century.” (Anarchy of Families, 447)

This practice of rent-seeking that has persisted to this day has decreased public resources, degraded the political impartiality of the civil service, and diminished accountability, competence, and efficiency among public officials and employees. Whether rich or poor, families in the Philippines are clannish and tend to give greater premium to family loyalty than patriotism. As a result, “we imagine ourselves foremost as brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of our families instead of as citizens of a nation” (Arnold Alamon).

Compared to family and friends, government, especially at the national level, is remote and distant to many of the rural and urban poor. Even when national officials happen to be honest and efficient, kith and kin are nearer, dearer, and more reliable when it comes to fulfilling one’s needs and wants. The kinship network is relied upon for employment, money, medical help, education, and socialization, among others, especially in hard times.

More importantly, according to McCoy, the family strives to pass on to the next generation its “name, honor, lands, capital, and values.” The kinship network even expands to include acquaintances, peers, and superiors with whom one can be bound through rituals of initiation like baptism with its potentially numerous sponsors, kumpares and kumares.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Democracy and the Catholic Church in the Philippines

A major cause of the weak sense of nationhood among many Filipinos is the historical connection between the Roman Catholic Church, the country’s dominant religious institution, and the colonial powers. To both the political and religious rulers of Spain, it was important that the Philippine Islands, named after the absolute monarch Philip II (1556-1598), be colonized and evangelized at the same time. The Spanish missionaries and friars blessed and legitimized the colonial enterprise. In turn, the colonial Church gained from the Spanish crown martial protection, support for its missionary efforts, resources for constructing churches, control over colonial education, and large estates from which much wealth was derived.

Spanish Catholicism was accepted by the natives partly because it reaffirmed their belief in the necessity of intermediaries in bridging the distance to the supreme deity. The primary structure of intermediation was maintained even though functional substitutions occurred: the saints and angels replaced the ancestral spirits or anitos, while the Catholic priest replaced the native shaman or babaylan. Thus, from the colonial period down to our times, most priests, ordinary devotees, and their popular devotions highlight the powers of the mother of Jesus and the saints as patrons, intercessors, or intermediaries more than their virtues of courage, wisdom, justice, and integrity.

Bishops tend to give great importance to intermediary power and undemocratic hierarchical authority partly because of their inherent duty to be guardians of the Roman Catholic tradition. Conservative pastors predominate in an institution that asserts the apostolic authority of the bishops and the primacy of the Pope. Yet there have been turning points and conjunctions in the history of the Church when, even for brief periods, the Church became both conservative and radical. Locally, one such turning point was the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) in 1991.

With the participation of selected priests, religious, and lay leaders, the bishops at PCP II asserted that, for genuine and lasting social transformation, “people empowerment” is necessary—implying “greater involvement in decision-making, greater equality in both political and economic matters, more democracy, and more participation” (PCP II Conciliar Document nos. 325-326). Nearly two decades after PCP II, however, it remains unclear to what extent the hierarchical Church is a genuine democratizing force in society.

Today, the hierarchy remains undemocratic in that its members—the clergy—are selected in a process with little participation from the laity, who form the great majority in the Church. Also, the clergy tend to be secretive about the assets and liabilities of dioceses, religious institutes, their schools, and their hospitals. Likewise, some Church organizations do not practice what is preached about the dignity of human work and the rights of workers to just remuneration and to “participative management” in which workers are involved in decision-making.

While the Church decrees that “bishops, priests, and religious must refrain from partisan politics” (PCP Decrees Art. 28 #2), and teaches that the laity, and not the clergy, ought to be at the forefront of the task to renew the political community in accordance with gospel values, some high-profile clerics and religious exempt themselves from these precepts. The late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin (1928-2005) had been criticized for sometimes acting more like a political power broker than a prudent moral teacher. To journalist and public relations practitioner Ramon Isberto, the Cardinal “always appeared to relish his role as mediator, go-between, and king maker or unmaker.”

In December 2006, Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias publicly called on soldiers “to defend the Constitution” by joining the “prayer rally” against Charter Change to be held at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila, and organized mainly by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. By issuing mostly moralistic or morally judgmental statements against the proponents of Charter Change, several bishops have not helped clarify the complex and muddled issue of the strengths and weaknesses of the 1987 Constitution.

Both Church and State have contributed to the weakness of democracy and patriotism in the country. As sociologist Arnold Alamon puts it: “The State and religion, the two institutions whose primary function is to forge social solidarity, have repeatedly failed in this task owing to their colonial origins. Instead, we continue to draw our moral identities from our clan memberships which served as our pre-colonial moral and political communities.”