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.

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