by Dr. Irineo G. Alvaro Jr.

In my last article, I painted a picture of the political landscape and what its ills were like a generation ago. I also wrote that the picture still worryingly resembles the landscape we have before us today, albeit startlingly worse.

That was the easy part; showing that something is deeply wrong with our country’s politics, how the problems are so entrenched in our national psyche, and how the next generation is not spared from its clutches. That wasn’t a difficult picture to paint. Now comes the hard part. Now comes the part where we’ll try to answer the question “So what?” Well, here’s what we’ve learned so far:

The Golden Rule of Local Politics

 “He who has the gold rules and he who rules gets more gold.” The maxim of traditional politics today is that power begets power and more power yields most power.

Filipino political tradition dictates that once an official is elected, the people begin to see him as a Messiah, the long-awaited savior to save them from their present woes. Once the candidate assumes the position, most people begin to regard him as the “high and the mighty.” This perceived ascension in rank and power paves the way in dichotomizing the relationship between the politician and the voters. The elected official is the new patron that one can rely upon, based on his “generosity” and capacity as a person in power.  Thus, patronage relationship begins.

Most of the time, constituencies would rely on their personal attachment or pre-election kinship with the politician in power for their needs, rather than using the established government system. Thus the relationship of the governor and the governed slowly evolves into a personal relationship, rather than a political relationship.

Describing this new found norm was a literary work of the late NVM Gonzalez’ “The Tyranny of False Values:” When a government man is given a choice position based not upon the degree of merit according to the civil service system but according to the Kumpadre system”.  The established government processes, the procedures, the policies are all useless once the governed is allowed to cut corners.

Catching the Virus of Individualism

The respected former Senator Nene Pimentel once said “… the politician may be adept at explaining that he is seeking power for the benefit of the people, but when he is in power, he alienates from the general good and concentrates his effort in promoting his private good.”

An explanation to this shift in intention can be traced on the pre-election activities of the politicians. Even before the start of the campaign period, politicians had already invested so much. Once the politician openly signifies his intention to run, he will automatically be swamped by people asking for personal favors and some palliative answers to their present problems. This is of course in exchange for  initial commitment of their vote in the coming elections.

It becomes a natural thing then that he who has a lot to offer becomes the most popular and normally gets elected. When the elected official assumes power, he wouldn’t care less about implementing whatever programs he committed to, if at all, simply because he already bought the people.  Simply because the votes given to him were pre-paid.

I can vividly recall, in one council meeting, a barangay captain chanced upon the newly elected congressman. In a light jest, he reminded the lawmaker of his “utang” or commitment to him to donate money in his barangay fiesta.  He received a swift rebuke from the congressman: “Kapitan wala akong utang sa iyo, bayad ka na noong kampanya ko” (Captain, I owe you nothing, you have been prepaid during my campaign) .

This particular issue of candidates buying leaders became more prominent when the Commission of Elections ( COMELEC ) adjusted the filing of candidacy to six (6) months before election day. This indirectly gave the wealthy candidates greater chances of winning as the longer the gap from the election date, the better for those who have a lot to give and offer.

With this kind of trend or reality, the  immediate focus of the winning politician who had spent so much to get the position is to recover his huge campaign expenses, rather than doing his job.  This is the fertile ground for corruption. A popular political joke fittingly describes this, “the term of office  is only 3 years, thus  the first year is the ‘adjustment period’, the second year is the ‘learning period’ and the third year is the election period. The politician therefore always end up doing nothing for this constituency in the whole term, making his entire term as an “earning period” in preparation for the next elections.

The Many Faces of Vote Buying

Vote-buying schemes in the early times exist with a semblance of discreteness and under cloth of secrecy. Vote buying in the past maybe direct but unobtrusive and quiet.

Today, vote buying is open, bold and brazenly conducted in-your-face. It is no longer limited to the direct act of giving money to the voter in exchange of votes. Vote buying had transformed into many forms. The sad thing about it is that it is viewed now by many as morally and legally permissible. Here are some innovative forms of vote buying:

  1. An acceptable practice for the younger electorate is the provision by the trapo candidate of temporary favors before and during the campaign period in the form of donations, e,g, athletic tourneys, sponsorships in various youth summer activities like discos, parties, summer camps, etc. For others, funeral support for an unknown dead; materials or equipment donations (even churches are not spared of this practice); relief goods and rehabilitation projects even in the absence of calamity and other similar acts;
  • Temporary Employments in the form of salaried leaders from the barangays to the  streets, down to the precincts, including paid ushers and usherettes to ensure loyalty during the elections and similar innovative assistance in the guise of employment;
  • Providing identification cards, insurance and other paraphernalia that will serve as a “rain check” for future use;
  • A “No Vote”  purchase.  This is normally applied to impoverished electorate who are known to be critical to the trapo and most likely to support the other candidate. One scheme is to pay them during the election day provided that they will not go to the polling place , instead proceed to a discreet location to have their index fingers are smeared with indelible ink.  Another “no vote” practice is by providing free tours outside the area with complete amenities like food and pocket money scheduled in the early morning of the election day. The free tour or “picnic” in a local tourist destination is to make sure that the families will be incapable of voting for his opponent during the election day. And as a last resort, the use of the traditional guns and goons  to assure that the targeted voters will be intimidated from going out during the election day, preventing them from voting against the trapo.
  • Bank payments through “ATM” cards. This is a new and discreet payment scheme to buy votes. Money is deposited to the bank card of the voter to be withdrawn on a  scheduled period.

There are other many more forms of payment to assure the votes are sealed in favor of the moneyed. As a result those who have lots of money to dole out win.  Meantime, those who had allowed themselves to become part of the vote-buying schemes are entrapped and become prey of patronage politics; victims of quid pro quo of temporary favors. A circle that has no end.

Partylist Abuse

As provided for by the 1987 Constitution, Republic Act No. 7941 or Party List Act was passed on March 3, 1995 providing for the “election of party list representatives from marginalized and under-represented sectors who lack well-defined political constituencies but could contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation that will benefit the nation as a whole, to become members of the House of Representatives.” Party Lists are allotted 20 percent of the total number of seats in the House of Representatives.

The party list system, during its early stages, allowed the election of representatives from farmers groups, workers, women, youth, the indigenous peoples, and even the Left. However, after only two elections, the system has been invaded by the trapos, including dynasts belonging to traditional political families.

Today, except for a handful, most of the party list members of Congress are actually trapos, who took advantage of the flaws and weaknesses of RA 7941. In fact, the party list bloc in Congress now is led by the richest member of the House of Representatives who has a net worth of P7.9 billion, and the bloc has been engaged in the usual games of trapos, such as political horse trading and power brokering and dealing. Those who truly represent the marginalized sectors have been marginalized as well and effectively edged out.

Over time, the party list elections have  been dominated by former mayors, governors, congressmen and even government officials whose objective is to broaden the congressional support to the sitting President. The party list system only served to perpetrate patronage politics in the Philippines, instead of giving representation to sectors which have no chance of getting elected under the prevailing political and electoral regime.

What is to be done?

Patronage politics has become an ailment that has deeply damaged Philippine society.  The Philippine electoral system became the playground of trapos, who had converted the government into a recycling plant to propagate and perpetuate their class.  The system only yielded a disgusting breed of political shenanigans who pulls the government back to the age of Neanderthals, an who have successfully produced bureaucratic termites who are slowly devouring the foundations of the societal and political system they are supposed to protect and nurture.

But somehow, we must do something to arrest the spread of this deadly virus.

There is a need for a national soul-searching to take a serious look at the whole political practice. There is a need for the people to change their attitude on the electoral exercise, and realize that the problem of patronage is beginning to be embedded even in the minds of and accepted by the younger generation.  

In one of our sorties when I was still in local politics, I heard a nine year old lad saying: “Inay iboto mo iyong mayor na nagbibigay ng kendi.” In another occasion, an 18 year-old student told one of our “artista” looking candidate, “Iboboto kita dahil pogi ka.” These are glaring manifestations that the future generation is beginning to be afflicted by the virus of patronage politics.

However, it is not too late to prepare and apply the antidote. But it is now imperative that some immediate measures be done to stop or at least minimize the problem:

  1. Tapping social media

Social media is now part of peoples lives. Try to leave without your cellphone or communication gadget  you will feel incomplete. Internet technology has become the umbilical cord that connects us to the universe of all the knowledge mankind has amassed since the dawn of civilization, including those relating to politics. In fact, social media has become a most important political tool and weapon that can win or lose political battles. From Brexit to Trump to our own 2019 Presidential race, social media has been a key element in either winning or losing a political campaign. Revolutions are now waged and won through social media.

The systems and applications available in social media today do not only compute the statistical potentials but can also alter preferences and influence one’s choice of something through analyses of the target’s algorithm on the selections  he makes every time he uses the medium.  This will eventually provide the operator enough  data to analyze and mount a campaign to win over support.

  • Traditional grassroots organizing

People under the poverty threshold comprise the majority of the population and are the most vulnerable sector. The NGO wherein I belonged experimented on organizing the urban poor settlers in Angeles City. As a result, the people we organized and oriented became effective watchdogs in the protection of ballots, rather than prey of the traditional politicians. People who are prone to vote buying are the simple individuals, who are mostly the unorganized. Admittedly though today, everything has its price that even the well organized can be prone to vote buying. But still, an organized and enlightened electorate may have more chances of standing firmly on their conviction.

  • Continuing electoral education program

Elections should be viewed not just an “event” but as a continuing process that goes beyond voting and beyond the proclamation of the winning candidate.

As former Comelec Commissioner Fernando pointed out: “The continuing election education program would seek to elicit greater and improved citizen participation in all stages of the election process, to the end that quality leaders are elected and a system is instituted for the periodic assessment of their performance.

The program must also include an education campaign not only on the mechanics of registration, voting and other election laws but also the general principle of democracy, good government and the right to suffrage as a means to attain these  end. The DECS must integrate this type of education to the public education systems.”

A continuing education program may diminish the growing population of traditional voters who are hooked up under the influence of traditional politicians. The campaign should start during the early educational years of the youth, focusing on the sanctity of voting and consequential effects of disregarding its importance. This may somehow slacken the increase of the disciples of traditional politicians.  

  • Active participation of the private sector and non-government organizations

Non-government organizations and the private sector must play a vital role in guiding and educating the masses.  These organizations should stand as catalysts to improve and renew the whole political order. Civic organizations, religious organizations and lay-people have to band themselves together in providing directions and bases for candidate selection.  With the established network of these groups, they can serve as the ideal entities in educating  the broad masses and further expose the evils of dirty politicians.

In the case of the religious groups, they should not allow themselves to be used by these political rascals, hiding behind the mantle of fake and self-serving “generosity.”  It should be noted that the triumph of trapos and the dirty politicians is a direct mockery of the religious teaching of adherence to truth, fairness and justice.

  • Reputable individuals must join politics.

People who are of known good reputation with winnable characteristics should be encouraged to join the political race to widen the choices for candidates.  The damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation of choosing between “the devil and the deep blue sea” has always been a reality in both the national and local electoral exercise. This should stop through the participation of good and righteous personalities in elections. Joining the race for public good is not only a noble undertaking but also an act recognized by God.  Vatican states that: “The church praises and esteems those who devote themselves to the public good for the service of all and take upon themselves the burden of public office.  Those with talent for the difficult and noble art of politics, of whose talents in this matter can be developed, should prepare themselves for it, forgetting their own convenience and material interest, they should engage in political activity. (Vatican II GS75)

Powerful clans and the elite, the irresponsible, the scoundrels and the scalawags, should not be allowed to dominate government positions. People must have more choices than these characters.

  • Continue to advocate for the transformation of values

Conscience is said to be the inner voice of God.  People with moral standards would always think twice before engaging in something that is wrong.  Bishop Oscar V. Cruz, the former president of the Catholic’s Bishop Conference (CBCP) has this to say:  “There will be no radical change in our political situation unless we all undergo a change of heart – conversion in our priorities, in our values. In our society, a high premium is put on power and money. Compromises are made, truth is subverted, principles are abandoned, elections are rigged, frauds are perfected, politicians perpetuate themselves in power, their families are placed in positions of authority, Options are kept open simply because of power and money- the prime values of our present political culture.  That is why financial supporters invest tremendous amounts of money on candidates and the candidates spend so much to be elected- not because of what they vaguely invoke as the ‘people’s will’ or the ‘common good’ but because of the power and the easy money they seek.  Let us not be fools.  As we said earlier, we know that expenses are recouped, gargantuan profits made once political victory is achieved.  The consciousness remark of a politician years ago wanting to take advantage of power remains relevant even to this day: ‘What are we in power for?'”

Ah, yes. “What the hell have they been in power for?”

I remember when I ventured into electoral politics more than two decades ago. I actually belonged to a group of dreamy-eyed activists who, fresh from helping oust Marcos, tried to barge into the ranks of the government, the establishment, as we called it then, pregnant with idealism and even reinforced by ideological principles anchored on the call “Paglingkuran ang sambayanan!”

After all, after the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship we all thought that a new dawn was in the horizon, and the basic socio-political reforms we were fighting for will finally come to fruition. We realized though that this was easier said than done, considering that the returning faction of the elite were slowly regaining ground in the politico-economic arena. So, we scaled down our expectations, and tried to engage locally.

Most of us won, including a comrade we considered as the brightest star among us. In fact, our “star” shone brighter even as most of us later faded. Until, as many of us have sadly observed, he seemed to have become a traditional politician himself, embracing patronage politics to ensure his longevity, by aligning with powerful patrons above and dispensing favors as a local “padron” to his constituents below.

He was reported to have said during the recent elections that “principles have no room in elections.”  

Again, we must regretfully ask – “Then what the hell are they in power for?”

The road to changing the Philippine political landscape is long, treacherous, steep, muddy, confusing, and suffers no shortage of eager bandits. Yet with each step we do not take, adds several more miles of hardship to this road. Each step we do not take, makes the road so much harder for those who will come after us, and the ones after them. As far as the road will go, be it a thousand miles, or a hundred thousand, everything must start from that first step.