The Philippines is a democracy where the traditional politicians (trapos) enjoy the freedom to fart on people’s faces. In this part of the world, arrogance has become the mark of the trapo, Filipino for dirty dishrag, also a very apt label of spite given to traditional politicians. Smug, vainglorious and self-possessed, many of our trapos share the obnoxious traits of despots and tyrants. The only difference is that our trapos are really elective officials, who in principle ought to be serving at the pleasure of an electorate, in a supposedly democratic country.
Foreigners from mature democracies are shocked at how Philippine politicians can be so insensitive to public opinion. In the UK and the US, requests and feedback from constituencies are accorded due respect and a quick reply from their congressman (MP in the UK). The response may not always be favorable, but constituencies nonetheless know that the request has been given due attention and consideration. In some cases, response can be swift and personal, like a phone call from the official reacting with urgency. Such is public service and such is what public servants do as officials who owe their positions of power to the people.
Not so here. Presidents, congressmen, senators, governors and mayors lord it over the land as though they were monarchs descended from the gods and born to rule. The only time a trapo will show some semblance of being service-oriented is when public outrage has reached proportions that could threaten his ouster. Self-interest, rather than public accountability is what drives the trapo to act as he does.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s allies in Congress have demonstrated exactly how they can be so impervious to public interest or sentiment in their handling of the impeachment case against her. They were the exact opposite of congressmen in mature democracies who seek guidance from and project the interests and will of their constituency. Needless to say, if this had been the mindset of our own public officials, President Arroyo would have long bowed out of our lives in well-deserved ignominy and oblivion. Ms Arroyo’s congress allies’ handling of the impeachment case has clearly demonstrated our dysfunctional system where the people’s own welfare and interests are dumped in order to serve the pleasure of the sitting chief executive. Yes, you are right, “Only in the Philippines.”
When the tide of public opinion started to take a turn for the worst in the 1972 Watergate hearings, US president Richard Nixon’s own party mates, fearing political ruin, convinced the chief executive to resign. Acting in deference to the public pulse and knowing fully well that his own Republican Party will no longer support him – Nixon bit the bullet and stepped down. More than being a legal process, impeachment moves fulfill a political agenda. Yet, the administration congressmen chose to disregard opinion polls which clearly showed between 65% and 80% of Filipinos wanting the president’s ouster.
The arrogance and insensitivity to public opinion is rooted to the following realities of our farcical democracy:
1. The majority is neither organized nor equipped to assert their will despite their dominance in numbers. They are also very vulnerable to monetary favors and easily divided by machinations of well-seasoned power players employing the divide-and-conquer principle of the Roman Caesars. In all the mad confusion and disarray, trapos and their patrons easily get away with murder.
2. A well-entrenched economic elite controls political power. They finance the campaigns and arrange the back room deals that get people elected. A good man can get the majority vote on the day of elections but the well-financed candidate will likely win once the votes are finally ‘counted’. Aside from inter-dynasty in-breeding, there are also the nouveau riche segments of the entrenched elite – the newly elected who have turned their elective posts into a gold mine for enrichment.
3. Media, the one entity that can do a lot to galvanize positive action that could empower the majority, is helplessly tied to the purse strings of the moneyed class. Check out the people who are behind major advertising support for media and you will see an aspect of that influence. Take a look at the names of press writers hosting their own television shows or appointed to the boards of government-operated broadcast and print media and you will see the meaning of ‘paid hacks’ in action. Corrupt media is so predominant it cancels out the efforts of the journalists with integrity.
4. The Filipino majority is poor, uninformed, poorly educated and easily manipulated by the sweet-talking political shyster. The poor has unequivocally repudiated traditional politicians when they rejected Ramon Mitra and Jose de Venecia in the 1992 and 1998 presidential elections, respectively. But in their desperation and in avoiding electing another trapo stereotype, they ended up turning to showbiz personalities bereft of qualifications and mostly lacking in moral character to hold public office. Joseph Estrada, ousted in office for plunder, shows the kind of self-destructive choices the poor tends to make.
The patronage system
Patronage politics has turned Philippine democracy into a farce. The kingmakers, the election ‘investors’ and financiers who are there for their own personal concerns, are the only ones with a real say on policy. The majority of citizens are but pawns in their power games, given the inability of the poor to organize themselves behind an enlightened leadership. If it is any consolation, party list representation had at least allowed cause-oriented nationalists who do not have the means to mount a campaign to run on the basis of the principles they espouse. I find it most unfortunate that despite the Left’s earnest commitment to foster a truly people-oriented agenda, their typically Communist hard line tactics and perspectives have alienated them from the very people they want to emancipate.
Our American colonizers have done such a good job at protecting their national and economic interest so that anyone who promotes a perspective that will threaten America’s continued political and economic leverage will be tagged as a Communist, subversive or anti-mainstream. Taking off from the American colonizers, our entrenched elite are now our neo-colonizers. We were better off having foreign colonizers because it at least drew the line between the oppressor and the oppressed and stoked the fires of nationalism. But spotting the predatory neo-colonizer – who is a fellow countryman – proved most difficult for most Filipinos, especially considering how uninformed and poorly educated many of them are.
The neo-colonizer is only after expanding and enriching his empire. Any appearances of social concern are most likely for purposes of public relations and only because this will help him earn media brownie points, which in turn, will be good for business. To remain in control of his wealth, the neo-colonizer must also be in control of the political power and all its requisite instrumentalities. This is the very raison d’etre of patronage politics.
Take a look at the expense required to mount a campaign for a senate or congressional seat. I was an Assistant Secretary in the Local Government Department (with the late Secretary Jimmy Ferrer) when they held the first congressional elections after EDSA I in 1987. According to our department’s campaign and election monitoring reports, there were congressional candidates who spent anywhere between P10 million and P40 million. The candidate who reportedly spent P40 million unseated a provincial dynasty in Southern Luzon but he perished in a helicopter crash months later. Unfortunately, the Local Government Department could only monitor these expenses as part of its supervisory functions and did not have the clout or means to collate the evidence to build a case for election overspending. That is the job of COMELEC, supposedly the watchdog against elections-related offenses and campaign spending violations.
To date, the country’s biggest catch had been the earnest and honest senator, Raul Manglapus, who was so transparent in conducting his affairs that he declared every single centavo of his campaign expenses during a 1960s senatorial election. Senator Manglapus’ expenses were miniscule compared to the other candidates but no one had his uncompromising honesty. In the end, the system did Manglapus in but it preserved the sly and the dishonest, signaling one of the first evidences of a genesis of vile politics in the country.
The flagrant violations against the law on election spending in 1987 are nothing compared to what candidates spend today; what with campaign expenses for a congressional seat going as high as P 80 million. Estimated expense for a senate seat can be thrice as much – P250 million. The campaign team of the late Raul Roco estimates Ms Arroyo’s 2004 campaign expenses to run into billions of pesos, counting fund releases from government for ‘official projects’ that served her campaign objectives.
With the outrageous cost of running a campaign, wannabes can only turn to financiers. Wannabes desperately wanting to win on the one hand and election financiers or kingmakers with ulterior motives on the other make a lethal cocktail drink for the masses. Beholden to vested interest groups and most likely also mired in personal debt, the politician’s first agenda after victory is to repay debts of gratitude and recoup everything that has been spent.
But the costly business of running for an elective position will demand far more than just break-even returns, returning favors, or recouping personal expenses. It is also about building a political and economic bulwark that will extend benefits beyond the elective politician’s term and one that will be well worth all the investments of the elections financier. It is also about making sure that public office is well oriented on fulfilling the objectives of the politician’s personal empire. Any benefit to the electorate is mostly coincidental and does not rate as top priority.
Are you still wondering why the administration congressmen seemed to be so beholden to the President during the impeachment proceedings, in defiance of public interest and opinion? That money fuels politics is universally true. But in this country more than in others, the entrenched elite produce the money that fuels politics and wins elections. While they are no more than 3% of the population, the entrenched elite accounts for roughly 85% of the nation’s wealth. The elite-trapo conspiracy therefore can only benefit the upper crust. How tragic that for a country that once had its heyday as the second best economy in Asia in 1960, 40% of our people now worry about the next meal.
The victory of Grace Padaca in Isabela, which dethroned the entrenched Dy dynasty, is a rarity. We all know how unfavorable election results can also be reversed. People Power in Isabela protected and preserved Padaca’s victory. However, most areas of the country are not empowered to duplicate the Isabela experience. Employing a COMELEC lackey is part of the tried and tested winning formula that works for the trapo. To hell with people’s mandate, darn the voter’s real choice – winning is everything and losing is not an option, so goes the elite-trapo reasoning. Using the same reasoning, we can now also understand why Ms Arroyo could not replace Winston Garcia in GSIS despite the public clamor for his ouster. It is common knowledge that the Garcias are major political players in Cebu where the President enjoyed a ‘landslide victory’.
Our political predators are in too deep in their own muck to expect them to change. We, not them, are the solution. We must learn to be the real power wielders in our democracy, fragile and shaky as it already is. Otherwise, we must be ready to face the possibility of having a group of junior officers taking over the role of messiah. If we cannot run and manage our own democracy, then we should be prepared to lose it again to the next group who knows how.
If this happens, we may be giving up another opportunity to re-direct our aspirations in as democratic a context as we would like it to be. Let us hope that these junior officers are not the cub versions of their decadent elders in the military organization. God forbid if we end up being led eventually by tougher and meaner clones of Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia.
You may email William M. Esposo at: firstname.lastname@example.org