CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/20 January) — Old-style politics and its adherents—the traditional politicos or trapos—condition and shape the political culture of our grassroots, and thus of Philippine society as a whole. This is so because trapos are the dominant presence among the poor and less-educated (who outnumber other sectors) in barangays.
Trapos look upon the barangays as their bailiwick, much as they view poor people as their natural constituency—meaning, voters whose support and loyalty can be bought. This is the reason trapos are attentive to barangay neighborhoods and are always ready with gimmicks, favors, and handouts to keep them supportive.
One indicator of the trapo conditioning of our grassroots culture is their success in making people believe they (trapos) are the source of every benefit or service provided by government. As preposterous as this may seem, people actually believe them, especially the impressionable or naïve ones.
Moreover, trapos take further advantage of the people’s naiveté by suggesting that voters owe a “debt of gratitude” to their benefactors (trapos) for the projects and services to the community. And they have the gumption to go so far as to suggest that the “debt” should be repaid at election time. This is the reason why notices claiming credit for projects are posted practically everywhere—to remind voters of their “debt”.
It is credit-grabbing, to say the least, and it is supposedly being outlawed. But it continues with impunity. Tagalogs have a term for this shameless practice: “Epal”—short for nagpapapel or showing off, a new word formed by inverting syllables as in Erap (pare) or yosi (sigarilyo).
Epal refers to the illegal habit of reminding people about a non-existent “debt of gratitude” the people “owe” the trapos. This shameless practice is on billboards, streamers, posters, newspaper ads, radio-TV “praise releases,” etc. It is brazen propaganda that should be stopped.
Another effect of trapo conditioning is the unethical mentality among simple folk that as long as they’re paid, it’s all right to do what amounts to pimping or drug pushing for candidates–like vote buying, cheating, or cowboying the roundup of rent-a-crowds for campaign rallies.
There’s no point telling them to resist patronage or bribery because “it’s their taxes that’s being given away, wasted, or stolen.” In the first place, they don’t pay income taxes and own very little. They know that what’s being squandered is not theirs but money from the rich who pay tax, or from others who evade paying by bribing bureaucrats or by keeping offshore accounts.
The reality is, all that matters to simple-minded voters is what they can get no matter how paltry. It’s what poverty or ignorance does to otherwise decent people.
To such folks, sycophancy is the name of the game—Sipsip in street parlance or sucking up to the rich and powerful, it is the tried and tested technique of siphoning off goodies from the Horn of Plenty on top, whether the “horn” be vice dens, drug lords, or the keepers and dispensers of pork barrel.
This mindset plays into the hand of the trapo and his allies—political entrepreneurs who invest big on campaigns in hopes of big post-election payoffs.
A trapo looks at politics the same way he views cockfights and sports-fests. His yardstick is “winnability”—a concept having less to do with competence or character as with name-recall, wealth, popularity, or connections. Never mind if he’s a crook or lives a scandalous life; if his name rings a bell and he has deep pockets, he’s my candidate!
It’s his “generosity,” connections, or skill in prying the public coffers loose that makes him a winnable candidate. Bet on him and earn lots of balato! Remember Erap with Atong Ang, Mark Jimenez, and the rest of the gang that made his candidacy bankable? Or think of the “Balato Twins” John Osmena and Tessie Oreta, both senators, who admitted receiving one million pesos each (!) from Erap when the latter won big in a casino in Cebu.
As with the buccaneers of yore or today’s pirates in Somalia, a share of the loot is the reward for sycophancy.
Patronage and sycophancy are the Gemini twins in the political firmament. Like Mafia or Yakuza enforcers, these twins prowl the barangays to ensure that local officials are loyal and keep the neighborhood votes captive. This is the way big-time trapos control the grassroots votes.
Through imaginative deployment of public works contracts, they enable the locals to avail of kickbacks, grants, and gifts from contractors, outright skimming from their local budgets, and other sleight of hand financial tricks. Serving as conduits for big-time patronage is hugely profitable for the locals. As they say: it pays to be malakas with the bigwigs.
In turn, the bigwigs use the loyalty owed them by the locals as capital in their power games. Ferdinand Marcos was a consummate practitioner of the art of sowing patronage in order to harvest sycophancy—which he then converted into political capital. It was the sycophancy of the bogus “citizens assemblies” and the KBL’s Kabataang Barangay which enabled him to simulate public support for Martial Law, the conjugal dictatorship, and “constitutional authoritarianism.”
Since many of the trapos in congress today were incubated in the Marcos political hatchery, they are unbeatable in the game of patronage. They have the confidence of gaming operators who know that gambling odds always favor the house. They know they can’t lose as long as the grassroots votes are secure in their pockets. And they’re right… unless sensible citizens in barangays, the ones with integrity, rein in their officials and make their influence felt in the neighborhoods.
Like proxy votes in stockholders’ meetings, captive votes in the barangay provide leverage to the power players at the top. These votes are as bargaining chips in the trapo’s version of the game of “Monopoly.”
Those who do nothing about this non-stop pampering of captive votes in their barangay in effect allow their own community’s votes to end up on the trading floor upstairs where the proxy-holders wheel and deal. Captive votes enable the big-time trapos to bargain away chunks of the public trust to support flunkies on all levels.
It’s these votes that enable big-time grafters like Jocjoc Bolante, influence-peddlers like Benjamin Abalos, and charlatans like Mark Jimenez to horse-trade their way to Malacanang, Congress, the Courts, and the rest of the bureaucracy.
Be careful therefore about who gets to lead your community or barangay, controlling its votes. They play a big role in determining who shall rise to fill the high positions of our state structure.
To be indifferent about who manages our community is to be indifferent about who governs Philippine society on all levels all the way to the top.
Government is everybody’s business; if you’re not involved, you can’t expect good governance! (Manny was former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific, secretary-general of the Southeast Asian Publishers Association, a director at the Development Academy of the Philippines, vice chair of the Local Government Academy, and 2004 PPI-UNICEF awardee for outstanding columnist. He heads Gising Barangay Movement as national convenor and president. firstname.lastname@example.org)