WORM’S EYEVIEW: Politics more fun before Martial Law

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/31 May)–Before the Marcos-Enrile takeover of our society in 1972, politics was more fun in the Philippines, and more challenging. There was freedom, respectability, open competition, and honest striving in the public service. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a more-or-less level playing field for the sincere idealist, the dedicated social activist, and, generally, the patriot.

To be a lawmaker in those days, it wasn’t enough to be a stuntman like a Lito Lapid, a basketball star like a Jaworski, or a pugilist like a Pacquiao. Nor did it suffice to be an “action star” like an Erap Estrada or a Fernando Poe or a Bong Revilla to be considered with any seriousness as a prospect for president. And it certainly took more than being outrageous like a Miriam or a playboy like a Chiz to command respect and gain enough votes for a Senate seat.

No, it required more than chutzpah or panache to gain the respectability proper to membership in the Senate chamber or even below it, in the Lower House.

Contrary to the view of many today about the Upper House, it was not a chamber for Gang Nam style carousing or grandstanding of any sort. Nor was it a refuge for mutineers and coup plotters. Unlike today, Congress then was not an incubator or nesting place for greedy political dynasties.

Before Marcos and Enrile—or, later, Jose de Venecia—never in the contemplation of honest citizens and politicians was Congress construed to be anything other than a legislature peopled by conscientious lawmakers. To imagine in pre-Ferdinand-and-Imelda-and-de-Venecia days a congress that could (and would) squander the people’s money through indecent Pork Barrel allocations would have been an outrageous thought. It was equally outrageous to imagine high elective posts transmogrified into family enterprises of greedy dynasties.

Election time during pre-Martial Law years was serious business. It was an occasion for sorting out political ambition: the character, style, values, and ideas that came with proffered leadership. Campaigns involved vigorous discussions on what should be the vision of development for the community and defined the candidates’ view of the future. Campaigns were often educational also, even employing classroom techniques in presenting the issues. Flip charts, books, even audio-visual aids were employed to explain programs of government.

Popularity or personality was a factor, of course, but the debates dealt more with competence, commitment, or conviction. Also, voters took account of morality, ethical standards, or propriety—such that a convicted felon or a scandal-prone womanizer like an Erap would not carry too much clout.

Volunteers, Supporters

To be a candidate before also meant that the candidate possessed a coherent set of principles, an agenda for reform, or a platform of government—all of which then became grist for copious scrutiny and grinding media analysis. It was based on these that voters could judge a candidate’s fitness or desirability. Sound ideas, a sensible platform, a laudable record of service, and good communication skills would then attract supporters, individual and institutional. Thus, good candidates did not lack for volunteers in those days.

Volunteers made up the bulk of campaign staff and field organizers. They helped with campaign strategy, organized forums, recruited more volunteers, or raised funds. It was the principal way good, credible candidates could get the help they needed from campuses and civic sectors. They attracted all types of citizens eager for involvement. And money wasn’t such a big factor.

Before Martial Law soured up the political environment, campuses and workplaces were rich hunting grounds for enterprising but poor candidates who needed volunteers. The wealthy contributed money. The not-so-wealthy contributed time and energy—manning headquarters and field offices, stuffing envelopes with solicitation letters, mailing campaign materials, doing research, or knocking on doors with leaflets to promote their candidate.

With money from donations, services of volunteers, and logistics supplied gratis by other supporters, campaigning was much less of a burden before than today. Even the poor and less-privileged could aspire to public service and vie for leadership positions. All you had to be was a person with a good grasp of social or political issues, sensible ideas and proposals, a good heart, and a sensitive ear matched by responsive action. You didn’t need to be a Bam Aquino or a Cynthia Villar. You didn’t need to be privileged or to be endorsed by a movie star.

Those were the days when people in communities like Cagayan de Oro in Northern Mindanao and Dumaguete in Negros Oriental could boast that their votes would go for the principled and the statesmanlike. Both cities were marked by an ethos intimately intertwined with their dominant institutions—Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) in the former, Silliman University in the latter. People to this day remember how a Raul Manglapus would trump a Marcos or even a Macapagal in presidential votes there, or reject a Genaro Magsaysay out to capitalize on his name to attain high office.

Most of what you did in election campaigns before the Marcos-Enrile Regime was dwell on the issues and deal with their wider implications. Gimmickry and the Pork Barrel weren’t big vote conditioners as much as knowledge, experience, or wisdom. No need for paid consultants, expensive celebrity endorsers, or paid spokespersons and publicity agents.

When Marcos and Enrile slammed Martial Law down on our living rooms, it struck lightning-like, scorching everything around. Out went citizen sovereignty; in came military corruption along with the seeds of political ambition.

And elsewhere the germ of secession among the Moros and the dream of an armed takeover of our democracy by Communists came to life like some exotic disease that continues to bedevil our society. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Manny Valdehuesa is the president and national convenor of Gising Barangay Movement Inc. He can be reached at valdehuesa@gmail.com.)