CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/25 October)–The scale of plunder and corruption in politics has reached untenable levels, but we probably haven’t seen the worst yet. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, as we edge closer to Election Day on Monday (October 28th), the quantity and brazenness of election abuses and corruption will increase even more.
As in past elections there will be deadly incidents in places; families will split; and rivalries between friends could turn lethal. That’s how serious politics can be in the barangay, the primary level of our Republic and political system. For it’s payback time! Time to collect political debts.
Political debts, of course, are favors extended to voters—be they individuals, groups, or communities—by candidates, agents of candidates, supporters and enforcers of candidates, and parties or cronies of candidates.
Such favors may have been big or small, cheap or expensive, few or plenty. Still, they were favors, and as the trapos play the game, if you receive such favor, you repay it in some way or form. And the preferred currency for repayment is votes. Votes are worth their weight in gold to traditional politicians.
In some cases, where squatters’ votes are involved, the “right” to illegally occupy public spaces can be withdrawn—as in “No Vote, Ibot!” (If you don’t vote for me, out your shanty goes, uprooted, and you lose your dwelling!) It’s how the game is played.
Handouts to provide some relief are the stock-in-trade of a trapo. Money for a vote, a few kilos of rice, a job referral, a sidewalk to squat on, medicine or hospital costs, burial expenses: anything to gratify a needy or impoverished voter; favors in exchange for votes.
Patronage politics simplify political campaigns and turn elections into a mere formality. It predetermines outcomes long before elections and away from the election booth.
Waged by trapos all year round, patronage politics are unending, election period or not. It saves them the pretense of formulating party platforms or programs, or having to debate rival candidates.
The purpose of patronage and its handmaid, the pork barrel, is to control votes through political favors, big and small. Each act of patronage, each release from the pork barrel, is calculated to rig the results of any election—so that on election day, the cards are stacked against any opponent. This is the traditional way of capturing and controlling votes, the trapo’s principal tool to keep themselves and their dynasty in power.
Patronage politics enable trapos to field anyone regardless of party affiliation, get him elected, and keep the patronage cycle going. Like George Orwell’s ever-present Big Brother hovering over the neighborhoods—manipulating their weaknesses, playing on their poverty and insecurity—trapos put up epal signs all over the place, relentlessly reminding indebted voters of their power, always telling them:
“I am the source of all handouts and benefits from the government. I provide for all your needs. I build infrastructure for your neighborhood. I am your godfather and livelihood giver. Therefore, you are in my debt. You owe me your loyalty and your vote.”
This blatant abuse takes place as if the money and the public works they claim as their gift to the people are drawn from their personal resources. But no one so much as shames them for doing it.
Because the money comes from the public treasury and costs them nothing, trapos freely spread it around, even as they pocket lots of it for themselves. That’s why party membership in our country is nothing more than a merchandise label—like the price tag merchants casually change with the seasons.
Note how political party labels change after elections depending on which clique, syndicate, or dynasty gains control of pork and its many forms. In fact, the opening session of Congress has become the political equivalent of the Midnight Madness Sale in the malls—when the mad rush of political opportunists heads towards the direction of the victorious party.
In between the madness, the brazen, often subliminal, message of patronage is repeated over and over. It is plastered on every conceivable surface, vertical or horizontal. It assaults the senses everywhere within sight or hearing—on billboards and streamers, on TV and radio, on walls and newspapers.
Patronage is manifest in baptisms, weddings, and wakes. It is present during ground-breaking rites, in movies and calendars. It is painted on police vehicles and ambulances, even on street signs and garbage cans. It is so everywhere that it might as well be tattooed on the forehead of every trapo!
People who wait till elections to denounce or vote against the trapos don’t realize how futile is their effort. They only have a few votes versus all the ballots already corralled by this omnipresence. To campaign at the last minute or keep vigil at the polls on election day is equally futile—because patronage, pork, and epal have already predetermined who wins.
But try anyway! (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Manny Valdehuesa writes from Cagayan de Oro and is the president and national convenor of Gising Barangay Movement Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.)