A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Dissecting our country’s political culture

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews /19 April) — In three weeks’ time, the Republic of the Philippines will elect a new President.  Who will she/he be?  Despite the figures of poll surveys that show the standing of the five Presidentiables, it is still anybody’s guess as to who will finally take over the reins of government from P-Noy Aquino.  One thing is clear though: whoever wins will not win on the basis of the reason that the electorate will use come 9 May 2016.

This is ironic. Because the whole rationale behind the existence of a democratic form of government – with its system of providing each citizen the right to vote in regular elections – is built on the foundation of reason.  A product of the Enlightenment era arising out of Europe which gave birth to democracy – courtesy of the French Revolution – the political body’s harmonious existence rests on the capacity of each citizen to assert their reason. One of these involves the exercise of using their reason for the choice of their leaders during elections.

But there lies the rub.  What actually happened when democracy also arose out of the American revolution and then – through colonization  – got transported to a country such as the Philippines? Those who posit that the American colonial government’s efforts to prepare its colony for self-governance is a positive legacy of colonial rule would point at one of its accomplishments: providing basic education to all (with the assumption that once enmeshed in formal education, people’s minds will be more attuned to reason and critical thinking). The influx of the Thomasites, building schools in the interior including boarding schools for Lumad, sending scholars abroad to gain more knowledge – all these were part of this grand plan to transform the colony into one that is “civilized”, i.e. where people gave up on superstition to favor science, to think of common good rather than what benefits kinship and family, to imagine  themselves as one nation rather than being fragmented into regions, religions or ethnicities.

But close to a century since the American occupation, where are we as a people?  How far do we use reason in the decisions we make that impact the life of the nation?  One very good example is our choice of political leaders.

If reason were the basis for our choice, especially of top officials – President, Vice-President, Senators, Congresspersons and Governors – we would vote according to their platform in terms of: promoting/defending people’s basic human rights and civil liberties,  closing the wide gap between rich and poor, providing land to the landless and ancestral domain to the Lumad, resolving the contentious issues of Mindanao leading to peace, providing jobs to the jobless and cutting down on the numbers of OFWs, challenging the neo-liberal model of economic growth whose increased GNP does not trickle down to the grassroots, stopping corporate greed leading to ecological destruction, increased budget for education and health needs not for huge military and police spending and a clear stance vis-à-vis global issues e.g. China’s incursions, global terrorism and the like.

But does anyone care what are the candidates’ stance on these rational issues?  Beyond the small percentage of some of those among the affluent elite and the comfortable middle class along with the conscientious civil society members – of various ideological colors – who cares about using reason as guide for putting down names in one’s ballot?

Alas, our political culture is far more complex than the modern mind could comprehend.  One needs the tools of post-modernity to have a sense of how this political culture plays out in our political landscape.  The modern era’s insistence on its major presuppositions – including, the “turn to the subject, universal reason and historical progress” – have been found to be bankrupt in the face of the major global and local developments of the past century.  Nowhere is this clearer than in Third World settings such as ours.

Take a look at how things will play out on May 9 as they are already evolving, just less than three weeks before E-Day.  For most Filipinos, why would they vote and for whom will they vote? For most of the masses – mostly abandoned by government officials in-between elections –  election Day is when the politicians come a-courting, making them feel that they have some importance in the life of the Republic. So, why shouldn’t they name their price, when this is all they will receive from the coffers of government for most of their lives?  Coming at a disastrous time of a long drought – when farmers seeking rice are instead gunned down in the streets and hunger stalks the uplands – the money that one receives for selling one’s vote is manna from heaven.

Beyond this sad reality, are other complex cultural factors that determine people’s choices.  There is kinship which remains an integral part of Pinoy local politics which explains political dynasties and nepotism in government service (“sa way pabor-pabor, paryente ko man ni!”). Perhaps there is one “blessing” in the rise of powerful political clans at the regional/provincial/municipal levels. They have amassed so much economic, social and political capital that no one would dare oppose their candidacy;  today in many parts of the country, there is a phenomenon of voters having no other choice. So why have an election at all if everyone knows who is going to win anyway? And what is the “blessing?” There is less money to buy votes and hardly any budget for election materials that end up littering the streets and becoming garbage.

Kinship is related to regional and ethnolinguistic/ethnic affiliations.  I have a friend who was a human rights advocate in his youth, but he will vote for the dictator’s son because he is Ilokano. (Pastilan!). But of course, mga taga-Davao, are all so excited about a Davaoeňo who will be in Malacaňang. But as the Davao candidate’s ancestors are from Cebu, the Cebuanos, too, take him as their own.  But then this is true for most of the other candidates!  Truly, in Benedict Anderson’s words, our nation is but an “imagined community”; the fact is that we are as fragmented in the mind as we are by our being inhabitants of a hundred main islands with our own respective languages, cultural legacies and idiosyncracies!

One clear indicator of how fragmented we are is shown in the list of our party-list groups and institutions.  The rationale for having such candidates was to make sure marginalized sectors – farmers, workers, women, indigenous people, youth and the like – are represented in Congress. But most of those who have made it are regional groupings (Bikol, Waray, Bisaya, etc.) and/or extended kinship groups sharing vested interests that have nothing to do with the common good.

Then finally there is the element of popular culture with its cult for the celebrity. Which explains why politics in this country has been invaded by those in showbiz (films, TV and radio), sports and other engagements that media love to cover.  The mantra at election time is “name-recall” so naturally those already in the limelight owing to media’s gaze, have an advantage.  But are these candidates ready and prepared to take on the burdens of governance?  Well, who said something about being efficient and effective at running government when one’s job description only involves hiring relatives, cutting ribbons, being pa-cute at public events?

We may not be happy with these turn of events. But such is the reality we are in during these post-modern times! And pray tell, who can deny the impact of a candidate’s charisma which borders on being a rock star?  We still are a people in need of a Messiah, even as we have been – time and again – betrayed by the very people to whom we had offered our hopes and dreams? It is the moment that counts, and right at this moment, the one who is able to dissect the country’s political culture and make a capital out of it, will eventually win on May 9.  Reason be damned!

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books, including Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations, and two books on Davao’s history launched in December 2015 — Davao in the Pre-Conquest Era and the Age of Colonization and Si Menda u gang Baganin’ng gitahspan nga mao si Mangulayon. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)]