The whole exercise is not, as worded in successive constitutions, a genuine exercise of people’s sovereignty; the right to freedom of suffrage is being subverted by social conditions which make it difficult for ordinary citizens to really vote according to the dictates of their conscience. Or if, in exceptional cases, they are able at all to make free choices, means are aplenty to thwart their will.
More than a half century of engaging in elections has failed to realize the goal of making it a cornerstone of what most Filipinos only ambiguously refer to as democracy. The term “popular will” is an embarrassing misnomer of a ‘choice’ actually predetermined by factors beyond the electorate’s control and, possibly, comprehension. In other words, the act of choosing rulers is not unlike pointing to an item inside a showcase; voters hardly have the chance to scrutinize the goods up close. Worse, the range of options is limited to elements of the same social classes, or members of the same families belonging to such classes, that alternate themselves in power.
Relatively poor candidates or those with no existing connections to serious political networks do manage sometimes to win elective posts. Grace Padaca, a broadcast journalist, did it in 2004 against the entrenched Dy political family of Isabela province. On May 14, Catholic priest Fr. Eddie Panlilio won over Provincial Board Member Lilia Pineda and Vice Governor Mark Lapid in the race for the governorship of Pampanga. Pineda is the wife of Bong Pineda, who is reputed to be a big gambling lord. Both losing candidates are allies of the administration.
These rare instances of ‘good’ winning against ‘evil’ may be interpreted in two ways. They can be viewed as a sign of awakening on the part of the people. Yet they also serve to highlight the depths which Philippine politics has sunk into that, in the case of Pampanga, it took a priest to convince the people to reject the local icons of dirty politics. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether he could effectively dismantle jueteng (an illegal numbers game), the political and legal protection it enjoys, and everything that it stands for.
And while a bright star may have shone over Pampanga after May 14, the overall situation still reflects the rootedness of economic power – not to mention patronage, coercion and cheating – as the primary factor that defines the outcome of any election. The names of those who won or retained their positions already speak volumes about unchanged economic realities which in turn explain the durability of so-called political dynasties.
A rundown of these names is a stark reminder that they or their forebears have dominated Philippine politics for so long a time. In Mindanao, we have, for example, the Plazas of Agusan del Sur, the Amantes of Agusan del Norte, the Dimaporos of Lanao, the Lobregats of Zamboanga City, the Zubiris of Bukidnon, the Emanos of Misamis Oriental, and the emerging Duterte dynasty of Davao City with the election as vice mayor of Sara Duterte, daughter of City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
One would be tempted to think that in these islands good governance must be in the genes and that the enduring political actors have gone through a perfect evolutionary process. The sad truth is that, as noted above, there is not much to choose from. The whole thing ends up in a resigned “choose the lesser evil” attitude. To put it more cynically, either of the devils will win.
Not a few of these personalities – or devils, if you may – cavorted with the Martial Law regime enabling them to expand their economic and political base, the same means they used in buying their way back to positions of power and influence in the post-Marcos setup.
This only proves that politics always abides by the Golden Rule: He who has gold rules.
[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno received in 1987 the Jose W. Diokno Award for winning in a national editorial writing contest sponsored by Ang Pahayagang Malaya and the family of the late senator.]