Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Elections and the Filipino

I’ve always ached for words to describe the way we Filipinos regard elections. The closest is, you guessed right, ‘circus’. For most other people elections are just one of those ho-hum exercises of freedom. For us elections are big time show, party and politics in one. I had two chances of watching the U.S. presidential elections: in 1992 and in 2009. Except for their heightened interest in the debates most Americans simply tolerated the exercises the way a patient tolerates a doctor’s knife in the O.R. The young almost always avoided politics like the plague. A recent exception was during the candidacy of then Senator Barak Obama to the highest office of the U.S. when he inspired many people by what Colin Powell called his “transformational figure” looming large in the horizon, coupled with his soaring rhetorical skills.

For us Filipinos elections offer, for now, little such promise. That doesn’t dampen our spirits though. Elections often seem the democratic marijuana that we inhale with abandon. But nothing reveals our national psyche better.

Elections uncover us as a festive people. Colors greet you everywhere you go in the archipelago, and I’m not just talking about campaign posters, streamers or ads. I’m talking about the kind of persons we become when we run for office or express support for our candidates. The basic color of our skin is not brown. It’s celebration. No matter how poor we are, how bad our economy or how terrible the way we are governed, we will always find a reason to celebrate. In our collective mindset elections are one of those reasons. For one, elections offer an open door even to the poor. And shouldn’t that be cause for celebration? I’ve always thought President Quezon shouldn’t have uttered those words about his preference of a Philippines “run like hell by Filipinos” to one “run like heaven” by our favorite foreigners (who else?) because that seemingly has become our lot from Day One Filipinos started running their own country. But ask any Juan or Juana de la Cruz on the streets. And he/she will tell you, “Be that as it may, Sir/Ma’am, we have this one chance to get back at our tormentors, incumbent or future. Elections are our singular weapon to a new tomorrow or to forget today!” And so let the music go blaring, let the politicians go baring their slogans and platforms, let celebrities mix with and entertain the hoi polloi, let candidates believe they are undiscovered singers, dancers, comedians/comediennes. We the people don’t mind. We know the truth anyway. I wonder if our politicians ever realize how all their efforts rarely earn them any serious attention, not to say votes. On the other hand, I think they do and still go on with the show because everybody just wants to celebrate nothing in particular except life that, thank God, is still under some semblance of democracy.

Alas, elections also unwraps the violent streak in us. The Maguindanao Massacre is, to date, its worst and most egregious expression. But before that there were other lesser known or remembered killings and political assassinations. No, it’s not only that some Filipinos and their families believe they have power in their genes. Power is also a tool in keeping a family’s grip on dominance in a turf, its survival or blossoming; violence is a tool of power, yes, violence in arms as well as in words. That explains the mud-slinging and character assassinations that, though also true in other countries, are uniquely Filipino during elections. Verbal and armed violence is a way of advancing the cause of the tribe, defending its turf and honor or eliminating a threat. The sooner we acknowledge the violent streak in us, which finds expression in black propaganda and in actual bloodletting, the better for us in our crusade to find ways of taming it by an informed conscience, more effective laws and internal as well as external restraint. We are no more violent than other races and it’s no use making comparisons. We can only compare ourselves with the best our own history offers. Violence may be a streak in our national character but it doesn’t define us. Wasn’t there an EDSA Revolution of 1986, unique and unrepeatable but also ongoing even as I write, that once served notice to all the world how change can also happen without or with very little violence, with millions of Filipinos at its helm? Wasn’t that our own message in a bottle to ourselves that, yes, we can also go beyond violence to effect change? And, as Catholics (with no prejudice to those who aren’t), don’t we feel justly proud to observe how our faith had something to do with our national tryst with non-violent change?

Alas, elections have also put in display our circuitous relations with discipline. The late president, Ferdinand Marcos, often regarded a dictator, had an uncanny insight into our situation when, in trying to promote his New Society, he coined the motto: “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan (For the country to progress, discipline is necessary)”. I couldn’t agree more. But the use of external force and Martial Law to instill what is necessarily an internal reality only created more evil than the woeful lack of discipline in our character. Martial Law triggered abuse of power from large sections of the military, engineered assassinations and deaths of perceived enemies of the powers-that-be, normalized human rights violations in the name of national security and nearly consigned us to the dust bin of history. Still Filipinos have scarcely developed any kinship with Lady Discipline. This is particularly clear during elections. You see it in the way our politicians and their supporters skirt elections laws prohibiting display of political ads on trees, electric posts and such other non-designated places (in the province it seems to me there are no non-designated places). But how do we solve a problem like undisciplined Filipinos? Maybe a really professional military and more police presence can help. Maybe better law enforcement can help. Maybe the elimination of criminal impunity can help. But nothing will truly help until Filipinos themselves welcome Lady Discipline into their daily lives not as an imposed companion but as necessary partner, friend and relative in the family clan called development.

Alas, elections have uncovered a collective lust in many of us for money or power. We cheer our democratic space, but have we not made elections a way of making as much as of losing money? The billions of pesos now being spent boggle the imagination. TV networks, advertising and printing companies are only some of the gainers. There are even candidates who run with very little chance of winning and suddenly withdraw from the race at the homestretch. They invite talks, such as: “Oh, he’s got his money already. That’s why he’s calling it quits.” On the other hand, I have personally met some politicians who have lost unimagined amounts of property and hard-earned cash to the bottomless pit of election campaign drudgery to which they succumb in order to gain even a modicum of power. I’ve been amazed no end at how the quest for power has often impoverished otherwise well-off citizens and enriched once poor ones. The medieval search for the Holy Grail sometimes even pales in comparison to the Filipino frenzy to obtain power at whatever cost financially or otherwise. Why? Not in order to serve but because for some it’s the surest road to more money and money is the surest road to more power. And our poor? Oh, they know all this by instinct. In my hometown and I suspect in others too, they have a day or two of spending spree because of elections, never mind a rainy day tomorrow.

Indeed, rainy tomorrows will always be our lot unless we use elections to elect the leaders we need, not the leaders who need to be elected.

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