May 08, 2016

Electoral quick fix

The rags-to-riches story line never fails to hook people onto sappy movies and telenovelas; to dream of better times amidst everyday misery.  Similarly, the get-rich-quick mentality drives many to endure long queues to get into "easy-money" game shows where thousands of pesos are won through plain luck; and, oh yes, to spend their last peso on that lotto ticket.  Both also  never fail to reinforce the illusion that the system works; that there is a chance (yeah, maybe one-in-a-million but a chance nonetheless) for the impossible dream to become a reality.

Periodic electoral exercises carry the same inspirational cum delusional line in politics.  Let’s do a run down of the line that we are made to swallow hook-line-and-sinker. To wit:

Elections are proof of democracy at work; each person — young and old, rich or poor, educated and illiterate, hero or heel — gets the chance to choose the country’s next leaders.
Through elections, at minimum, the electorate gets the chance to bring about a new government, better than the outgoing, usually discredited, one. Maximally, we get the chance to bring about big changes in government, politics and society.
The results of the elections, no matter how flawed, bloody and fraudulent, is the expression of the sovereign will of the people.

In truth, bourgeois elections, whether in the Philippines or in touted “mature democracies” in Western Europe and North America, are nothing more than a quick fix. Elections in elite-dominated democracies are systematically designed and upgraded to serve that purpose and has little to do with reflecting the will of the people nor reforming government and society.

The Free Dictionary defines a quick fix as “an expedient temporary solution, especially one that merely postpones coping with an overall problem.”  The Urban Dictionary defines it as “a shabby attempt at correcting a problem, which usually leads to bigger problems that could have been easily avoided by doing the job right the first time.” Google pops up this answer: “an easy remedy or solution, especially a temporary one which fails to address underlying problems.“

Elections act as a quick fix by design and by default.  The repeated ritual of elections is supposed to be a democratic system’s way of renewing itself.  The country’s leaders get a new mandate from the people in the tradition of the touted “social contract” between the rulers and the ruled.

But the way election campaigning and its coverage goes, most everyone’s preoccupation is with the candidates’ character traits, personality quirks, and supposed “track record”. (The latter usually falls into the public relations trap; i.e. how well the candidate has been able to build his or her public image. In this regard, more credence is given to those who have won a previous election by hook or crook.)

The focus on the candidate’s so-called qualifications as a measure of competence also tends to give undue weight to academic and professional credentials that favor the well-heeled and/or fortunate.

The emphasis on character and personality is consistent with the notion that the problem to be fixed is the leader’s brand of leadership.  Honest vs dishonest.  Compassionate vs indifferent.  Decisive vs namby pamby.  Action man vs all talk.  Experienced versus newbie.  Competent vs unqualified.  Refined vs boorish.

In the end, the change of regime brought about amounts to a mere change in the style of leadership.  In other words, the manner of exploiting and oppressing the people offered by different factions of the elite, with political power continuing to be dominated and controlled by the same set of oligarchs.

When attention is given to issues and problems, there is the tendency to highlight the superficial or the obvious or the concerns of the urban population. Most often cited are poverty, corruption, criminality, traffic, broken-down public infrastructure and lack of social services.

Problems that strike closer to underlying socio-economic and political-cultural maladies are often overlooked or set aside as too serious, incomprehensible and untranslatable to catchy sound bytes.  These include landlessness and rural poverty; the backward, preindustrial economy and chronic unemployment and underemployment; flawed economic policies and rising inequality; intractable armed conflicts and failed counterinsurgency programs; violations of the entire range of human rights by supposedly democratic regimes; and surrender of national and economic sovereignty amidst patriotic drumbeating.

Digging deeper into the root causes of long-standing social ills is still not the norm even during an election period when political discourse becomes a national pastime.

It follows that solutions offered are palliative and temporary rather than long-term: piece-meal rather than comprehensive; populist rather than substantive.  The electoral exercise is institutionalized not to provide real solutions; rather, these are designed to retain and maintain the unjust status quo while giving an appearance of being an avenue for change, for “fixing” things.

Elections also serve as a quick fix in the sense of providing a safety valve for a system straining under constant, in fact growing, pressure due to internal and external contradictions.

But no matter how noisy, how heated and polarizing; how bombastic and filled with exposés; how brimming with motherhood or feel-good rhetoric; or replete with curses, thinly-veiled or in-your-face — such are merely embellishments on an otherwise undemocratic exercise that portends more of the same.  Periodic elections cannot and have never been the source of wide-ranging and deep-going changes in Philippine society and governance.

In fact it is a pillar of elite rule.  All factions of the ruling elite of big landlords and big comprador capitalists and the myriad groupings of bureaucrat capitalists, whether elected or appointed, are one in upholding elections as sacrosanct democratic exercises that are the panacea to all of societal and government ills.  This is the magic potion that is sold by their slick propaganda machinery that is supposed to be the last recourse of a disgruntled citizenry in a democracy. (Even when liberal democratic principles and constitutions uphold the right of the people to rise up against unjust rule.)

Ergo the real work of the Commission on Elections under any administration is to ensure that every electoral exercise has a modicum or a semblance of “fairness, honesty and credibility” to preserve the status quo.  This, even as it facilitates and covers up the maneuvers of the different factions of the ruling classes vying to hold the reins of power (foremost of which are those of the ruling faction and the foreign interests behind it, especially the US).

Elections as quick fixes, no matter how ingrained the mantra of democracy, can only go so far in covering up the problems of a society in convulsive crisis and in pretending to provide the solutions — the “change” — that a people groaning under intolerable exploitative and oppressive conditions so desperately seek. #


Published in Business World
9 May 2016

April 25, 2016

Elections — the ultimate con game

Whoever figuratively likened Philippine elections to a circus decades ago could not have imagined how literally true the metaphor has become these days. Aside from the carnival atmosphere and blaring jingles, there are the candidates trying all sorts of tricks to dazzle and convince us of their worth, and the assortment of clowns and bizarre side shows.

The kind of fakery expected from candidates includes motherhood statements about concern for the poor and underprivileged and the willingness to serve no matter the personal sacrifice.  For incumbent officials or politicians poised for a comeback, there are the exaggerated claims of achievement such as thousands of scholars and grateful charity patients plus a train of downtrodden folk who supposedly benefited from the candidate’s kindheartedness and generosity.

Then there are the perennial promises: to wipe out corruption and criminality; to uplift the poor; to provide jobs and basic social services; to grow the economy; to make government transactions transparent and officials accountable; to lead by example; etc. ad nauseam.

Personal narratives intended to make the candidate appear to be a man or woman of the masses are part of the stratagem.  The five presidentiables exemplify this old ploy.

Jejomar Binay grew up poor and struggling, at some point allegedly having to feed slop to pigs. The dark color of his skin and modest height are used to underscore his humble beginnings.  Several terms as Makati City’s mayor supposedly seals his credentials as a more-than-able and pro-poor public official.  Nothing is said about how he became incredibly rich just by being a public servant.

Rodrigo Duterte is the macho, foul-mouthed, no-nonsense man-of-action.  His claim to fame is Davao City’s touted crime-free, peaceful and disciplined social environment.  He may not be virtuous, nor does he display the requisite good manners and right conduct for the presidency, but he is supposedly the decisive leader the country needs to create order from the chaotic mess we are in.  We are asked to disregard disturbing reports about extrajudicial killings sanctioned by Mayor Duterte and suspicions that his quick-fix solution to criminality is via authoritarian rule.

Grace Poe’s narrative as a foundling, despite her being adopted by a well-to-do showbiz celebrity couple, and her almost being disqualified from running on this score, has given her a patina of being an underdog.  She also capitalizes on her late father’s film persona as hero of the oppressed.  Poe complements this mystique by her simple and straightforward demeanor that makes her appear accessible to ordinary folk.  Still, questions about her qualifications and patriotism continue to dog her candidacy.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago capitalizes on her middle class background and her achievements as a seasoned lawyer, judge and legislator. Her witticisms, sharp tongue and legendary temper directed effectively against her political pet peeves goes hand-in-hand with her cultivated image as the nemesis of corrupt and incompetent officials.

Too bad for Mar Roxas, there can be no denying that his background reeks of wealth and privilege as scion of Negros sugar barons and the Roxas political dynasty.  His academic credentials as graduate of an exclusive American university; his work as an investment banker; his record as a bureaucrat then a legislator under several administrations; his campaign based on the tiresome “daang matuwid” catchphrase of the incumbent regime while taking advantage of government resources to fuel his campaign — all these reinforce the perception that Roxas knows little about the travails of the common tao, much less does he empathize with their plight. So much for his narrative.

As to be expected, whatever platforms these candidates stand for are reduced to platitudes, pie-in-the-sky promises, or bombastic demagoguery that have nothing to do with finding genuine solutions to the fundamental problems of Philippine society.

As the elections day draws near, the mudslinging becomes even more frenzied. Every candidate’s gaffe or deepest, darkest secret is pounced upon by his or her opponents to try to pull that candidate down or gain an advantage before the next round of election surveys. The side shows keep the public preoccupied, distracted, entertained or disgusted as the case may be.

In the midst of all this, the technical operators of the grand electoral carnival do their thing, their presence and service accepted as a necessity, their competence and efficiency assumed and taken for granted.  As in a real carnival, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) in this case is responsible for seeing to it that all the rides, all the tricks and special effects, are safe and secure with all necessary safeguards in place. A single flaw, a single missing bolt or defective electrical circuitry could result in fatal disaster.

The COMELEC has always had a spotty if not downright suspect record, but controversies and charges of anomalies are invariably brushed aside as mere "sour graping" by losers. Two elections have been held using the automated election system (AES) with COMELEC allowing a US-based multinational corporation, SMARTMATIC, to do the electronic count and canvass without the safeguards provided for by law, akin to allowing the ferris wheel and roller coaster rides to operate without checking the integrity of the mechanical and electrical components.

The hacking of COMELEC’s vast database dubbed “COMELEAK” has compromised security of voters' data and makes voters vulnerable to all sorts of heists via identity theft.  This only shows what kind of work ethic the COMELEC works under --  gross negligence instead of due diligence in performing its crucial task of safeguarding the sanctity of the ballot;  irresponsibility rather than responsibility.

COMELEC continues to promote the myth that speed in counting the ballots and transmitting results using the AES can substitute for accuracy and dependability in reflecting the will of the electorate.  Moreover, in the era of pre-election and post-election exit surveys, the credibility of the polls seems to hinge on whether the outcomes hew closely to the foregoing survey results no matter an abundance of election anomalies.

The illusion of elections as a democratic exercise is maintained by the noise and the hoopla of the electoral circus.  To place our hope for real change in such periodic spectacle is to allow ourselves to be conned as well as screwed again and again. #

Published in Business World
25 April 2016

April 17, 2016

The lure of strongman rule

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is leading in the latest surveys on who voters are inclined to choose as vice president come May 9.  The news is troubling as well as perplexing.

The prospect that the political heirs of the Dictator Marcos will be returning to Malacanang marks a major advance in the full blown historical revisionism pertaining to the Marcos era and the recycling of the Marcosian legacy as blueprint for national progress.

We are faced with the concrete reality of the full reinstatement of the Marcoses in this nation’s politics after serially capturing gubernatorial, congressional and senatorial positions.  Whether or not Filipinos will become the laughing stock of the world, as Marcos oppositionist Sen. Serge Osmeña puts it, certainly the joke will be on us.

The general thrust of Marcos Jr’s campaign has been to paint his father’s 20 years as president, 14 of which was under martial rule, as the “golden years” of the nation and to completely deny all its egregious wrongdoing as either nonexistent, exaggerations or mere exceptions to the rule.  History’s judgement that the US-backed Marcos dictatorship was an abomination that was rightfully overthrown by our people can only be further obscured and undermined.

The massive and systematic violations of the people’s democratic rights; the plunder of the national treasury, economy and patrimony by the Marcoses, their local and foreign business cronies and favored multinational corporations and banks; the surrender of economic sovereignty to the IMF-World Bank; the surrender of national sovereignty to US imperialist geopolitical interests foremost of which were the US bases on Philippine soil; the monopoly and abuse of power and the brutal suppression of any and all opposition; the entrenchment of a culture of corruption, gangsterism and impunity in the civil and military/police bureaucracy and the list goes on — these crimes against the people and the nation have yet to be fully accounted for much less punishment rendered to those accountable.

Wielding unrestrained state power to the hilt with the full backing of the US and with the legislative and judiciary branches of government under his heels, Marcos became the quintessential bureaucrat-capitalist far surpassing any of his predecessors and eventually becoming the envy of his successors.

Marcos Jr. is already taking advantage of the collective amnesia that has taken hold of the national consciousness, aided and abetted by negligent educational and cultural institutions including the dominant mass media. The quest for truth and justice will surely become more unreachable as the Marcoses leverage their national political clout to further hamstrung efforts to flush out their ill-gotten wealth; grow their grassroots mass base and political machinery; spread their influence within the state security apparatus; rekindle close ties with US political leaders and strategic agencies; and cultivate an image of a “visionary” and “strong” leadership in popular culture as well as in elite social circles.

It must be perplexing to the leaders of the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacanang (CARMMA) and similarly-minded and motivated groups, why Marcos Jr’s ratings have even gone higher instead of going down as they had hoped.

There are some who say that the high profile anti-Bongbong Marcos campaign has merely promoted his candidacy rather than dissuaded people from voting for him.  Any conclusion, however, that there is this cause-and-effect relationship is purely speculative and suspiciously self-serving.  It leads to the unacceptable conclusion that we should just all have kept quiet and let Marcos Jr. claim his victory after a seemingly unstoppable, well-oiled campaign.

The Left is even twitted for belatedly launching the campaign to thwart Marcos Jr’s bid to become vice president; more to the point, that the Left should have stepped up the campaign when Marcos Jr. ran and won as senator three years ago.

Perhaps the Left had underestimated the capacity of the Marcoses to bounce back, what with all the loot they still have hidden and the opportunistic politics of accommodation practiced by the ruling elite.  The Left probably underestimated the effect of thirty years of relative freedom for a generation of young people who had no basis of comparison with the dark years of martial law.  And most of all there was the underestimation of the gall by which these thick-skinned Marcoses can present themselves as our nation’s saviors after having ravaged its wealth and brutalized its people.

CARMMA and other groups have raised important issues such as the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth and their continuing efforts to block the recovery of monies, jewelries, art works, etc. The Marcos family’s profligacy was also legendary and examples of extremely high living were brought out to remind the public.  Cronyism had reached new heights during martial rule with Marcos and his henchmen dividing up sectors of the economy among themselves for plundering and profiteering.

It was pointed out that Marcosian economic policies and programs that were prescribed by the IMF-World Bank and lobbied for by foreign chambers of commerce were proven to be anti-poor and anti-national economic development while conversely being pro-rich and pro-foreign monopoly capitalist.  These gave rise to a ballooning foreign debt; a labor export policy to stave off high unemployment and social unrest; and exacerbation of the chronic problems of landlessness, poverty and socio-economic backwardness.

CARMMA has been hounding Marcos Jr. nationwide at his campaign sorties despite limited resources. Other groups have stepped forward issuing statements to refute the claims and outright lies of the Marcos camp.  They have mounted plays and concerts, launched signature drives and utilized the social media to reach out to the millennial generation.

Nonetheless it is a jarring realization that despite the dictator’s overthrow thirty years ago, the legacy of martial law — of nothing less than open fascist rule — has not been decisively defeated and uprooted.

In the final analysis, what we are up against is an iniquitous, unjust, and undemocratic social system that gave rise to Marcos strongman rule.  It is this same system that has been perpetuated by all the post-Marcos regimes even continuing many if not most of the dictatorship’s decrees, policies and programs that they had previously decried. The dire effects have mutated into worse and multiple forms.

Indeed, the Left has a lot of catching up to do to avert what is looming as another tragedy ala-Santayana. The steady rise of Marcos Jr. in the polls can partly be explained by the popular notion that "things were better during the Marcos era". This means that many still attribute the worsening ills and crises of Philippine society, especially the deteriorating living conditions, to the individual faults and failings of the post-Marcos regimes rather than see these as cumulative damage in an oppressive and exploitative social system aggravated by the global economic crises.

Frustration and ignorance of history’s lessons has made another strongman, iron-fisted rule attractive to today’s voters.  Perhaps this is what the surveys reflect. #

Published in Business World
18 April 2016