2022 PH Elections - Voices

[OPINION] Election season, polarized Filipinos: Sorties in Mindanao

Tom Villarin
[OPINION] Election season, polarized Filipinos: Sorties in Mindanao
My encounters with voters show deep-seated problems arising from the flow of fake news, the rise of false messiahs, and early vote-buying

I had the chance recently to travel back to Mindanao since the lockdowns started last March 2020. For two weeks, I traveled from Davao City to Tagum City, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Butuan City, Misamis Oriental, Cagayan de Oro City, Iligan City, Lanao del Norte, as well as in Malaybalay City and Manolo Fortich in Bukidnon. 

In these travels, I had face-to-face meetings with people and politicians as my primary mission was to campaign for Senator Leila de Lima who is running for reelection – a fact that many Filipinos were not aware of, as I discovered. Some asked me if she can run even if “she has been convicted and detained.” Many have been grossly misinformed about De Lima’s condition or didn’t have access to proper information. I answered their queries with stories about the injustice done to her and how many of us have suffered the same in other forms. When I asked the Mindanaoans I chatted with about their own experiences of injustice, it is then that they could somehow relate to the senator’s situation. 

We truly need to listen and ask to get our message across. For we now live in a highly polarized society fed by untruths, fomented by hatred, nurtured with violence, and battered by hunger and disease. It’s all eating us up, making us impatient, agitated, and prone to anger. And our battleground is in the virtual world, locked as we are in our homes due to COVID-19. 

We have our echo chambers and our own versions of reality that we want others to conform to. This polarization has sucked the oxygen out of social and human relations, putting us in a bubble only with people we like.

Dam of untruths

The first polarizing situation I encountered face to face was the dam of  untruths, false information, and fake news that has been dumped in the Filipino consciousness, courtesy of social media. And Senator Leila de Lima is many times victimized – due to Duterte’s vile and uncouth political vendetta towards her, our politicized justice system, and the massive spread of fake and angry posts about her. 

That is why my two weeks of talking and conversing with people were liberating. I really felt the oxygen flowing into my lungs – literally and figuratively. Nothing beats the chance to ask and have these things clarified face to face. In this set-up, we can talk more about our similarities rather than our differences. We had the time to laugh and share our innermost fears and desires. That’s what COVID-19 took away from us.

I went around guesting in community and local radio stations. While some listeners attacked me as “dilawan” and criticized radio stations for guesting me, others thanked me for sharing information about Senator de Lima. A community radio broadcaster in Tagum, Davao del Norte, and in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur, were speechless upon hearing stories on De Lima. They told me to leave them talking points so they could repeat the information I told them on air. 

It was the same in the other FM radio stations I visited, where news anchors wanted more information, saying they were tired of being fed with the same fake stories. I left some talking points with my broadcaster friends and local allies so they could repeating them on air and to people they meet. Because with facts, there ought to be no arguments.

I also had the chance to meet a beneficiary of the anti-poverty program 4Ps that was pushed vigorously under the previous Aquino administration. She lived in Caloocan but moved back to Bislig City, Surigao del Sur. She came up to me after hearing me talk on the radio and thanked Senator de Lima for authoring the law institutionalizing the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program or 4Ps.  However, Cecile Llana ventured to say that many of the 4P beneficiaries are ostracized and called “tamad” (lazy) because they receive government assistance. She asked me to help them explain to people that the cash transfer program has assisted solo parents like her and that receiving government aid did not mean people were lazy to work. I later confirmed such perceptions about them when my cousin, a lawyer in Tandag City, said that well-off people could no longer get kasambahay (house help) because they became 4Ps beneficiaries who were “lazy” to work. I told him that 4Ps gave them a hold on their future, not because they choose not to work. I guess we just need more people to speak out and just tell their stories like Cecile. 

Voters ‘depoliticized’ by vote-buying

Another polarizing situation I’ve encountered is the “depoliticization” of our voters and our politicians. Voters have been “depoliticized” because of widespread vote-buying even before the official campaign period. With COVID-19 ayuda as a pretext, politicians have been going around giving food, medicines, even cash assistance, to people. What is worse is the use of government funds and resources to promote themselves and project that the assistance is coming from their own pockets.

In the name of public service, politicians expect people to surrender their right to choose in the elections. Whatever politicians dole out to people, these are from the people and they can receive it as public goods. It becomes vote-buying if the intent and nature of giving is to take away your right of choice. When a politician gives money and a voter transacts (faithfully agrees to the condition) with him/her, that is vote-buying. A vote is sacred and an intrinsic human right that cannot be stripped away by anyone, not even by money. 

Taking the money but voting according to your own choice is being a wise voter. But many of our voters are “depoliticized” by utang na loob (debt of gratitude), fear, and violence, that they have surrendered their right to vote.  On the part of politicians, they are complaining about the rising “cost of transactions” every election but still do it anyway. 

I had the chance to meet former House of Representatives colleagues in the 17th Congress who welcomed me to their turfs to have a chat and exchange of views. Of course, all of them want to get political tidbits on what’s happening at the national level, especially with Vice President Leni Robredo deciding to run for president. As politicians, they want to jump into the bandwagon after the November 15 deadline for the substitution of candidates. I felt at ease talking to them about Senator de Lima because they all know what happened in the House hearings that practically turned into a lynch mob against her. I told them that we could give her justice by helping her out in the coming polls to vindicate her against the lies and indignity she has suffered. I guess it was the strongest argument I put forward as to why Senator de Lima deserves their support. 

Relying on messiahs

The third polarizing situation I’ve encountered is populism. With rising hunger and poverty, people cling on to messiahs, even if to the educated they are “may sayad” (mentally unstable). Populists dazzle and entertain people but never talk about facts. They push people away from reality with promise of nirvana and worldly wealth. Thus, in Mindanao, a lot of pyramid or Ponzi schemes have emerged, used by politicians to lure people to invest. It was no surprise that I saw a lot of posters of Joel Apolinario, the founder of Kapa-Community Ministry International shut down by Duterte in 2019, dotting the roads from Tagum to the Caraga region. Kapa’s followers alleged that Pastor Quiboloy and Duterte were envious of their success thus the closure of the organization. But according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, some P50-B were collected by Kapa from thousands of poor people in Mindanao.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr has been re-echoing Duterte’s populist rhetoric that is amplified on social media. He talks about a glorious future similar to the regime of his dictator-father – without any facts to substantiate this. In the areas I visited, many people have forgotten the Martial Law years. The youth are highly vulnerable to the Marcos propaganda machine as narrated to me by Rochelle Valencia, a teacher at Urios University in Butuan City. The same sentiment was echoed earlier by April Caballero-Deloso, a public school teacher in Tagum City.  

I simply shared how I grew up in Bislig City and witnessed at the early the horrors of Martial Law – seeing civilian militias shoot a boy in a basketball court because he was a Muslim. It was a microcosm of the turbulent Mindanao in the 1970s, with a lot of massacres by the military and paramilitary groups. I also told them about how indigenous peoples in Agusan del Sur were stripped of their lands that were given to Danding Cojuangco and Juan Ponce Enrile, cronies of the dictator. Yes, we counter populists and the rise of Marcos with accounts of our history, especially in Mindanao. 

I met Emma Hotchkiss, sister of the Philippine Air Force General Charles Hotchkiss, from Cantilan, Surigao del Sur. She is aghast about Marcos’ revisionism, fearing that the heroism of his brother and the 20th Air Commando Squadron during the 1986 revolt that ousted Marcos would be for naught. She told me that the coming 2022 elections are like a déjà vu of the 1985 snap elections. With her group of brave Cantilanon ladies, they definitely will again be fighting the rise of the Marcoses to power. 

My two-week journey was not enough to convince many people, but I believe that the ripples are starting. I started reading about the “radical love” political campaign in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2019 during my five-day isolation. In the words of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party, “hatred doesn’t suit us. We will live in solidarity and fight arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder. We will strive to elevate democracy to beat hunger and poverty.” While they haven’t defeated their own dictator Erdogan yet, they’ve won in major cities. The key to radical love’s success was “one to one campaigns.” Also, they started at the local and grassroots level, definitely not on social media (as a rule, social media was used only for news and information dissemination to avoid feeding the hate-propelled algorithms).

It is indeed painstaking to organize and immerse in real conversations. While I’m still deathly scared of COVID-19, I believe we have to start the conversations now. We need to reach out beyond our circles of friends and families to show our radical love. – Rappler.com

Tom Villarin is former representative of Akbayan party list