2022 Philippine Elections

[OPINION] The long revolution: Voices from the ground

Daniel Franklin Pilario

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[OPINION] The long revolution: Voices from the ground
'Most people find it hard to believe that our small group of volunteers went from house to house under the noonday heat without compensation. That is still unthinkable in Philippine politics.'

Many people still could not “move on,” much less “move forward,” after the May 9 elections. Some cried for many nights. Others did not go to work many days after. Still some others did not want to see friends; many have “unfriended” those who still talk ill of and gaslight them. 

In my attempt to sort things out and clarify many conflicting thoughts, I needed to listen to voices within me and experiences from the ground. There is one group whom I have been following and supporting since the start of the campaign. I even did a webinar for them just three days before the elections. They are composed of talented and intelligent young people — some of them young professionals, others still in school. But with them are poor ordinary mothers and fathers who were simply convinced that things cannot go on this way, that change was necessary. 

In a town of more than 30,000 people, this small group of ordinary citizens banded together without party support and political machinery since the town’s mayoral candidates — three or four of them — all supported BBM. With a bit of help from a few friends here and abroad, this little group went from one house to the next each day of the campaign period to convince people about the Leni-Kiko candidacy. They literally had nothing except their convictions, good will, and few collaterals. No other party in the town did anything of this sort.  

In the aftermath of the elections, their questions are also mine. What happened? How should we understand the results? Was that all there was to it? Where do we get resources — internal and external — to move forward? We spent one afternoon to process the questions ourselves and try to sort things out. 

As I listened to them explain it to themselves, and assess other voices beyond theirs, I discerned four competing narratives. 

1. Elite democracy discourse

One popular explanation can be called the “elite democracy” discourse. Marcos and Duterte apologists came out with this narrative right after winning the election in many different forms — from the seemingly academic to the most popular/populist, from op-eds to Tiktok. The common line goes this way: Marcos’ (and Duterte’s) win is the poor’s protest against the rule of the oligarchs of the Philippine society. In particular, it is a reaction to Aquino’s post-EDSA failure to listen to the poor. One Marcos apologist writes, the defeat means the poor’s revolt against “the yellow and the pink.” 

Rodrigo Duterte earlier benefited from this binary discourse (the abusive oligarchs vs. the poor people) with the slogan “change is coming,” that is, change from the “dilawan” elite rule. He is not alone. This is characteristic of all populist discourses against liberal democracy and global capitalism. This explains the success of other
“populist” leaders worldwide — Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and earlier, Donald Trump of the US and many others. Populism is the name of the game. 

How do we understand such a charge? 

On the one hand, the Philippines has always been a society ruled by the elite. From the time of the “illustrados” and “principalia” to post-war Philippines, only a handful of families have ruled Philippine economy and politics. Marcos, Aquino, Estrada, Arroyo, and Duterte all campaigned and won under the banner of dismantling this oligarchy, but did not actually do so. In the end, Marcos established and enriched his own cronies; Aquino capitulated to big business; Estrada and Arroyo, both accused of and charged with plunder, were named as the new oligarchs of our time. For all his bravado, Duterte ended his term by likewise favoring his own band of Davao and Chinese elite.

While many acknowledge the reign of the elite as a fundamental problem — the original sin, as it were — of Philippine politics, blaming it entirely on the “dilawan” (or “pinklawan” as Isko Moreno called them) is a constructed, selective and myopic view that disregards the whole historical baggage of elite rule in our society. 

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And the spread of lies and hate against one sector of the elite (the so-called yellows), the selective enthronement of a Marcos “golden past” and the erasure of atrocities under the Martial Law period have been enabled by social media networks (Facebook, Tiktok, YouTube), the great amount of money poured into these networks this past decade or so, and the thousands of trolls that have unceasingly spread such lies and disinformation. Ferdinand  Marcos Jr. himself has already admitted: “My troll army won the Philippine presidency for me.”

Our local group in the rural town mentioned above identified “fake news” as the main engine of the Leni-Kiko defeat. People in far-flung areas with access to the Internet would parrot spliced slogans from Tiktok: “Leni Lugaw,” “lutang,” “bobo,” “mahina dahil babae,” “puppet ng mga dilawan.” Marcos supporters could readily narrate the “lasting” infrastructure or the shining Duterte “legacy.” Even as our local volunteers would try to explain, these BBM supporters would close-mindedly shout and jeer at them. 

So blaming it mainly on the “dilawan” is a problematic selective narrative. But blaming it entirely on the oligarchs/elite also makes us victims of the same binary thinking. It erases the reality that simple ordinary people — and there are many of them — do not sell their votes, stand up to local political warlords and economic elites despite the temptation all these years, and “hold the moral line,” as it were. Our little group found it a joy to be welcomed — with snacks and smiles — by these poor people who have not been taken in by such lies, have not  compromised their cherished values, and have lived decent honest lives. 

2. ‘Moral politics’ perspective

This view regards the political arena as a fight between good and evil. Marcos Senior and Junior as well as the Dutertes are sometimes portrayed by their enemies as personifications of “evil.” 

On the one hand, the Christian faith considers some moral values to be non-negotiable (e.g., the right to life, the dignity of the human person, the value of truth, etc.). Not to defend these values would mean agreeing to the forces of evil. One writer describes this as “moral politics.” 

On the other hand, like the structural binaries of elite versus the masses, the discourse of good and evil makes us look down on and “demonize” others who do not uphold our values, who do not think the way we do, who are ”lower” than us, who do not understand enough. This is seen in the “bobotante” and “tanga” charges against Marcos-Duterte supporters. But the same is true with the BBM-Duterte trolls who call Leni and her supporters as “lugaw” and “bobo.” Both sides have demonized the other. 

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On the one hand, to deny that “morality” has no place in the political world is to give way to “transactional politics.” This could be understood as “the end justifies the means” which has been abhorred as non-ethical from Aristotle onwards. To give way to “Machiavellianism” and justify it as social ideal spells a dead-end for our society. The Marcos and Duterte campaign was characterized by this discourse. 

On the other hand, moral politics with its binary lens prevents us from truly understanding the actual issues on the ground. We wonder why people insist on voting someone who is “evil?” “Bakit ba gusto nila ang magnanakaw, mamamatay-tao, at sinungaling?” And yet, for many people in the most vulnerable situations, to “vote wisely” as the PPCRV tells us does not mean to follow idealistic criteria. It is to fall into the benign patronage of the barangay chairman or the mayor who has the resources when they need them most (for instance, when they need the ambulance for a sick family member or the much needed “ayuda” in times of disaster). “’Di bale na korap, basta madaling lapitan.” And therefore, whoever they endorse, we will support as well. 

The so-called political ideals and criteria for voting — Christian, civil society, or otherwise — do not easily fit the difficult situations where the majority of our population are. As long as the unequal structures of this society continue to exist, patronage politics will always hold sway. Callous politicians will always “use” the poor as they are doing today. And for moral-religious politics to condemn the “bobotante” is actually to blame the social victims.

Like the elite democracy discourse (the corrupt oligarchs vs. the pure masses), the moral politics view (good vs. evil) discourse is also a “binary construction” which hinders us from truly listening to the needs of people on the ground.

3. Views from the ground

Beyond these “structuralist” views, there are other factors on the ground that can help us understand the situation. Three more surfaced from the experiences of our small group: the force of political machinery; the realpolitik of money; and the reality of election fraud. 

Not having political machinery doomed the Leni-Kiko campaign from the start. While volunteers and supporters gave much of their own resources and of themselves, it was nothing compared to the compulsive force of political structures on the ground. We can gather hundreds of thousands in pink rallies but, on the actual day of voting, they were no match for the steady stream of well-paid BBM watchers, the endless supply of food and bus service, with promises of “swimming” afterwards, to boot. 

“We had too little time; it was too late to campaign and volunteer,” members of our group said. On the Marcos-Sara side, the drawing up of “lists” had been going on and updated before and after the election campaign. Apparently, those whose names were on the list were promised a share of “Tallano gold” once Marcos became president, or cash to be remitted to their ATM accounts, etc. Of course, these were all false promises. But people easily forget. 

The second factor that is officially “unsayable” in Philippine politics is money. Apologists deny it. Politicians are mum about it. Vote-buying is an election offense. But only on paper. People on the ground know about it; some actually expect it. While on their house-to-house campaign, those in our group were bluntly and unabashedly asked: “Is there no envelope that goes with the sample ballot? How much are you giving? Magkano?” In one barangay, a candidate had resolved not to give money; he got only one vote!

On the other hand, most people find it hard to believe that our small group of volunteers went from house to house under the noonday heat without compensation. That is still unthinkable in Philippine politics. 

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Realpolitik in the Philippines presupposes money. Before the polls, Leni was winning in a barangay that our small group surveyed. After the counting, she was left far behind. It turns out that in our little town, most if not all of the four parties gave money away (from P800 to P1,500 per voter) and all of them supported the BBM-Sara Team. Apparently, Marcos and Duterte must win, no matter who among the local candidates are chosen. One cannot imagine how much money the UniTeam spent to ensure their victory!

The process of vote-buying has also “improved” all these years. Now ATM cards and QR codes are disbursed  instead of actual cash. DSWD assistance for typhoon Odette, for instance, was delayed for five months and released just in time for the elections. Callous politicians have become more ingenious than ever. 

The third factor is election fraud. It is maybe impossible to prove this for now. But people on the ground think that something really went wrong with the voting last May 9. Real questions remain in people’s minds: statistical improbability of the election returns transmission, the unbelievable speed in which the results were reported, the close to 2,000 voting machines that malfunctioned, the zero votes for Leni-Kiko in many precincts, the questionable deals with F2 Logistics and Smartmatic, the problematic SD cards, the irregularities in the Comelec process which were called out but left unanswered, etc. 

Regardless of claims of “fair and credible elections,” these issues remain. And regardless of the seemingly big numbers garnered by their candidates, this government will always have a questionable legitimacy. It will be quite expensive to defend its rule. It needs 15,000 security personnel to guard its inauguration. Then it needs to “reactivate” a new Vice Presidential Security Group (VPSG) to defend the Vice President from real or imagined threats to her power, ironically, the President is one of them. That is just for starters.

4. The long revolution

In 1961, Raymond Williams, a British neo-Marxist whom I studied closely, wrote a book entitled The Long Revolution. According to him: “It seems to me that we are living through a long revolution…a difficult revolution to define and its uneven action over so long a period that it is almost impossible not to get lost in its exceptionally complicated process.” 

People were optimistic about such a revolution in the 1960s: Political and colonial dictatorships were crumbling; industrial and technological developments were on the rise. But Williams turned out to be quite prophetic: five decades after, this progress is now put into question. Technologies ravage the environment; populist regimes are on the rise; and cultural advance appears to have gone back to square one. 

The same is true in the Philippines. Our gains in democratic space after Martial Law have been narrowed once more. The search for common truth is eclipsed by paid trolls, vloggers, and historical denialists. Honesty, accountability, humanity, kindness — virtues we have learned in childhood within the family — are discarded and frowned upon. In exchange, society rewards transaction, convenience, cynicism, and deceit. Truly, a difficult and bleak long revolution!

At the moment, the losers in the election are feeling low and depressed. Yet ironically the winners could not also fully celebrate. 

Our young volunteers and simple mothers did not deny the pain of loss. They were honest with their frustration and sadness. But when I asked them to describe their recent political experience, ironically, the metaphors they gave were images of hope: a growing plant, deep roots, a book with which to fight fake news, a trophy of victory, a lighted torch (liwanag sa dilim). 

In our reflection forum, they reminisced with joy their experiences during the house-to-house campaign: the wonder of meeting other young people with the same dreams; the fun of being offered food among poor families they did not know; the fulfillment of being able to defend a position in front of others who did not agree; the excitement of building friendships in new places. One of their greatest joys was to fight for the hope that Leni and Kiko showed them. 

“To be truly radical,” Williams also wrote somewhere, “is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

The volunteers numbered only a few in my town. But there are 15 million more out there, or maybe even more. (With the vote counting program in question, who can really tell?) But few as they were, they resolved to continue to gather (“Dili ta magbulag, ha”), to organize their group, to correct fake news, to build more friendships, to reach out and trust others, to stand up with pride despite the loss. They will demand public accountability and clean governance, and justice for victims of human rights abuses. They will reject patronage politics. They will fight for a better future. 

Raymond Williams was realistic in the face of a bleak political situation. But he was ever hopeful: “No mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.”

As I was listening to these young people, I could sense a new kind of politics in — albeit I do not know how long —  the “long revolution.” – Rappler.com

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M. is from the St. Vincent School of Theology at Adamson University.

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