By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Island Politics
posted 9-May-2007  ·  
1,976 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

(First of two parts)

Mainly, I am well pleased with my being part of the human race, except for one utter disappointment: politics, the disgrace of our species. In the same vein, I am quite happy with my being Filipino, save for one gross damper: Filipino politics, our national shame. And finally, I would readily swear eternal love for my Catandungnan homeland, but for one reservation: Catandunganon politics, our provincial bisyo.

I stopped exercising my right to vote more than ten years ago. At forty six, my skepticism is permanent. I have altogether given up on Filipino politics; it could only get worse. On local Catandungan politics however, my recent extended stay in the island somehow changed my perception. As I observed up-close the developments related to the forthcoming May 14 elections, I realized that politics in Catanduanes has somehow changed since I left twenty five years ago. It has shed off much of the ferocity of the sixties and seventies. Post-Alberto politics in the island looks like child-play compared to those years of bloody and dirty, bloodily dirty contests. Look, we do not even get to join the COMELEC’s list of hot spots. Before, we were no. 1. Before, people really get personal and emotional about taking sides. Indeed, electoral struggles in the past appeared like the grand war between good and evil, fought along clear lines of partisanship, as in "if you’re not on my side, you must be my enemy, pung!" Now, as a Tribune editorial commentary has put it, Catandungan local politics is gurumok, a free-for-all. It is not anymore an epic konfrontasi of the forces of heaven and hell; it is a noisy and confused haggling for the buy-and-sell of votes, loyalties, and principles.

Are we better off this time? My answer is no. My position is that local politics in Catanduanes remains essentially unchanged. The same old formula prevails, perhaps more robustly so than before. It is a simple formula, well-understood by everybody. Its starting point is the fact that Catanduanes is such a poor province (despite appearances) its revenues cannot adequately fund basic services and development. So the local government has to rely heavily on allocations from the national budget. The most important ability therefore of a local government official is to carve out a share of the political largesse from the bigger government unit: the barangay from the municipal, the municipal from the provincial, the provincial from the national. This is the set-up where the cycle of corruption takes place. For the local official is not out to simply, innocently acquire a share of the putty for the common good but also, perhaps more importantly, for him/herself. One’s incumbency is a long, busy period not so much of working for development but of extracting so-called SOP’s from projects, a fund-raising endeavor not only to subsidize the expensive lifestyle of an elected local official but also in preparation for the next election.

It is not as if this is unique of the province. This operates everywhere in the country. It is a grand, give-and-take relationship between national and local political elites that works for the perpetuation of their power and wealth. Elections are mechanisms that come in regular intervals wherein the elites compete among themselves for access to power (to give chance to the elites-in-waiting, di ba?). The masses are made (or paid) to participate to legitimize the grab for power and the appropriation of resources and opportunities. They call this zarzuela democracy.

Our province’ dependence on the mainland took on another dimension in the aftermath of so-called EDSA revolution, making the subservience even more acute. It was the start of the trend of importing candidates for top elected local positions. The Albertos, being identified with the old Marcos regime, were rendered passé in the new dispensation, but the gap left was filled up by "imports," Catandunganons who made their millions in the mainland and had become practically strangers to life in the province. Starting with the ill-fated Moises Tapia, the trend continues up to this day, making a long list: the Verceleses, Sev Alcantara, Joseph Santiago. Even those who run but lost (Ben Talan, Armando Lizaso) were of the same mold, and so with those who aspired but were saved from disaster by keeping off (Arch. Olonan, Mark Arcilla, Jun Traballo). Now, we have candidates Manay Cely Wong and Tita Tess Reyes. They are the latest "excitements" in Catandungan politcs, both reputed as having made themselves wealthy by some unspecified means somewhere out there. Both virtually unknowns until they suddenly burst into the Catandungan political firmament. Cely Wong who? Sisay man na Tess Reyes? Ay, mayaman daa! Now they are being watched by everybody as to the extent of display they can make to prove the claims. In their candidacies, the question is not about their capacity to govern but, aber, haen man su piga taram na yaman?

Why is this so? Why has it become almost impossible for any homegrown politician to make a breakthrough in the top positions of local politics in Catanduanes? The reason is quite obvious. Winning is too expensive and the province too poor to nurture a local to afford it. In the same way that we must depend on outside sources for our needs, so it is too that we must tap external financing for our favorite form of diversion and entertainment: elections. Indeed, rare is the local guy who makes enough money within the confines of the province to be able to put up a campaign for a top local position such as for governor or congressman. Now, if you do actually become a multi-millionaire in the island, you will be suspected of engaging in illegitimate business. Walang makapaniwala. So people start imagining that concealed in the shipment of lukad y bandala are the bundles of prohibited drugs. Or that the beach resort is actually the front for a submarine port through which contrabands are delivered, ha! ha! That is actually the tragic-comic fate of a candidate for top position whose wealth is homegrown. He is suffering from the proverbial contempt for the familiar. Remember the biblical injunction: you don’t become a prophet in your own town. The rule in Catanduanes seem to be magpakalayo-layo ka muna ng matagal, magpayaman, then come back and you will be received as a savior.

But there is another way of making sense of this preference for "imports." It could be that the Catandunganons are saying: "If you’re going to buy our souls, do it with money extracted from somewhere else, not from us." If there is anything hateful, it is to be gisahon sa sadiling mantika. It also makes sense in purely economic terms: it means the infusion of money from the outside, helping the economy going. Wag nang pansinin ang masamang epekto ng inflation. It is not really very different from the infusion of OCW earnings. In fact, there are candidates we know whose campaigns are being funded by siblings sweating it out as expat workers.

But more than the economics, this tendency is indication of something more basic about our attitude. It shows that we remain beholden to things of the mainland, an attitude that is an extension of the much maligned "colonial mentality." To the islander, local products are never as good as those from the sentro. So much so, that we readily embrace the stranger, the newcomer, because of their perceived superiority and promise of novelty. And therefore we extend this hospitality to the almost stranger aspirants for top local positions. I remember how as a child I would get the thrill of my life watching a cheap perya group from the mainland putting up their tent days before the town fiesta in Virac. It was like "happy days are here again!" If elections are a form of entertainment, then the coming of the "import" candidates would not be much different from the perya performers coming to town.

Surely, there are those who will say that these views are too cynical. They will point out that these people are our own pa rin naman and that they mean well. They are our pride, having proven that the probinsiyano can put up with the mainlander. And, oh, their hearts are bleeding with the desire to be of service. And they will not be corrupt because they are already rich. Fine. We can grant that. I have talked with Ben Talan before and the guy was oozing with good will and even better intentions. Then, there was also Sev Alcantara about whom we were thoroughly pleased; his few years of incumbency could be the golden age of local governance in the province. In the final analysis, it is a case-to-case basis. But what we are saying is that if there is already a pattern of dependence on things mainland, then there is something very wrong about us. We are simply so dependent on the mainland: for our costly elections, for the basic services and "development" implemented in between elections, besides many other things material and non-material.

(To be continued)

Email your comments and suggestions to: monxar@yahoo.com

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