Ballots And Bayonets In The Philippines


Elections threaten throughout our region but few can rival the campaign in the Philippines for violence and corrupt practice. An odious regime and a murderous military have lost the plot as a rambunctious nation of over 90 million frustrated people shuffle towards potential disaster. 

Yet the Australian media pays little heed to "the other archipelago", showing much more concern about Indonesia and the island states of the Pacific. Our lack of concern could change, however, if things go sufficiently wrong in today’s election. This is a general election for every position from village captain and mayor to the presidency. The last presidential contest was in 2004 when incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is widely believed to have stolen victory from the since deceased matinee idol Fernando Poe Jr.

The incoming president will inherit a gargantuan debt. Fiscal collapse is imminent and a major restructuring of the revenue system is urgent but it looks like rival forces will inhibit genuine reform. The wealthy landowners and businessmen want to move the Philippines away from rice self-sufficiency (already gone) towards greater food security (that is, a reduction in corporate tax and the introduction of more agribusiness projects into the countryside, pushing farmers from the land).

Campaigning started illegally last year when various officials looted government coffers to finance their campaigns and fled to their bailiwicks, leaving no funds for flood relief when Metro Manila was nearly washed away during tropical storm Ondoy in September. Lacklustre Senator Noynoy Aquino was catapulted to frontrunner by the death of his mother — the brave but ineffectual former president Corazon Aquino — the month before. Noynoy has more or less stayed ahead of the bunch ever since and will probably be elected head of state today.

Voters are being offered two alternatives, both of which will  take them back to the past.

On the one hand, BongBong Marcos — the son of the dictator who is running as a candidate for the senate — and a host of former cronies are campaigning to consolidate their power and wealth. These kleptocrats have been able to reinvent themselves in a nation that has been denied any sort of truth and reconciliation process. The scurrilous Imelda Marcos battles on at 80 as the hostess with the mostest. The architect of the martial law of the 1970s and early 80s, Juan Ponce Enrile, is president of the Senate and chairs its human rights committee! Ex-general (and former president) Fidel Ramos remains the most powerful person in the country. Former Marcos torturer and coup plotter Gringo Honasan is a senator. So too is fellow enforcer Ping Lacson, but he was exposed in an ugly murder case and is now on the run.

Disgraced ex-President Joseph Estrada, convicted of the capital offence of plunder, is seeking the presidency again as well. He retains massive support among the poor.

The other way back to the past is offered by Noynoy Aquino. Inexperienced and out of his depth, he already seems the reincarnation of his mother, who tried gallantly to rule, but was unable — and frequently unwilling — to rein in the political elites. Noynoy represents business interests and his effort to distance himself from his family’s influence is laughable. The family owns Hacienda Luisita, an enormous sugar estate in central Luzon.

The Arroyo administration’s candidate, Gilbert Teodoro, is Noynoy’s cousin, an indication of the incestuous nature of Philippine politics. More of the same is what is offered to Filipinos: a journey into the past with the entrenched Marcosista elite or the faltering, ill-prepared liberals like Noynoy Aquino. Interest in the election has consequently ebbed dramatically. The promise of money in various forms, including massive vote-buying, will keep many engaged, but others have long since despaired of worthwhile change through the ballot box.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) broods in the wings, of course. It is already interfering in the running of the election, campaigning ruthlessly against progressive candidates. That the military might seize power hardly computes, however. It already acts with complete impunity, killing or "disappearing" hundreds of the regime’s opponents, and retired generals fill dozens of senior government positions. There will be no coup as such, but if things go badly today, the AFP will probably assume a higher profile as the so-called bastion of the people. 

The poll has been mired in difficulties, so much so that experts doubted that it would push ahead. This will be the first election in which voting will be fully automated. The Philippine Daily Inquirer has been following the various problems with the machines closely.

There will be plenty of opportunities for skulduggery in the poll and the campaign itself has been marked by violence.

Electoral violence came to a head on 23 November last year when police and soldiers under the control of a powerful clan in the southern Philippines killed at least 57 people, including 31 journalists. The group was travelling to the provincial capital to lodge the papers of a rival candidate for governor when set upon and mutilated. The Maguindanao massacre stunned the world, but little happened as a consequence. The Arroyo regime is deeply implicated in the atrocity, yet the government was left to investigate itself and charges are being dropped as witnesses evaporate.

Last year’s violence in the south wasn’t isolated and there’s been no shortage of farce this year. One example can adequately suffice: to rectify in some small part the disgraceful way in which political clans and landlords tie up all the electoral positions in the country, the 1986 constitution introduced a party-list system to give a small number of congressional seats to marginalised, underrepresented groups like workers and peasants. This excellent initiative allowed genuine representation of millions of Filipinos, but it has been widely abused and many scoundrels have taken advantage of this part of the fragile and narrow democratic space. Human rights abuser and ex-General Jovito Palparan was recently able to enter the lower house, for example.

Now Mikey Arroyo has stepped aside to allow his mother to run for congress and reconstitute the political system to allow a parliamentary form with herself as speaker (dubbed the Putin model). Most recently, Mikey has decided to represent impoverished tricycle drivers while ex-general and Arroyo minder Angelo Reyes has stepped forward to represent poorly paid security guards. The Commission on Elections upheld these moves, declaring that tricycle drivers and security guards could never represent themselves adequately in parliament. National boxing hero Manny Pacquiao heads a group for pugilists, a neglected category!

The rot has well and truly set in and there’s plenty of scope for instability and dirty tricks on election day.

The Arroyo forces are in disarray, indeed, Arroyo has been the most loathed leader in recent history so incumbency offers no advantages. The AFP is surly as hell and will increase its acts of state terror. Another incident like the Maguindanao Massacre is anticipated. Does any of this matter to Australians? Let’s hope we don’t find out.

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