People’s Champions

Workers on suspended scaffold in Korolyovare appearing in the Senate race: Chel Diokno, Erin Tañada, Samira Gutoc, Gary Alejano, Florin Hilbay, Bam Aquino. Will Villanueva has interviewed nearly all (link) while Samira Gutoc is introduced here (link). Bam Aquino’s Negosyo Centers and his initiatives for improving Internet connectivity are I think known. Each one is different, but each on is about serving the people. Three have a strong focus on improving rule of law: Chel Diokno, Erin Tañada and of course Florin Hilbay. Samira Gutoc has her record in serving the people of Marawi in difficult times. Gary Alejano has his focus on national security and territory as well as avoiding debt traps. Mar Roxas and Macalintal are surely each good in their own ways, but I leave them out as I lack some information.

Community or Command?

All the six I mentioned fit into the people’s champion image Leni Robredo revived. Possibly the first time since Ramon Magsaysay. Probably it was even Mar Roxas who tried to revive it, although the image that remains of him is unfortunately quite awkward. Except for Alejano, none fit into the warrior-like image many Filipinos consider “strong”. And warrior-like would even be OK, in many cases Filipino machismo is just thuggish. From fatal fraternity hazings to UP Regents threatening Ateneo players with injury (link). Or thuggish barangay captains who make the Bagong Lipunan song play inside me. The propaganda art of the Marcos era with strong-bodied datus and their broad swords. Yes, the old barangays raided (each other), traded (with one another) and feasted (link).

From Spanish times onwards, cabezas de barangay and gobernadorcillos (“mayors”) drawn from the co-opted native elite maintained control over their own countrymen in exchange for privileges. Sugar, tobacco and abaca plantations came into play later on. Agricultural and other trade lead to (Spanish- and Chinese-) mestizos getting rich also. The late Spanish period and American colonial times allowed the rich to get educated. Institutions like UP even gave the less affluent but talented access to good education. Seems the idea of bayanihan, effectively a mix of native self-help and American ideas of community service, had its heyday in the 1950s. The barangay, as a more toxic mix of datu culture and Spanish colonial mindset, returned in force when Marcos restored it.

Absolutist or Liberal?

The difference is so very clear when one sees VP Leni sitting WITH the people while Duterte or Imee usually sit on a podium, ABOVE the people. And of course there is a command tone inherent in Marcosian or Dutertian rhetoric. And when one hears how some older-generation Filipino lawyers argue, one wonders how much Spanish absolutism is still in their mindset. For instance the way “sovereignty” is used – more in the old sense of the ruling class having sovereign (or king-like) power than in the sense of asserting national sovereignty by defending borders. One must remember that the Philippines was born in the middle of the Spanish conflict between Absolutists and Liberals. Until the 1950s, you still had Filipino politicians who spoke Spanish fluently.

Whereas (to use a typical Filipino legal word, ha!) Spanish Liberalism was also elitist in nature (link), and the original “liberalism” of Filipino plantation owners seems closer to that than to the ideas of American Democrats. If one wants an analogy of Spanish Liberalism and Absolutism, one just needs to read Rizal’s Noli and Fili. The first is about a snooty elite Filipino who naively tries to apply foreign recipes without thinking about how they can be adapted to local conditions, and without getting local buy-in first. The second is about a Filipino elite master of intrigue and power games who wants to use violence and suppression to achieve his ends. As the adviser to the Governor-General, Simoun is Marcosian/Dutertian, as the one egging on Cabesang Tales, he is a “leftist”.

Arriving in Dapitan

One cannot discount that Rizal’s novels had an element of self-reflection in them. Goethe is said to have avoided killing himself over a young lady by writing Werther. Probably the self-reflection even revealed more about the Philippine character than Rizal intended to. The well-meaning but sometimes condescending tone of reformism from 2010-2016 – and the howling reaction of the “townspeople” – parallels the Noli. Today’s violence is El Filibusterismo – 120 years later. Rizal probably won over his worst instincts by letting them out as novels. By the time he was exiled to Dapitan, he served. The Liberal Party I think has learned from its defeat – and started Project Makinig (link). Probably also the influence of VP Leni, who has continuously been in social work (link).

Quiet, hard work and perseverance instead of showy projects and warlike “heroism”. Tackling the country’s issues one step at a time (Tañada wants to finally pass a Land Use Act, Diokno has great ideas for reforming the justice system – see Will Villanueva’s interviews for more details) instead of building expensive bridges to nowhere (link). Given a clear picture of what the issues are, their causes and the solutions to them, possibly the taongbayan, the citizenry, are ready to listen and return to katinuang-isip or clearheadedness. Even the most warrior type among those I mentioned, Gary Alejano, is not out to jetski anywhere. A man who has truly seen battle is not careless with lives. Yet as a real warrior he knows how to draw lines in the sand. So that people can live.

Vicente Rafael, in his book “Motherless Tongues”, describes the sense of happiness in some villages after some initial revolutionary victories in the late 1890s, and the sense of togetherness when people were on the street in EDSA II. Those who where on EDSA in 1986 know the exhilarating feeling as well. Others will know the anger at things going wrong – the anger of the Katipunan is documented way back to 1892, the anger of left against social injustice, the anger of the masses on EDSA III that Rafael also describes. Neither joy nor anger, nor a sense of unity (which is often short-lived) can build things. “Land of constant beginnings” is what novelist Ninotchka Rosca called the Philippines. Could a new batch of leaders help change that? Are the people ready for that? Hmm..

Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, 3 December 2018