Monday, May 9, 2016

From the Cockpit

As of right now Filipinos, around forty million of them this year, are standing in line outside voting centers all over the Philippine archipelago waiting for their turn to cast their vote for candidates running for president, vice president (an office elected separately from the president), senator, all the way down to municipal mayor. Even if most of the 7,107 islands that constitute the geographical area of the country are uninhabited, the Philippine Committee on Elections (COMELEC) has transported automated voting machines made by a company called Smartmatic to as many populated areas as possible. Starting with the 2010 elections, COMELEC decided to replace the time-consuming manual voting system - in which voters filled out a ballot, folded it and put it into a secured box, and which resulted in a lengthy waiting period while the voting boxes were gathered from far and wide, unlocked, and the ballots counted by an army of volunteers (a process that could take weeks) - with a machine that works like a fax, transmitting every voter form via secure connection to a central receiving station in Manila. Vote tallying is over in a matter of a few days. For some reason, people actually believed that this faster process would prevent, or at least discourage, cheating.

In the past week, Filipinos hung around their barangays waiting for representatives of the candidates who carried lists of registered voters and satchels filled with envelopes. The envelopes contained cash of various denominations, from twenty pesos (45 cents) to one hundred pesos ($2.10). In provincial gubernatorial elections, which can get heated, the money in the envelopes can be as high a one thousand pesos ($21). An average voter, if he was patient, came away with maybe five to ten bucks this past week. It's called vote buying - a quite simple quid pro quo between poor people and the unimaginably rich people who rule them. I have seen it with my own eyes - the bank notes even had the candidate's name on a piece of paper stapled to them.

For a majority of Filipinos, cock-fighting is more than just an unofficial national sport - it's a metaphor of the political process that Filipinos experience. When they vote, it's easy to see their votes as a bet for the cock that they believe will win the fight. What happens after the winning cock/candidate takes office isn't a factor Filipinos consider when they vote. Despite no one ever acting in their interests in the seventy year history of their republic, Filipinos take voting seriously - far more seriously, strangely enough, than Americans - but they don't expect anything in return. For example, the common rationale behind the election of President Benigno Aquino III in 2010 was that he was already rich enough not to feel the need to steal from the people, as every president before him did. Ferdinand Marcos managed to steal billions of dollars (not pesos) from his people before they'd had enough and drove him from power. To our shame, Marcos's personal friend, Ronald Reagan, requisitioned two C-130 transport aircraft to carry the Marcos family, a small retinue of cronies, diaper bags crammed with jewels and gold bars, along with pallets of millions of freshly-minted Philippine peso notes to Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii where he was given asylum (and where he died of cancer a few years later).

Among the candidates running for president this time is a former mayor of Davao, a sprawling city in the Philippine Wild West (or South) on the island of Mindinao, named Rodrigo Duterte. Since he announced his candidacy, he has become wildly popular among voters, mostly the poor and uneducated, for his tough talk about mass executions for drug dealers. One rumor going around is that he shot and killed his own son when he discovered he was doing drugs - crystal meth, known hereabouts as "shabu." He has been labelled the "Philippne Donald Trump" because of his routine outrageous statements, like wishing he had been the first to have a go at an attractive Australian woman who had been gang-raped and murdered in a Philippine prison. Duterte makes Donald Trump look like Gandhi. Like Trump, however, he is ahead in the polls, and looks like a winner in this cock fight.

Also running, but for Vice President, is Senator BongBong Marcos, the only son of former dictator Ferdinand. He goes by the nickname BongBong, I suppose, because his real name is Ferdinand Jr. He was last polled to be in a dead heat with another candidate. He has been trying to paint a far different picture of his father's presidency since he arrived on the public stage, claiming that Ferdinand was interrupted in his project to transform the Philippines into another Singapore, and that he intends to continue that legacy if he makes it to president. Since Duterte has dictator written all over him, provoking current president Aquino (whose father, by the way, was murdered by Ferdinand - a fact that has never been legally established) to warn Filipinos that Duterte may actually do what he says he will do and throw out the Philippine constitution, Marcos may have to wait his turn to plunder his country.

Philippine politics has always resembled a two-ring circus, with the forces of corruption and the status quo in one ring amassing as much stolen wealth as they can before they get caught, and the forces of reform and fair governance in the other going about the piecemeal and arduous task of holding a window - if not a mirror - up to the antics being carried out in Ring #1 so that everyone can see. The Philippines is just about to conclude a six-year period of economic increase, brought about by Benigno Aquino III, son of the rich and powerful - and long-standing Hacendero - Cojuanco family. Like American president Barack Obama, his term (only one 6-year term) has been spent down in the weeds of governance unknown to ordinary Filipinos. It was uneventful, lacking in drama, boring in Circus Ring #2. Perhaps that was exactly what voters wanted in 2010, after twelve years of corrupt presidents, plunder, impeachments, and stolen elections. But now, evidently, once again they want to see what the first ring will give them - or what they will spectacularly steal.

No comments: