The Long View
Guns, goons and gold
BEFORE elections, there’s a noticeable increase in bank robberies and an escalation in instances of general mayhem, from snatchings to drug deals gone sour. The lifeblood of politics being money, which serves as the great leveler (all obstacles can be overcome by piling on the cash), and the traditional source of campaign contributions, businessmen, being in short supply, candidates have to find alternative sources of funding for their campaigns. Essentially, as Filipino businessmen have discovered they can go on vacation during the campaign season, and thus avoid having to donate money to politicians, the more enterprising among our politicians have taken to raising campaign funds by means of robberies or accepting funds from gambling lords and drug dealers.
This was explained to me by professor (and administration acolyte) Alex Magno, who told me in 2007 that the reason businessmen can afford to ignore and actually evade the politicians is that they are no longer at the mercy of the politicians the way they used to be. The era of currency controls is long gone, for example; and the old sugar bloc (divided into the faction of planters and millers) that lavishly funded politicians is gone too.
Magno breaks down the primary sources of political funding as follows: (1) Drug money; (2) Gambling money; (3) Quotas on customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue; (4) The Philippine National Police.
According to Magno, politicians are really in a lose-lose situation: Elections are getting even more expensive, but there simply isn’t enough money coming in to finance them. So, he says, the real kingpins in politics are those with illegal funds who now play the role the big businessmen used to play. But on the other hand, it’s obvious that big businessmen who still bankroll campaigns – the Eduardo Cojuangcos, Razons, Aboitizes, Lucio Tans – happen to be in industries where their businesses remain vulnerable to government regulatory pressure.
When proposals were made for government to actually subsidize political parties, the idea was so thoroughly entangled in the administration’s push for Charter change that neither Charter change itself nor other proposals to reform the political system got beyond the fierce partisan divide of administration versus opposition, which was in many ways a showdown between administration proponents of a Malaysian-style one-party parliamentary system and the public’s preference for the presidential, bicameral system. When public opinion showed itself firmly for retaining the presidential and bicameral system, administration-led efforts to actually reform the political system fizzled out.
The administration’s unquestioned dominance in the lower house and its far-from-negligible bloc in the upper house certainly give it the means to propose and pass legislation conducive to making political candidacy less expensive, opening up local and national government to new blood.
A first step could have been to revive the campaign ad ban, taking big money out of the media equation by allowing only ads for political parties, and free of charge. A second step would have been to give political parties a fighting chance by reinstituting bloc voting, where voters can vote a straight ticket, providing an incentive for candidates to campaign as a team. The third would have been to pass legislation challenging the Panganiban formula which currently makes the party-list system a joke. And the fourth would have been to pass some sort of political dynasty legislation (the simpler, the better: say a rule as simple as having only one member of any given family in local government, the legislature or the executive at any given time).
But since the administration was engaged in a zero-sum game, when it failed to get what it wanted, it refused to consider incremental changes to the existing system. The political opposition happily went along with quietly dropping campaign reform since both sides are salivating over the reconfiguration of forces that will take place once everyone’s assured the President will only seek a get-out-of-jail-free-card-style accommodation instead of staying on as prime minister.
Either way, all sides now have to raise their campaign kitties and every headline suggests that effort is well underway. All the headlines – the so-called War on Drugs, the Legacy scam, the World Bank contractor issue, the government stimulus plan, the fight over control of Meralco, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant revival proposal – suggest, at the very least, mixed motives on the part of the prominent participants in these headline-grabbing issues. What they have in common is that they indicate the revenue-raising potential, politically, of these schemes, for the politicians and parties – in reality, the political factions – involved.
Guns, goons and gold – the infamous three Gs of our politics – have never gone away. But the warlord culture that arose after World War II has entered the boardroom besides further mutating into competition between politicians who are either funded by the triads or who head them themselves. Warlordism has very little patience when it comes to public opinion and thus, zero tolerance for free speech, since these are the best antidotes our society has been able to devise against the terrorism that the three Gs represent.
Which suggests that Metro Manila, where media’s concentrated, is literally an island where democracy, much diminished, still survives: the hard question must therefore be asked. Are criticisms of “imperial Manila” actually protests against the principle that public opinion matters, and instead a thinly disguised advocacy of warlordism? For the collusion between warlords and the gangsters has squeezed out liberal democracy on the ground and crowded it out in the corridors of power in the national government.