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Mar 29

The Long View: The controlling urge

THE LONG VIEW

The controlling urge

A shrewd observer once pointed out to me that CEOs tend to obsess over specific points of data. They have absorbed so much information that inevitably only a few facts stick. CEOs will often harp on these facts, much to the exasperation of their staff.

President Duterte, the CEO of the country today, is a case in point. Forty percent is a number that has stuck in his head—40 percent of the police are corrupt; 40 percent of barangay heads are involved in drug trade. It doesn’t matter where or how he arrived at that neat, tidy figure. What matters is he’s convinced it’s true, and his actions flow from that belief.

An archeologist, a few years back, described to me the theory he’s been developing about the way ancient polities—a more accurate word than kingdoms—were organized in what we now know as the Philippines. He believed that we shouldn’t think of these polities in terms of places with fixed borders. Instead, we should think of the flow of people—their travels and their trade—and the choke points that provided opportunities for individual leaders to extract toll from people passing through to travel or trade in goods.

A chieftain might control all traffic passing through his bend in the river, and in turn pay tribute to a more powerful chief—power and prestige thus derived from the ability to hold, extract and provide income from these choke points. The same relationship can be said to exist to this day.

Academics call it rent-seeking. Many a businessman has tales of woe involving the fees and taxes creatively arrived at by local leaders, starting from the barangay to the municipality or city, to the province, on to the national government, to ensure every enterprising person has to pay a cut—the old-fashioned, vivid term is “squeeze”—to today’s petty lakans and provincial datus, all the way to the those who sit on the committee on franchises, say, in Congress or in the national bureaucracy, with the super-rajah we know as the president in Manila on top.

So while we’re used to thinking of localities as having a kind of personality—a province or a town, even a barangay, is its own thing—it might be more accurate to think in terms of people, and not places. The definition of a place, after all, is changeable, to suit the convenience of local and national leaders. In 1951 we had 52 provinces; today we have 81; in 1996 we had 61 chartered cities, by 2004 we had 117.

If you go through the history of our provinces since the mid-1930s, their creation has more often than not, been at the instigation of local leaders wanting to create bailiwicks for themselves, or national leaders eager to break up territories to oblige local allies or diminish their clout (Marcos, after an initial attempt to pseudo-federalize the country by creating regions, systematically gerrymander it, particularly in the former Mountain Province and Mindanao, to reward warlords who would help him assert control over those rebellious areas).

The controlling urge of the President is nothing new. As early as 1936, serious proposals were made to make governors appointive officials, a scheme supported by assemblymen who would then become the top elected officials of the provinces. Mayors of chartered cities became appointive officials during that time, a system only dismantled in the first decade of independence. Martial law saw a grand bargain with local officials who were freed of fixed terms on condition they remained loyal—enabling them to weather the purge of local positions that briefly upset the local balance of power after Edsa.

I’ve written of how fundamentally undemocratic our barangay system is, due to two factors: the perpetual rescheduling of barangay elections to reward their leaders who form the basis for all political machines; and the legal fiction (because honored only in the breach) that barangay officials are “non-political,” which helps account for the general futility of party-building in this country, as they’re top-heavy organisms deprived of truly local legs to stand on.

In many ways, what the President proposes—to make barangay officials appointed ward leaders—is, from a purely political point of view, logical.

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