Even as the Philippine-American War was still raging, the Americans started holding local elections, drawing away power, prestige, and taxes from our First Republic. For all the screaming headlines in Metro Manila, it’s still in local governments that the authentic face of our democracy—or lack of it—can be seen. And the most basic unit of local government is the barangay.
Of course, it used to be known as the barrio, as in Barrio Fiesta, Barrio Captain, or even that modern slur, barriotic. In Spanish times, the Teniente del Barrio was also known as the Cabeza de Barangay, who, in the earliest barrios, were the datus or local leaders who accepted Spanish rule. In exchange, Spain made them permanent, hereditary chiefs exempted from the annual period of labor required by the Spanish crown.
The various cabeza de barangay, in turn, elected the gobernadorcillo who was a kind of combined mayor and judge with a term for two years. When a cabeza de barangay died without heirs, or a new barrio was created, the gobernadorcillo in turn was influential in recommending the appointment of the new cabeza de barangay.
All very cozy indeed, until the Americans came along and made everything elective. But since the gobernadorcillos had been elected in the time of Spain anyway, everyone knew what to do, and that was, to campaign as they had always campaigned: with bands, food, promises, and if necessary, the use of the police. The cabeza de barangay became the barrio captain, the bedrock of political machineries from the turn of the 20th century until 1972.
[[Link: until the Americans came along and made everything elective
Adrian Cristobal once observed something to the effect that what Ferdinand Marcos really wanted to be was the Super Rajah ruling over all the minor datus. So it comes as no surprise what he did from 1972 to 1974: first, in December, 1972, he created Citizens Assemblies to solve the problem of his proposed constitution losing if a proper plebiscite was held. Instead, he created something called “Citizen’s Assemblies.” In January, 1973, he renamed the citizen’s assemblies as barangays. And in 1974, he decreed the abolition of the barrio and its replacement with the barangay.
This was part of a then-fashionable process of making everything native, but as you’ve seen, it also helped erase from memory the democratic system that had existed before. The 1987 Constitution, in turn, preserved the barangay as the basic unit of our government which it is today.
But here’s an interesting thing, courtesy of a scholar named Damon Woods and a provocative piece he wrote titled “The Myth of the Barangay,” which is also the title of a very interesting collection of his essays published by UP Press. Woods basically argues that historians have repeatedly based their belief that the basic pre-hispanic political unit was the barangay, on the basis of a Spanish friar’s report from 1589 on the Tagalogs.
The problem is, the friar, a Franciscan named Juan Plasencia, never used the word barangay.” It was put in by an American historian, Frederick W. Morrison, when he translated the report for Blair and Robertson in 1903. Every scholar since, Woods says, just carried over this invention and made up increasingly elaborate theories about the barangays that never existed. Instead, Wood argues the Spaniards invented the idea of a barangay—that is why they established the position of cabeza de barangay to replace the title of datu. They had to invent the concept and title because they did not fully understand the societies they were conquering and how they were really organized. Instead they roughly tried to match their own society with its kings, dukes, barons and knights, to what they encountered here.
There’s a lot more in the article, such as, the word bayan being more accurate as far as how people then actually viewed where they lived and their relationship to each other, and how the word bayan, in turn, evolved into our present use of it to mean country while still meaning our localities as in ancient days. But all this is to suggest a basic reality about our barrios turned barangays: whatever style of government is on the surface, the ancient pulse of our society—hierarchical, dynastic, violent—beats in every barangay.
Here then is how the ancient collides with the modern. Here’s a modern-day legal fiction. The barangay is supposed to be non-political. Yet barangay officials are the local leaders on which all other leaders depend. So the result is a typically Filipino exercise in hypocrisy. All politicians claim the barangay is democratic, and nonpolitical, and they all conspire to keep the barangay political and undemocratic, because officially and unofficially, the barangay is the basic building block for all power blocs.
Last week, the Senate finally passed the bill postponing barangay elections. The House had been pushing for such a postponement for some time, after Congress already postponed the elections from October last year to October this year. The House wanted it postponed all the way to 2020. The compromise is to postpone it to 2018.
Now here is where the hypocrisy comes in. You know we have presidential elections every six years, and legislative and local elections every three years. So we had presidential, national, and local elections in May 2016, and are due to have national and local elections again in May 2019, also known as the mid-terms. Notice, however, the barangay elections don’t adhere to this schedule. Technically, they’re supposed to take place after national polls, in October. But they hardly ever do. This administration is not unique in postponing barangay polls. Its predecessor rescheduled them. And so on.
Ask yourself why. To be non-political, of course! How noble. Except the practical reason is, any candidate from mayor on up, needs the barangay to form the basis of their political machine. How can you rely on your machine, if its component parts are busy competing in an election? Solution: hold barangay elections on a different date –and you wonder why local leaders keep winning? And you’re surprised that these grateful leaders, in turn, make sure to keep extending the term of the barangay officials that helped them win?
Here’s another example. Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections used to be held on a separate date for a similar reason. Out of sight means out of mind, and ARMM could provide a bonanza for national candidates in trouble in an election. But if you synchronized ARMM and national elections, ARMM leaders would be busy fighting their own campaigns to help needy national candidates. So they kindly desynchronized the elections. Finally, in 2013 they got synchronized. Whether this has killed the old use and abuse of ARMM votes still remains to be seen.
Back to the barangay. You might remember the President had proposed that instead of extending the terms of current barangay officials, he should have the power to appoint Officers-in-Charge (OICs) when current terms expire until new elections are held. Knowing on which side their bread is buttered, Congress rejected this. This disappointment might help explain something curious. Despite Congress finally passing a barangay election postponement, the President seems to be taking his time to sign it into law. In the meantime, the barangay election gun ban for this whole month began last Sunday. In the absence of a signed law, the Comelec has to proceed according to schedule.
As Emil Marañon III has calculated, as of June 20, 2017, there are 56,737,237 barangay election voters, and a subset of 20,920,968 Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) election voters. This is because Congress recently amended the SK election law expanding the vote for SK to include everyone between the ages of 15 to 30 who will in fact, receive two ballots on election day on October 23. That’s a lot of happy candidates competing to make barangay voters happy, too. What’s at stake? Budgets. Take two barangays at random. Barangay San Bartolome, Quezon City in 2013 had a budget of 29.8 million pesos. Barangay Bel-Air in Makati City in 2016 had a budget of 167.5 million pesos.
Except you can imagine that the President now asking, what’s in it for me? All the local and national leaders will have what they want, while he doesn’t get what he wanted, which was to break the local machines and build one independent of them. Instead, all postponement does is it makes all the other politicians stronger and the presidency dependent on them.
Presidents, Congresses, even constitutions, come and go—but the datus remain the same. Just call them Mr. Chairman. That’s why all politics, as they say, is local.