On Elections, Factions, and Fictions in the Philippines

It’s been more than three months since this year’s senatorial elections were held in the Philippines, and there have been since then plenty of people saying that, far from breaking away from election fraud, the country has witnessed more cheating this year than ever before.  I had the opportunity to witness the election process when I was doing research in Metro Manila, and, let me tell you, more things happened outside the polls than they did inside.  People buying and selling voting power, fights that sometimes end up in someone dying, “mysterious” electricity blackouts taking place during ballot counting, dozens of leftist activists being killed or “disappeared” during the past several months. . . .  People waiting patiently during the whole day, nervously glancing around showing their lack of trust. . . .  And endless lists of candidates and nominees with suspiciously similar names and even more suspiciously confusing and vague political programs.  Oh!  And don’t let me forget about the ban on alcohol consumption, effective from the evening before the election until the night of the day after.  I am still not sure whether the prohibition was meant to stop people from getting drunk and therefore casting “irresponsible” votes or rather to stop them from killing each other.

What became increasingly clear to me during my time in the Philippines was that politics in that country walk hand in hand with guns.  Extra-judicial killings take place in different parts of the country, as well as multiple human rights abuses.  Opposition to the Macapagal Arroyo-Bush regime is met with increasing political repression, and a number of movements and organizations opposing the status quo remain clandestine long after Marcos’ defeat.  Besides political repression and impunity, structural violence continues to depress a substantial part of the Philippine population, with a current GDP per capita of $5,000 and a GINI Index (inequality) of 46.1%.  The country has lived in a permanent state of crisis and emergency since the 1970s, and the so-called democratic governments in place since the “EDZA Revolution” have not seemed able (or willing) to replace the old dictatorship with policies addressing issues such as income inequality, unemployment, urban poverty, and land reform.  The Philippines is a time bomb.

Although I have lived in the United States for the past six years, I was born and raised in Spain.  When I was in Manila trying to make sense of a scenario of perennial exploitation — stemming from a history of colonialism and plunder — and lack of access to meaningful political rights, I realized that Spain had relatively recently gone through forty years of dictatorship, violations of human rights, and eternal post-civil war impoverishment.  We in Spain forgot fast enough, though, so we grew to take the opposite for granted.  We are Europeans now!  That is how we justify our collective amnesia.  However, maybe we do not have the opposite, but rather a “kinder” version of the same story.  Perhaps that “kindness” is what has paralyzed so many of us.  

Regardless of how hopeless things feel in the Philippines right now (and believe me, my personal degree of hope during my time there was pretty much subzero), I realize that there is actually more hope there than at home or in the United States.  And when I say hope, I do not mean hope for development, progress, or what we commonly refer to as a better life.  I mean hope for getting in touch with ourselves and what is happening around us.  I feel that people in the Philippines are clearer than we are on the fact that disenfranchisement does not come from personal weaknesses or shortcomings but rather from a very well organized and calculated politico-economic set-up.  The more you are able to identify that, the more effective you become at imagining a different scenario and the best way to get there.  We have a hard time imagining a different scenario because we really believe that it doesn’t get better than what we have.  And that is both our blessing and our death sentence.  The old Marxists called it “false consciousness.”  I call it self-serving fiction.

I often struggle when I write about the Philippines.  I do not want to fall into some kind of self-indulgent description of the hardships and sorrows of those Third World Brown People or perpetuate some kind of pornography of poverty in Asia.  I want to write responsibly about what I see, but I often feel that I am staying at the surface.  I do not seem to be able to dig deeper than a mere poetic description of an exotic surrounding.  The real question for me now is, what keeps us going?  And how far or into what direction do we want to go?

Someone told me that folks in the Philippines have an advantage over me.  If they get tired of playing the “game,” of following the rules, they can always retreat to the mountains and challenge the system from there: to join the armed struggle.  In fact, there are many people who have been doing that for a long time.  He looked at me and said, “you don’t have that choice.”  My first reaction to his comment was a sinking feeling.  Of thinking that he is right.  Of feeling really hopeless.  However, now I want to think that he may actually be wrong.  I want him to be wrong.  It is hard to run into serious political opposition in Europe or in the United States, but it does exist, we just need to find it.  And if it is not enough, we will continue to create and broaden it.  It may be very different from (and harder than) resistance in the Philippines, but it has to be there.  I just cannot accept that History is over for us.  History never stops, and who knows where the Philippines, or Spain, or the United States will be twenty years down the road.

A dear friend told me recently that I represent hope and future, and I feel that these are actually the two main gifts that I took with me when I left the Philippines: I carry with me a renewed hope in the future because I have been touched by people who are already imagining it and giving everything they have in order to get there.  I hope that whatever they have within them, whatever it is that keeps them going, is contagious and that we allow ourselves to learn from it.

Sandra Ezquerra is a Sociology graduate student at the University of Oregon who recently moved back to her native Barcelona.  This article is based upon her experiences during her 2 and1/2 month long stay in the Philippines this past spring.

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