Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Black Propaganda and the Philippine Election

I've been trying to write this story for a couple of weeks. But real work intervened, a series of blackouts (electrical, not alcoholic) limited any extra time I might have had, and I'm half-serious when I say I worry about some guy driving buy on a motorcycle and shooting me.

I decided that the motorcycle thingie wasn't going to happen. I'm far from well-known enough here to be considered a threat to anyone. But there have been a few reports of this form of political thuggery in the run-up to the current election, which is also the first Presidential election in six years.

Hard to Figure Talaga
One of the pleasures of international travel is the opportunity to try to grasp what seem to be confounding contradictions. The English rudely slamming you in the back to get past you while very politely saying "sorry." The Turkish penchant for precise detail in a country that often defines the word "chaos." The ultra-liberal French banning everything in sight.

And the specter of extreme Philippine violence in a country populated by soft-spoken, non-confrontational people.

The Maguindanao Massacre made world headlines, and was repugnant viscerally, morally, and politically. A total of 57 people, mostly journalists and female relatives of the second most powerful political family in the region, shot and butchered, allegedly by members of the most powerful political family in the region.

Maguindanao lies beyond the normal reach of government here. It is part of the Muslim Autonomous Region, and according to local press reports, functions as a sultanate for members of one extended family.

The family reportedly delivered an enormous windfall of votes to the current president, Gloria Magapacal-Arroyo during the last Presidential election in 2004; an infamous, recorded phone call has long been held up as indisputable evidence of chicanery in this affair. The region receives ample government financial support, yet remains the poorest in the Philippines.

Most recently, a federal attorney let two members of the family off the hook for any and all charges regarding the massacre. Following a couple of weeks of outrage, he found "new evidence" to re-instate the charges.

Now, the Main Event
All this is just a sideshow to the main event, which pits Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, the scion of two icons, against a rich guy (Manny Villar) and a bunch of guys who won't win.

In the Orange Corner, Erap!
One of the guys who won't win is former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, who was hustled out of office on corruption charges in 2001, and who has been working tirelessly to restore his reputation ever since. Erap, as many outside the Philippines know, is also a movie and TV star.
The candidates are all color-coded here, for instant recognition. Erap was the original "orange" candidate, and has complained that Villar, a nemesis, has taken this color as well.
To my eye, Erap seemingly styles himself after Ronald Reagan, with unlikely jet-black hair at the age of 73, a twinkle in his eye and gait, and a penchant for the quick quip. Unlike Reagan, Erap has always positioned himself as a tireless worker for the poor, and his guttural voice and accent make him sound more like Charles Bronson than The Great Communicator.

In the Other Orange Corner, Manny!
Villar also positions himself as a friend of the poor. One of the Philippines' richest businessmen today, he claims poverty-stricken roots from Manila's sprawling Tondo ghetto. Those roots have been questioned by is political opponents, allegations that he says are part of "black propaganda" campaign against him.

"Black propaganda" rates with "trapos" (traditional politicians) as two of the favorite slurs slung around the political horn in the Philippines. No one is a trapo except for one's competition, and black propaganda is also the province of one's competitors, never one's self.

Villar has been darkly referring to all the blackness hurled against him in recent weeks--about his roots, whether he conspired to rig the national stock exchange in his favor, and whether he was the source of black propaganda against Aquino.

In the Yellow Corner, Noynoy!
Noynoy Aquino is the son of the Marcos-era political martyr Benigno "Nino" Aquino, Jr. (whose face is now on the 500-peso note) and Corazon Aquino, who was thrust into the international spotlight after her husband's murder, and who was ultimately swept into office during the People Power's revolution in 1986, replacing Marcos.

Noynoy has served in the Senate for several years, with little apparent distinguishment. He has taken the color yellow, appropriating the color made famous during his mother's People Power campaign.
Noynoy seems preternaturally calm and unflappable--in stark contrast to his over-animated sister Kris, a TV and movie star--or is he merely reticent? Or is he psychologically depressed, even stupid, as numerous sources have claimed?

Twice now, reputed psychological reports attesting to his depression have surfaced, only to be quickly refuted by their alleged authors. Villar has maintained that his campaign is not the source of the leaks, while calling on all candidates to take psychological evaluations now.

Meanwhile, Villar's mother was so upset by all the black propaganda against her son, that she made a long and lachrymose appearance on television the other evening attesting to her hard life of poverty while raising her son, and her hurt that he is being attacked so mercilessly.

When questioned about his mother's interview, Villar (rather disingenuously, to my eye) expressed surprise that she had been on TV at all.

Erap quickly said that he would never, and had never, used his mother as a political tool in this deeply conservative culture in which mothers and especially grandmothers are revered, even as he was being thrown out of office, arrested, convicted, and put into house detention in 2001. (Manny Villar led the impeachment effort. Yes, everything in Philippine politics is intertwined.)

In the Green Corner, Gibo!
The official candidate of the current ruling party, Gilbert "Gibo" Teodoro (a second cousin to Noynoy) languishes in fourth place in the polls. Another calming, placid personality, Gibo served as Defense Minister under GMA, and my guess is he will end up somewhere in the new administration, no mater who wins.

Gibo has been saddled with his association with the current, deeply unpopular administration. Yet ironically, the major newspapers have reported all along that Villar is the candidate that current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (and her powerful husband, Mike) really prefer. Macapagal-Arroyo (known as GMA) was vice-president in the Estrada administration, and assumed power when the Villar-led revolt gave Erap the boot.

She then won election to a full, six-year term in 2004, in an election that has remained controversial since that time, with allegations of massive voter fraud.

A Scion from God?
A year ago, Noynoy was not in the race. His current running mate, Mar Roxas II, grandson of the first president of the independent Philippines, whose surname is found on the main thoroughfare of Manila and seemingly everywhere else one looks around, was one of the favorites.

But when Corazon Aquino died of cancer at age 76 earlier this year, the Philippines witnessed a renewal of the passion that accompanied her accession to office. Cries of People Power re-emerged, and its L-shaped handsign (the L stands for "laban" or "fight") re-appeared.

Noynoy secreted himself in a religious retreat for several days, saying that God would help him decide what to do. His sentiment seemed heartfelt, and still resonates in a country that takes its religion seriously and at face value, even if most people wear it lightly.

Roxas, educated at Harvard (as was Gibo), was smart enough to see things for what they were. Once Noynoy and God decided he would run, Roxas put aside his own aspirations to join up with the man he saw as the clear favorite.

Villar and Noynoy were running neck-and-neck in the polls a few months ago. But the constant talk that Villar is GMA's true candidate and the appearance of his mother on TV have driven down his numbers. He is now tied with Erap in the polls, well behind Noynoy. (GMA, by the way, is herself the daughter of former Philippine president Diosdadao Macapagal, who was defeated by Marcos in 1965.)

It's an Onion. No, It's a Quilt
I was going to make this blog entry short and concise, but Philippine politics has defeated my effort to do so. There are layers upon layers to be peeled away if one tries to understand politics in the Philippines.

I have covered maybe 0.2% of what could be discussed. My version here is the Reader's Digest version of the Reader's Digest version.

I haven't covered, for example, the ongoing disturbances by Muslim breakaway groups Abu Sayef and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (or MILF, yes MILF, the abbreviation that is outstanding in its hilarity to US eyes), the continuing war against the Communist National People's Army, and how the rebel groups are sublimely intertwined into the warp and woof of the Philippine political quilt.
I haven't mentioned that Bongbong Marcos, son of Ferdinand and Imelda, is a senator and running again on Villar's ticket. This is no more scandalous here than seeing another Kennedy or Bush on a senatorial ticket would be in the US.

Instead, I offer up one overarching theory and one basic fact, though, that seem to be the sources from which everything else flows.

The theory is that GMA simply does not want to give up power. She's running for Congress from her home district, and there's talk she will then work to get herself elected house leader, then force a change in the constitution that would re-install her at the head of the government as Prime Minister.

There is a whole side story about the voting machines that fits into this theory. This will be the first time that automated voting machines have been used. Past elections used paper ballots that were hand counted, a process that has been ripe for fraud since paper was invented, whether in the Philippines, the United States, or anywhere else.

Yet the reported problems with the machines have been banal in their predictability and operatic in their appearance. To wit:
* the ultraviolet security stamps on the ballots had the wrong kind of ink.
* he contract for folders to hold ballots was cancelled when it was revealed they were to cost $8 apiece, an outrage in a country where half the people make less than $100 a month.
* and now, the flash memory chips have been programmed in a way that they're unable to read the ballots.

Meanwhile, in a culture that is nonconfrontational and polite (until stupendous violence suddenly breaks out), the passive-aggressive political pronouncement has evolved into a minor art form.

There's been almost-daily talk over the past few months about a "failed election," how the military will have to step in if their is one, how such talk is dangerous, how such talk about such talk is dangerous, how the national police force will be loyal to its leaders and not politicians, how a plot has been uncovered to grind the election to a halt, how a side-by-side manual count is a necessary complement to the automated count, how a proposal for a manual count is in itself a tactic to create a failed election, how such talk is dangerous, how talk about such talk is dangerous, ad infinitum.

Dark secrets, black propaganda, whispers of military takeover all fit into the theory of GMA simply not wanting to let go. She has to be out of office by June 30, according to the constitution. But the constitution was written only in 1986, and is an easy target for severe testing.

The fact to which I allude above is, Philippine politics is still dominated by the small number of families who were original large landowners before independence, and who just don't want to let go.

They are able to maintain their power through a highly centralized government, with all power flowing from the capital city of Manila, in a country that is unified only by cultural tendencies toward politeness, conformance, respect for authority, and saying "yes" with one's eyebrows.

Language Lesson
This country is a densely packed string of islands. Each of the big islands has at least one of its own languages; call them dialects if you will, but they are, for the most part, mutually unintelligble.

Even the main island of Luzon, which contains Manila and the Tagalog-speaking people whose language is, in essence, the National Language known as Filipino, has other language groups. In fact, where I live, just 40 miles north of Manila, in GMA's home territory, the local language differs dramatically from Tagalog or Filipino.

Every student learns the national language in school, and it's spoken on all the TV shows and newscasts. It's an effective enough lingua franca. But at night, in the mostly tiny homes of the "ordinary Filipino" it may be remarked that this day was particularly "mapaso" and not "mainit," let alone "hot." That barking may be coming from an "iro," not an "aso," and not a "dog." Life may be "malisud" or "makuri," not "mahirap" and not "difficult" or "hard."

English is an official language here, government transactions are in English. I don't dare venture into the ambivalence toward English in Phlippine intellectual society at this point. But I will say that English is not well-understood by 50% or more the population, particularly as one gets further away from Manila, down into the provinces. These people have no shot at better lives unless one of them makes it overseas via marriage or a work visa.

Filipinos at all levels of society use the term "bahala na" as a way of saying, in essence, God's will, and moving on. It's not passivity, it's a way of looking at things very clearly and accepting what is possible and what is not. It's tough to think of this as the Land of Opportunity, unless one is born into one of the still-ruling families.

So What Will Happen?
Noynoy comes from some of those families. His mother, good-hearted as she was, was stymied, oftentimes by her own relatives, in trying to bring about the sort of reform that commentators have been crying out for through the decades. He has shown no fire in the belly to do so during his time in the Senate.

But as the election date nears, it appears that he is the people's choice. In a free and fair election, he would win. He has already all but promised civil disturbance if he loses unfairly.

It's going to be a mess Monday and for many days beyond. This is a tropical country, and the humidity level has just kicked up a few notches in recent days as the winds start to shift in the weeks before the onset of typhoon season.

The weather is always hot here, as are the politics. This is the first presidential election in six years, so there is serious money and power to be grabbed. This country has a GDP in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and enough money for good roads, major hydroelectric power, and a skyline in its main business district of Makati City that rivals that of Singapore.

So, what will happen? Will the favored candidate get elected peacefully? Or will the current administration somehow spring an "upset"? Will the election be postponed? Will it be considered legitimate or "failed"? Will there be a military takeover? Will certain elements of the military rebel against other elements of the military? Will it take another revolution to put the candidate that people really want into office?

All of these things have happened here in the last 25 years.

As an American who watched a national crisis unfold in the US in 2000 and early 2001, when a stalemate in the presidential election kept the world in suspense for several months, when only the most self-serving "solutions" were offered by both political camps, and when the election was finally resolved through a series of court decisions that struck most people as abjectly political, I have little room to wag my finger at political scoundrels in the Philippines.

My only hope is that, shaky as the system may be and heated as the rhetoric may become, that the fundamentally fair-minded and cooperative nature of the "ordinary Filipino" will win out, that this election will be determined peacefully, if chaotically. Bahala na.


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