Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jueteng, wives, showbiz and the 2007 elections

Special to abs-cbnNEWS.com

What is the connection between jueteng, wives and showbiz in our elections? They are symptoms of the terminal sickness of our electoral system, one money politics, next, political dynasties, the last, actually all three, the bankruptcy of our political parties.

Midway into the campaign, it looks like "elections as usual." Political clans dominate local races. In some cases, as in Negros Oriental, the clan is so dominant relatives end up competing with each other. Political parties are even weaker than in past elections as politicians in the administration camp scramble to find the best deals and jump from one party to another. The President and her political operatives are the most powerful players, using the government machinery and money from a variety of sources to secure the victory of their candidates. The administration has prepared well for this election. The new national budget has billions of pesos in intelligence and other funds that can be used for the campaign. The opposition is having difficulty getting local candidates and raising funds.

The fact that Ronnie Puno is reportedly overall coordinator says a lot about administration strategy. Puno has a reputation as an accomplished election operator, playing key roles in the election of several presidents going back to Estrada. From his position as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, Puno laid the groundwork for his operations by removing several elected local chief executives and moving police officers about several months ago. Although Puno did not always succeed, witness Makati's Jojo Binay, and several mayors and governors complained about the police reshuffle, Puno has already established what we might call a balance of terror. Puno also laid the financial and organizational groundwork for Kampi pirating of Lakas people. The medical problems of Mike Arroyo may complicate matters because he reportedly holds the key to the cash box.

At the COMELEC, Abalos continues as chair, making patently partisan statements and decisions. The COMELEC decision on the Cayetano issue, and the party list nominees controversy are very fishy. New commissioners sometimes can overrule Abalos, but thats only when decisions are put before the commission. Cheating operations are often outside of the commission's reach. Questionable decisions on the printing of election forms has raised suspicions that past cheating operations using deliberately overprinted forms might be in the works. Former Defense Secretary Nonong Cruz tried to prevent the kind of military intervention exposed in the Garci tapes. One of the first things retired police general Ebdane did when he replaced Cruz was to reverse Cruz's decisions. Esperon, another general exposed in the Garci tapes, is now chief of staff of the AFP, even better placed than in 2004 to assist his benefactor, Arroyo.

Is the result of the election a foregone conclusion? Because there is no presidential election, the government will remain in power no matter what happens. Because all the races are local except for the Senate and party list races, mostly local issues will be determinant. What cannot yet be determined is how the President's persistent unpopularity will affect election results. An April 2007 SWS survey shows distinct voter preference for opposition candidates at all levels, but with gaps small enough to be covered by machinery and cheating in local elections. Another, possibly more important development is the intensifying competition between Lakas and Kampi, two pro-administration parties. Whether or not a lame duck president can keep both warring political parties within her camp will determine a lot of what happens in the next three years.

Senate race

The closest thing to a referendum on the Arroyo administration is the race to fill 12 slots in the Senate. This is not just because it is the only direct administration-opposition face-off. It is also because many of the key fights in the past year and a half – election fraud investigations, Proc.1017, EO 464 - were between the president and the Senate. With only four of the remaining 12 (Enrile, Santiago, Lapid, Revilla) senators consistently in the administration side, and eight (Roxas, Pimentel, Cayetano, Jinggoy Estrada, Gordon, Madrigal, Biazon and Magsaysay) taking opposition stances, an eight-four opposition victory in the coming election would provide the 2/3 vote necessary to convict in an impeachment trial. Even five GO seats, a foregone conclusion, will maintain an opposition majority.

The administration would have to cheat massively to get more than three, maximum four seats. Genuine Opposition (GO) candidates, Legarda, Lacson, Pangilinan, Villar, Escudero and Cayetano have consistently topped the voter preference surveys. The remaining six seats are being contested by three GO (Aquino, Osmena, Pimentel) candidates, five administration (Recto, Angara, Arroyo, Sotto, Defensor) and one independent (Honasan). Of the administration candidates within striking distance, only Mike Defensor has been consistently pro-administration. Re-electionist senators Recto, Arroyo and Angara have taken anti-administration stances in the past year. Honasan is in jail for supposedly plotting a coup against the Arroyo regime; Sotto was with the Fernando Poe, Jr. camp in the 2004 election.

If you look carefully at this list of front runners, 11 out of 15 are either incumbent or past senators; the four younger candidates are all current or past (Defensor) members of the lower house. They are not too different in political backgrounds or records. The only thing that distinguishes them from each other is that most of them, including candidates on the administration slate, have taken anti-administration stances in the past year and a half. It is in this race that anti-Arroyo public opinion is being expressed. Administration people understand this. It is the reason why more prominent possible candidates, for example, in the Cabinet, refused to run. As a result, the administration had to recruit recycled opposition people such as Sotto and Oreta-Aquino and marginal nuisance candidates such as Kiram, Singson, Magsaysay and Pichay. Neither the administration's showbiz candidate, Montano nor independent Richard Gomez look like serious contenders.

The campaign, thus far, has been lackluster. People do not have handles, issues from which to make choices. The administration slate clearly has more resources, though in the past few weeks, administration candidates Kiram and Montano have complained about not getting money promised to them. While media reports focus on campaign sorties in the provinces, the more important "race" is on TV. The administration candidates might have a slight edge here, but this "air war" is clearly being fought by individual candidates not whole slates. The administration says that their superior local machinery will overcome voter preferences shown in surveys. In practice, local political clans are making deals that cut across the two slates. Local officials, for example, in ARMM provinces, will matter to the administration slate only if they can arrange cheating.

Coffeeshop scuttlebutt and more and more open accusations show that administration operators are concentrating on the Senate and party list races. Although victory in the Senate race is measured in the millions, approximately 15 million for top slots, the 8th to the 15th slots will be determined in the hundreds of thousands. This is where syndicates of current and retired COMELEC officials play a role, selling votes, doing "dagdag" (add), "bawas" (subtract) operations. This can be done by pre-stuffing ballot boxes, and/or doctoring result lists at the precinct, municipal and provincial levels in a very sophisticated, highly developed 'market'. Although the Palace and the COMELEC deny that these operations are in place, all politicians, especially senatorial candidates and their campaign staff take this into consideration.

Party list operations by Palace operatives are more extensive in this election. A large number, at least 12 according to Akbayan which first made this an issue, were created, financed and organized by Palace operatives and by other government agencies including the AFP and the National Security Adviser. The reason the COMELEC is not providing the list of nominees is that many of them are reportedly incumbent government officials. By keeping them secret, if they win they will resign, but if not they will remain in place whereas by law they should resign once they file. The first and second nominees of APOI (Akbay Pinoy OFW-National, Inc.) are allegedly Interior and Local Government undersecretary Melchor Rosales and National Capital Region director Rodolfo Feraren, respectively.

The most active is the MalacaƱang Office of External Affairs which was created as a reward to former Leftist operatives who successfully helped in Arroyo's election in 2004. Among those reported in the media are Assistant Secretary Marcelo FariƱas II of the Office of External Affairs who was instrumental in the formation of Agbiag! Timpuyog Ilocano, Inc. Office of External Affairs operations reportedly extend to arranging the accreditation of party-list groups. The accreditation of the ARC (Alliance of Rural Concerns) was reportedly arranged only after its organizers agreed to make Archie Santiago (son of Sen. Miriam Santiago) their number one nominee. Local politicians who started the subversion of the party list system in 2004, have extended their operations. The second nominee of KALAHI, allegedly representing OFWs, is Atty. Karlo B. Nograles, son and Chief of Staff of House Majority Leader Prospero C. Nograles, who is also related by marriage to Congressman Vincent Garcia (2nd District, Davao City), Congressman Antonio R. Floirendo (Davao del Norte) and Cabinet member Rodolfo del Rosario.

The reason for these operations is, of course, the possibility of a third impeachment attempt. Palace operatives are worried enough that they've made a major effort to get their people elected to party list seats. In an effort to hide this bastardization of the party-list system, the COMELEC has taken the ridiculous position that nominee lists are supposed to be kept secret. There are also operations to prevent the election of opposition party list organizations. The military has worked assiduously against national democratic party list groups, using extra judicial killings and harassment of the rural and urban poor base. If the government succeeds in getting the COMELEC to agree to disqualify the national democratic party list groups Bayan Muna, Anak Pawis, and Gabriela that will remove at least six party list seats which have, so far, been with the opposition.

Congressional races

Congressional races provide the bridge between "national" and "local." The contests for congressional seats at local districts are being watched carefully because these will determine whether the opposition can get the (roughly) 81 votes constituting one third of the 242 district and party list seats (assuming 24 seats will be allocated). It's going to be difficult. More than half of the races are "no contest". Incumbents or dominant local clans control as many as 133 out of 219 districts, of which only 25 are opposition. There are another 32 contests where opposition candidates have even chances of winning. The other contests are between parties of the administration, most importantly Lakas and Kampi. It is difficult, at this point, to determine whether there will be enough opposition votes for impeachment.

The problem is the nature of political contests at the district level. Local political clans build up their power bases at the municipal level, possibly at the provincial level, but invariably target district congressional seats. It is through these seats that local clans "fetch" resources from the central government through 'pork barrel' and other 'congressional insertions' in departmental budgets. Contracts, franchises, protection rackets and other money-making deals are negotiated by congress people. Only the most powerful governors such as Bohol's Aumentado and city mayors such as Quezon City's Belmonte can negotiate directly with Malacanang. Since the sustainability of local political machines are dependent on access to central government resources, almost all of which is controlled by the President, only local politicians who have no choice, have access to other resources, or the few who vote according to their principles, dare to go against the President.

Political clans are clearly dominant in congressional and other races. Although comparative data still needs to be gathered, there are a number of indicative figures. Even if you exclude women who clearly are in power for themselves, among congressional candidates there are 42 wives, daughters and mothers of incumbent or immediate past male members of the House running. Examples of interlinked clan control of mayorships, gubernatorial and district positions can be found all over the country. The most dramatic is the case of third term Basilan Governor Wahab Akbar who is running for the House, whose first wife Jum is running for his old position. Akbar’s second wife, Nur-in, is running for mayor of Lamitan City. Akbar’s third wife, Cherry Lyn Santos, is running for mayor of the capital city of Isabela. His two nephews, Waluso Mayor Sakib Salajin and Lantawan Mayor Tahira Ismail are running for re-election. Basilan has eight municipalities, including a new town named Akbar, that was carved out from the towns of Tipo-Tipo and Tuburan.

Because Philippine elections have become so expensive, illegal sources of cash are at a premium. In two large provinces near Manila, Pampanga and Batangas, jueteng is a key issue. Lilia Pineda, wife of reputed jueteng lord Bong Pineda, is running against incumbent governor Lapid, who has himself been accused of skimming proceeds from lahar quarrying. Pineda, not incidentally has long been reported to be a principal financier for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In Batangas, incumbent governor Sanchez is reportedly a major jueteng lord. Further south, in Camarines Sur, Congressman Luis Villafuerte is publicly feuding with son, Luis Jr., incumbent governor. Luis Jr. is rumored to have wanted jueteng cut back, but Luis Sr. insisted that expensive elections require handy sources of liquidity.

Arroyo has paid careful attention to the needs of local governments and the clans who control them. In contrast to Ramos and Estrada who held back Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) payments, Arroyo has consistently delivered. She is the first president, however, who has been so obviously partisan in the disbursement of pork barrel. Starting in 2005 when the Garci scandal broke, opposition members of the House have not received their pork barrel allotments. At key points in the impeachment and Cha-cha struggles, only pro-administration congress people would receive disbursement documents. Key congressmen would get additional funds from various government sources. Arroyo support for Cha-cha initiatives was directed not just at the Speaker but also local government officials chafing under narrow term limits.

There are two imponderables in this election, one is the Lakas-Kampi competition. Lakas says it is fielding 10,000 candidates in 17,000 local positions up for grabs, including 141 for representative, 61 for governor, 53 for vice-governor, 76 for city mayor and 972 for municipal mayor. The Kampi target is also 10,000 candidates, 121 for the House, and 38 in gubernatorial races, the rest in other local races. The GO coalition led by the United Opposition party is fielding at least 151 congressional candidates. The only chance pro-impeachment forces have is if the Kampi wins enough seats to challenge De Venecia (assuming he wins) for the speakership, and loyal Lakas congressmen get angry enough to shift to the opposition. The administration, of course, is aware of this, so it will try to control Kampi.

Another interesting development, one that may not result in victories in May, but could have repercussions for the future, is the entry of non-politician middle class candidates. The political intent is clear in the choice of races; the target is the unpopular Arroyo. In the first district of Camarines Sur, presidential son, Dato Arroyo is being challenged by Sabas Mabulo, a former mayor and NGO worker. Another Arroyo son, Mikey, thought he would run unopposed for re-election in his Pampanga district, instead he faces a prominent medical doctor, Joey Montemayor. Fr.Ed Panlilio, a parish priest, has generated a lot of excitement in his run for the Pampanga governorship. Fr. Panlilio says he is running because a choice between Lapid, a movie actor like his father and the wife of a reputed jueteng lord is no choice at all. These challenges have put scores of middle class people into political motion, hopefully, into the future.

What is the connection between jueteng, wives and showbiz in our elections? They are symptoms of the terminal sickness of our electoral system, one money politics, next, political dynasties, the last, actually all three, the bankruptcy of our political parties. Public opinion is clearly against these trends. Surveys show this, even indicating opposition support for opposition and independent candidates. Because there is no election for president, local issues will diffuse the polarization of opinion against the administration. But we should never underestimate the capacity of this administration to botch things up. If cheating occurs on a massive scale, the diffused political situation will repolarize with dangerous concequences.

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