Saturday, June 5, 2010

Of fiestas, circuses, carnivals and elections

During the campaign period for the 2010 Philippine National Elections, my colleagues in the diplomatic circle have asked me several times how things are going back home. I answered them half-jokingly, half-worriedly that things were going as expected- politics as usual. I told them that the election period in the Philippines usually resembles a fiesta, circus, and carnival all rolled into one.

Diplomats from neighboring countries and those who have been following Philippine politics already had a clear picture in their minds of what I said. Some may have been expecting an academic analysis of the situation, but then again, I believe my description was accurate enough, vivid even. (Hey, Thomas Hobbes described the life of man as short, nasty, and brutish prior to the political maturity of states and got away with it.)


My idea of a fiesta is from a Filipino viewpoint, as in our "piyesta"- people gathered out on the streets, there are colorful banners everywhere, food is overflowing, and there are games. Campaign sorties and motorcades are similar to a fiesta as people actually congregate on the streets under the punishing summer heat to catch a glimpse of the candidates. While it's doubtful that most of the people do so to listen to the candidates’ platforms, I’m pretty sure that this kind of gathering has evolved into a communal and social gathering more than a political one. Anyway, most candidates just offer sound bites and tag lines when campaigning at street-level. They usually reserve their arguments (if any) for the university/college crowd and TV debates (should they (1) actually attend debates and (2) not resort to the pa-pogi, pa-awa, or mudslinging routines in the debates). While I find this condescending behavior deplorable, the fact of the matter is that this will continue unless the Filipino people stand up first and prove that they are ready for a mature democracy. Everybody deserves a mature democracy, but only a mature society can have it. You have to doubt the maturity of people who are swayed by celebrities of notorious and infamous natures and a nation where plunderers, rebels, and military adventurists have legitimate shots at running the country. I can’t muster any anger anymore about politicians resorting to the lowest common denominator when talking politics when most Filipinos just eat it up anyway. Politics in the Philippines isn’t just local, it’s very, very personal. Just like our fiestas, local and personal.

Throughout the campaign period, posters are plastered all over the archipelago, both legally and illegally. While the printing shops just love this period as their businesses are raking in the moolah, the already dirty places like Metro Manila become even grimier with the addition of campaign posters and stickers (a.k.a. garbage) telling people how much candidates “love” them and want to bring “change” for them. It’s even worse if the candidate has a really ugly mug or hired a crappy designer. Then there’s the problem that surfaces after the elections when these campaign paraphernalia fully transform into the trash they are, turning into vandalism on public and private walls, with the candidates never bothering to take them down. They forget about their campaign materials like campaign promises, used like whores and left like unloved orphans. Karmic retribution is delivered when the sun dries up these posters, making the candidates’ faces look live dried prunes, or when artists, vandals, and perverts use these posters are canvass, “enhancing” the appearance of politicians (a d**k in the face is art on them).

Campaign sorties also involve food. However, this factor is relative to the campaign booty of a candidate. Consider yourself lucky if you get a sandwich and soda. If unlucky, you get a piece of candy or nothing. But you will perpetually hear someone in a campaign sortie asking “mamimigay ba ng pagkain?” Filipinos love free stuff. We say “masarap ang libre”- some humorously, most seriously. While it is more proper and encouraging to hear that “masarap ang pinaghirapan,” it seems we don’t roll that way. “Isang kahig, isang tuka” leads to easy come, easy go. Anything free is fantastic for Pinoys. Remember the joke about the Filipino and the barber giving free haircut. Freebies are not limited to food, there are also stuff like paper fans and calendars with the candidates’ faces on them. You wouldn’t really want to look at the face of the guy who has yet to do something about pot-holed roads and irregular garbage collection causing you problems everyday every time you look at the calendar.

On the other hand, I also find it disturbing that during motorcades, candidates throw candies at people. Is this a sign of how politicians look at the electorate? That we are immature, indolent, and prone to mendicancy? Or is this actually a gauge of how “mababa ang kaligayan” of Filipinos really is, how lightly we take governance, and how low our expectations for our leaders are? Anyway, I’d like one of those cool-looking ballers, though.

And of course, there are the games people play. The campaign period is the time when politicians play with the intent of winning our hearts, minds, and wallets. During campaigns, the Filipino people are like the prettiest woman in the barrio, being courted by so many suitors. These suitors sing and dance for the fair maiden. They will tell her the sweetest things and the most sincere-sounding promises. They will tell her she can have the sun, the moon, and the stars. But once they get what they want from her, she is quickly abandoned. No cool-off, no LQ, no time apart. Just a clean, surgical split. Not even a Dear Juana letter.


The Philippines’ election period also resembles a circus, with the whole archipelago serving as the Big Top and Filipinos as audiences (or rubes). There are candidates who show similarities to the stars of the circus. You have the ringmaster who will promise to delight, amaze, and astound audiences with fantastic acts. Candidates will promise to end corruption and poverty, improve living conditions, and whatnot. But all you will get are the tired acts of old.

Then there are the clowns. These are candidates whose skills in governing this country are truly laughable. These guys have as much chance as the Three Stooges have of accomplishing whatever task is given them. I love Moe, Larry, and Curly, but I wouldn’t like their kind to run the Philippine government (or is it too late?). Clownish candidates have the habit of talking about things they have little or no idea of and pass themselves off as experts. That doesn’t make them mere clowns, that qualifies them as con-men. There are also clowns who don’t bother to hide that they are buffoons but revel in such fact, with the mistaken notion that if their actions make people laugh, that’s our tax money at work. They expect us to accept mediocrity, stupidity, and ignorance as a way of life so that when it is time for people to look for leaders who can represent the common man, guess who comes knocking on our doors?

There are the lion-tamers. The lion-tamers will try to act tough, as if he just put the lions in their place with their machismo. These candidates try to act big against the evils of society like corruption and criminality, yet strangely have not lifted a finger to do so prior to running for public office. Like a lion-tamer’s show, their pronouncements and actions are all for show, scripted and meticulously rehearsed. And let’s not forget, the lion-tamer is the boss of the lions. These tough-talking politicians may just be the real capo di tutti capi of corruption and criminality in our nation.

We also have the trapeze artists. These politicians perform dangerous high wire acts to elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd. Candidates like these don’t only talk tough, they talk big to grab attention. It’s also fun to see them do verbal flips, jumps, and somersaults should they find themselves backed into a corner because of their statements or political affiliations. They are either intellectual weasels or expert “balimbings,” going where their bread will be buttered. To paraphrase the Native Americans, “brown man speak with forked tongue.”

We now go to the magicians. These are political operators who are used to utilizing smoke and mirrors to hide the truth or draw discussions away from the truly relevant issues. They will use sleight-of-hand tricks and other tactics to make people see things the way that would benefit them more and to take away attention to where their dirty dealings happen. They will also make people believe they can do something akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Like pulling money from nowhere, passing it off like it was theirs and used for the betterment of society, even though that money came from the “audiences’” wallets.

Then, there are the freaks. These are the nuisance candidates who file their candidacy for God knows what purpose. Most of them are harmless enough and are eventually disqualified by the Commission on Elections. The really entertaining ones are the truly looney tunes guys- messengers of God, God himself, trillionaires who will pay off the national debt, members of secret organizations, people who talk to spirits, and politicians who aim to end poverty in the entire country (What? The last one actually counts as a valid platform in itself?). Some, like Eddie “pelukang itim” Gil, are entertaining enough. Some actually win and sit in Congress (shudder).


Lastly, the Philippine elections are like carnivals. People are just there to be happy, despite overwhelming reasons not to be. The entertainment that elections bring are enough to make them forget their worries, even though a lot of their concerns have something to do with the result of previous elections. I must admit, there is an irresistible urge to join in on the festivities and check our intellect at the door. Like the “carnaval” of Brazil, the atmosphere creates a storm of emotions that threaten to engulf the entire populace.

To find laughter in a dreary event is a Filipino trait (whether good or not is another matter). We developed this as a coping mechanism so that when the going gets tough, the Filipinos get laughing (not necessarily going). This saves us from jumping out of a window, tying a rope around our necks, or overdosing on pills, which other societies are prone to do. However, we also developed a culture of fatalism, the dreaded “bahala na” syndrome. We are unsure of the future but stubbornly cling to the hope that things will get better through some “deus ex machina" without having to lift a finger. Our society seems to have an impaired sense of urgency. We like to say we deserve a better nation and a better government. And yet, we keep on voting for the same people who failed to do anything before to improve our country’s plight. We have to stop believing in promises of change from people who were part of the problem to begin with. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing things over and over again expecting different results. Are we gripped by national insanity? Or was Conan O’Brien right, that “when all else fails there’s always delusion.”

In the end, my hope is that Philippine elections instill and awaken all the right emotions in us. That bread and circuses aren’t there to make us forget our problems but serve as celebrations of our glorious victory as a nation against the ills of our society. And that elections are used as a vehicle not to elect run-of-the-mill politicians but leaders who will lead us towards a truly strong republic.

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