TAXPAYERS will be spending P12 billion for the Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections today — an exercise naïve idealists say reflects our country’s deep commitment to representative democracy on the grassroots level. “The election of leaders at the barangay level is an embodiment of democracy and community spirit,” a Philippine News Agency opinion writer enthused.
However, there is a dark-side reality to this democratic exercise — as there is to our overall system of representative democracy which every politician worth his salt knows fully well: barangay elections have become a tool for the perpetuation of political clans, or the incumbent mayor and governor’s rule.
Read further to understand how this ugly distortion of representative democracy works.
The average number of voters in the country’s 42,027 barangay (villages) is 1,564, although there are cities with huge barangay such as Quezon City, where the average size is 9,886, or Bacoor City with 4,209 voters. In barangay which are the enclaves of the country’s rich — such as Makati’s Forbes Park and Dasmariñas, and Quezon City’s Ugong Norte (Green Meadows and Corinthian), and Pansol (La Vista Subdivision) — it is, of course, a well-off resident the average in the community who is elected, with really typically little interest by the voters, as barangay chairman (also called “barangay captain” or punong barangay).
In smaller barangay, both urban and rural, however, those who run for the position are mostly from the lower-middle class or even lower classes, such as small entrepreneurs as well as farmers, teachers, town-based lawyers, professionals. The head of the barangay where I live was a nurse.
Because of the barangay captains’ work, those who aspire for the job are a rather unique strata. Given an honorarium of only at most P1,000 per month, they rely for income on their private jobs or businesses, inheritance, their spouse for their personal as well as public expenses. They must also have the kind of character that is comfortable dealing with the masses, as he or she is the first government official they seek help from, for employment, medical assistance and even justice.
The1991 Local Government Code and its 1998 amendments had also devolved powers and authority to barangay officials to perform specific functions much more than before, such as being the authority to enforce environmental laws.
The barangay chairmanships have become positions of high respect: he is the first official residents’ go-to if they are in need, or require some intervention, even in collection of debts to complaints about a neighbor burning his dead leaves. They become judge and juror in spats between residents. The respect for and authority over them is reflected in the fact that they are mostly called “kapitan” or “kapitana.”
There is, however, a major flaw in this ground-level exercise of representative democracy. The captains’ expenses — from providing basketball uniforms, funeral expenses, fiesta donations, just among a few — far exceed their measly honorarium and costs allowed as barangay expenses by the national budget through the Interior and Local Government department.
Where do they go for these funds? There is likely some corruption, but these can’t be big because of the barangay’s small size and could be risky as word of corruption easily spreads among a thousand or two thousand residents. Either they ask for donations from businessmen in their area, but the main source of funding for a barangay captain’s work are from the mayor and the governor, and we can assume how these two posts could generate so much funds.
Barangay captains’ funding becomes a matter of political survival, since the post under the Local Government Code is up for grabs every three years — although the scheduled 2018 one had been postponed three times, until the Supreme Court stepped in to stop such irregularity.
According to my sources, a candidate for the post of barangay head (and roughly for such higher posts as mayor, governor and congressional district representative) has to spend at least P500 per voter, in the form of direct cash bribes, wages of campaign staff, rallies and other incidentals such as sponsorship of basketball tournaments and food during meetings with voters.
For a small barangay of 2,000 voters, therefore the candidate must spend a minimum of P1 million. “An additional P1 million to be sure,” a source said. While that amount may be small for the rich, it is a fortune for the typical lower-middle class or even lower-class barangay head. Where would he get that kind of money?
Mainly from the incumbent mayor, governor and congressman, or their rivals which have grown to have built up a sufficient campaign war chest. Mayors, governors and congressmen, of course, mostly support incumbent barangay heads, because unless they are notoriously corrupt or inefficient, the incumbents have already built loyal networks and have name recall.
As in campaigns for every post in our country, this actually is one of, or the most important, source of income of candidates: skimming off these funds from donors. This is why one of the popular political jokes in the country is that one runs for office “for the funds of it,” and that doesn’t mean corruption while in office.
Because of the barangay election postponements, current barangay heads have been in office for five years, longer than the mandated three years. No wonder that for the elections today, 7,226 barangay posts, or 17 percent of the total 42,070, have a single unopposed candidate.
The mayor, governor and district representative would bankroll a barangay head’s campaign not just because they believe he or she has the leadership qualities and integrity for the post, nor because he is a partymate, with parties now having absolutely no meaning.
They’d be backing the barangay head candidate because he would build up a machinery during his term dedicated to the candidacies of the mayor, governor and congressman in the coming elections for their positions. Of course, there could be double-crosses by the barangay head, and cases like this explain much of the political violence, especially in far-flung provinces in Mindanao, where the kapitan changes his allegiance, or when a higher-level candidate decides that one barangay head is much too loyal to his rival he has to eliminate him to win.
What results is a modern political vassalage system, from the barangay head to the mayor, and then to the governor and district congressman, and finally to the president and/or the ruling party. Our government is not really the Lincolnian “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is of and for the elite, through the people.”
The seeming efficiency of this modern vassalage system — which has little need really for popularity and media — has inspired somebody with totally no gravitas nor political popularity in President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s inner circle to dream of quickly changing our system to a parliamentary one. With his and his gang’s overflowing war chest after just 15 months in power, that is certainly within the realm of possibility, what with the media almost entirely under their control.
Thus what was naively thought by the mostly Yellow framers of our 1987 Constitution was a barangay election system that deepened our democracy has turned out to be an efficient tool for political clans’ perpetuation, even perhaps on the national level.
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