Election hopes sour in sugar heartland

- Manny Mogato -
BACOLOD CITY – Sugar isn’t as sweet as it once was for the landowners of Negros in the central Philippines.

In the old days, when world sugar prices were riding high, they were the acknowledged kingmakers of Philippine politics, widely credited – or blamed – for helping to install Ferdinand Marcos in his presidency, which turned into a dictatorship.

These days, with the sugar industry on its knees, the vast plantations have lost much of their political punch. But they still dominate local life, prolonging a social system that seems to have more in common with feudal times than modern democracy.

"We will just wait for our landowners to tell us who to vote for," Artemio Maglaque told Reuters when asked about his voting intentions in tomorrow’s national elections.

"We don’t want to lose our livelihood, our small farm lot, so we just do what we are told to do."

Under the harsh stare of a supervisor, Maglaque returned to his backbreaking work, driving foot-long sugarcane into the earth on a plantation that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Like other sugarcane field workers, Maglaque makes about P100 a day, and is not pinning any hope on the election changing his life.

Several workers said keeping their job was more important than exercising their right to choose new leaders to head the country, from president down to town council members.
Price Slump
During its peak, from the 1960s until the middle of 1970s, sugar accounted for about 21 percent of the total value of Philippine exports, putting the country in the top five sugar exporters in the world. Now, sugar only takes up about four percent of exports.

Sugar prices slumped in the mid-1980s due to overproduction but the Philippines suffered a double whammy when its largest market, the United States, slashed its import quota.

"The planters’ influence in national elections has been largely diminished because of the dying sugar industry," said Benedicto Sanchez, leader of an environmental non-government organization in Negros, a central island.

"But if the planters unite, they could still play a key role in national elections. They probably have no cash to bankroll a campaign for the presidency, but they surely have the warm bodies needed to elect candidates to national positions."

Negros Occidental has close to 1.5 million voters, making it one of the most vote-rich regions outside the capital, Manila.

Sanchez said sugarcane planters still held sway in local politics, sustained by a centuries-old land ownership system that virtually enslaves thousands of seasonal farm workers.

Through a system called "vote or gabot," seasonal farmhands were forced to vote for candidates supported by plantation owners or were uprooted from their small home lots and farmlands, Sanchez said. "Gabot" means eviction in the local dialect.
Waning Power
For decades, sugar planters used the sweet commodity as a springboard to political power and to expand their business.

In 1965, money and votes from Negros sugar barons helped Marcos win the presidency, defeating incumbent Diosdado Macapagal, who came from rice-producing areas in central Luzon.

To clinch their support, Marcos took Fernando Lopez, a scion of a sugar-producing clan, as his running mate.

The Lopez family now controls some of the country’s most powerful institutions, including the ABS-CBN TV station and Manila Electric Co, the biggest electricity supplier.

When Marcos imposed military rule in 1972, he broke up the sugar industry to reduce the influence of sugar barons, whom he branded as oligarchs.

Recognizing the importance of the sugar industry, he tried to build his own power base in Negros, replacing the traditional sugar-producing clans with his own set of allies.

By the time Marcos was chased out of office in 1986, the sugar barons were no longer in a position to dominate national politics.

"New power centers are emerging to challenge the landholding system," said political analyst Earl Parreno. "I doubt whether sugar barons could still deliver ‘bloc’ votes during elections."

Factors like land reform and the emergence of a strong bloc of traders controlling movements of sugar prices are reshaping the sugar land’s political landscape.

Planters are slowly losing their grip on farm workers as agrarian reform laws break up their vast landholdings, freeing people who have depended on them for centuries.

"Now, we are seeing strange names in local politics, people who have no direct links with the sugar industry," said Sanchez.











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