Political warlords
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 20, 2019 - 12:00am

In one of the poorest provinces in the country, elections are a season of dread for many ordinary folk. A young man who has left the province with his brother and now works in Metro Manila told me that in the days leading up to the vote, the local political kingpin would deploy his armed supporters to knock on doors (tokhang is not confined to Davao) and tell residents that they better vote for the kingpin, or else…

How would the kingpin know if the order was followed? They would check the number of registered voters per district, count their known supporters, and make an educated guess when the results are known.

For his rivals’ staunch supporters, the kingpin does not bother with friendly persuasion. It just turns into killing season, ubusan ng lahi, I was told.

A member of a prominent political clan in the province, who doesn’t know the brothers, had told me the same thing, saying bodies routinely piled up by the dozens during every electoral exercise. I was incredulous, until the brothers narrated a similar story.

Aside from maintaining a private army, the kingpin, the brothers said, paid New People’s Army rebels to do some of the dirty work. The NPA also reportedly collects “permit to campaign fees” from all candidates, aside from “revolutionary taxes” from those who dare to do business in the province, as well as rice, crops and livestock “contributions” from farmers.

No wonder all I remember about the province, which I visited several times when I was a reporter, is abject poverty. Only the kingpin and his few political rivals, also with their own private armies, are wealthy in the province, controlling most of the economic activities and deciding where public works infrastructure should be built (always benefiting the politicians’ family enterprises).

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Similar situations can be found across the country. With money and patronage to spread around, the kingpins or political warlords can ensure that elections will validate the status quo.

Patronage does not come cheap, especially if one has to rely on the modest pay of elected officials. So there are politicians who resort to illegal activities to finance their campaigns and keep their hold on power. Jueteng, smuggling, bank robbery, kidnapping for ransom – you name it. And a number of them don’t hesitate to resort to murder, confident that they can get away with it.

Yes, some of them engage in drug trafficking. It’s difficult to keep such operations secret. The Parojinogs were notorious long before Rodrigo Duterte rose to power. Having been a mayor for years, I believe President Duterte knows who the narco politicians are. His problem has always been proving it.

Only a judicial court can establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, so all the 46 local government officials and three congressmen in the so-called narco list that Duterte made public last week are entitled to presumption of innocence.

A high-value drug trafficker would know enough to put a safe distance between himself and his illegal merchandise. He won’t have his shabu lab in his residence or office building. Unless he’s an abuser himself, he won’t have drugs in his possession in case he is apprehended.

He can be pinned down by testimony from his henchmen, distributors, mules and even clients. But if he’s skilled in maintaining deniability, what’s the government to do?

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Duterte has taken the controversial step of naming the suspected narco politicians, initially by ordering them charged with graft and administrative cases, with the drug complaints supposedly set to follow. He has reportedly ordered the pursuit of money laundering and tax evasion complaints – the equivalent of racketeering cases against the suspected narco politicians.

Some of the 46 may find some comfort in the thought that they ended up in a list instead of in a morgue like Rolando Espinosa and Reynaldo Parojinog and his relatives.

The administration has said the list was made public to help voters make informed choices in the midterm elections in May. Let’s see if the shame campaign will achieve this objective. In our patronage-based politics, the patron – like that warlord in the impoverished province – can do no wrong. Drug trafficking? As long as a politician knows how to spread around even a little of the dirty money, he is assured of remaining in office.

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That kind of grassroots support feeds a frustrating cycle of bad governance and poverty. In my encounters with candidates seeking reelection in this campaign season, I have wondered how some of them ever managed to get themselves elected. There are candidates for Congress who haven’t the faintest idea about legislative work, although they seem to be raring to conduct congressional probes and have some understanding about the pork barrel system.

You feel sorry and scared for our country, seeing how individuals with such an appalling lack of competence and integrity for public service are being voted into office.

The kingpin in the impoverished home province of the two brothers has been linked to a slew of criminal acts from assassinations to corruption.

For sure, there is a link between such political warlords and the level of development in their turf.

We are often reminded that a nation gets the government it deserves. Elections give us the opportunity to have a hand in making our life better. Let’s not waste the opportunity. Surely we deserve better.

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