Make politics ours

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 11, 2021 - 12:00am

Victors and vanquished in UK elections held on Thursday are figuring out what the voters want, and their discussions here are making me realize just how distant most people in the Philippines are from the process. It’s dangerous because it means that politicians are not made sufficiently accountable and politics becomes obscure, self-regarding, dysfunctional and murderous. In a word, psychotic as veteran journalist Vergel Santos once described it to me.

To an extent, journalists and communicators can share the blame when this happens. Before working as a journalist internationally, I started my career at a Philippine television company (ABS-CBN) and newspaper (the Manila Chronicle) for more than three years. I studied the way politics and government work in the USA and the UK as a young girl and had observed politics in the Philippines for years as an exile. It meant I thought I knew what was going on in politics, but I went through a long and shattering process of discovery that has meant that 40 years later I realize that each and every assumption cannot be taken for granted.

We have constitutions that are supposed to set out the guiding principles and framework by which power is exercised over individuals, but which can also be challenged and tested according to realities that present themselves over time. Public debates often center around the most interesting bits of it, like freedom of expression and association, rather than boring things like tax collection and the process of making laws which are just as important but rather less interesting.

As a rookie journalist, I was allowed to tag along with more experienced colleagues in Manila. I especially remember shadowing Ces Drilon when she used to cover the Senate and watching the generation of politicians who had been thrown in jail or lived in exile during the Marcos regime getting to grips with actually ruling. I was a wide-eyed naif who was probably a massive pain to everyone around me, including Ces, but it meant I learnt a lot in a short time.

The 1992 elections were the biggest I had ever covered and by far the most enjoyable, though violence, patronage, bribery and corruption were, and still are, so normalized that nobody bothered to set out the way they destroy lives and livelihoods. There’s got to be something wrong when you end up thinking, let alone writing, sentences like “the election violence wasn’t that bad, only x number of people were killed and it didn’t affect the result.” I am still wide-eyed, but nowadays I actively work on it. I never want to be so jaded and cynical as not to notice and speak out against systems that are supposed to assess and serve the will of the people but end up actually depriving people of their rights and even killing them.

Nobody was killed in elections in the UK last Thursday. I doubt that there was any vote buying, people here can and do complain about things like that without fearing for their lives. Election manipulation through surveillance of social media is the relatively new phenomenon that has come to light but there were no allegations of anything like that this time around (not that anyone has yet been held accountable for when it has taken place).

Election post-mortems are not actually post-mortems. On the radio here, even on “talk radio,” they are mostly about why the opposition Labour Party (an alliance of social democrats, democratic socialists and trade unionists) lost so badly in some areas where it had held power for decades and whether the decisive victory of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) means this vote is the start of a process that will lead to the break up of the United Kingdom.

Scotland has always been its own country, but in Philippine terms independence would be something akin to the people of the Visayas being so unified in its disgust and disappointment with the way Manila is running it wanted to create a border with Luzon and Mindanao and come up with its own state and policies. It became a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, devolved government (along with Wales and Northern Ireland) in 1999 and held a referendum about independence in 2014.

The referendum question back then was, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, which voters answered with “Yes” or “No.” The “No” side won 55.3 percent of the vote which saw a record breaking turnout. Now that the SNP has won 64 seats in the Scottish Parliament election – one short of a majority, but one more than it won in 2016, leader Nicola Sturgeon has called her party’s fourth consecutive victory as a “historic and extraordinary” result. She has pledged to hold a second referendum. Bear in mind that the first took place before Brexit, which Scotland voted against, but because of its union with the other three nations of the United Kingdom has been forced to break off ties with the European Union.

On BBC Radio 4 (the listening choice of the political elite) this morning, the former UK Prime Minister for the Labour Party and proud Scot, Gordon Brown, has framed the apparent new popular momentum for independence as a failure of government in London. In a heated discussion with fellow Scot, journalist Sarah Smith (who also happens to be the daughter of another Scottish Labour Party leader!), Brown strongly criticized Sturgeon for demanding a second referendum without setting out what a future independent Scotland would look like. However, the former Labour leader also insisted he, along with many Scots, were more “Scottish than British.”

The Philippines has been embroiled in a war with its own citizens in Muslim Mindanao for decades and yet not once have I read or heard such a discussion in the Philippines’ mainstream news. It was never seen as a failure on the part of government and politicians but only as a threatening adventure by brutal rebels/terrorists: “How dare they complain about being badly governed?”

British politics is not intrinsically any better than politics anywhere else, but people don’t usually die in the process. Philippine politics wouldn’t be such a deadly business if it was actually about governing people well.

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