Hala bira! Halalan! Cultural Lessons from Philippine Elections

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Written by Carlos Tatel Jr. | (first appeared on halalan.up.edu.ph)


Elections in our country have always had a festive and cultural atmosphere. It doesn't matter whether it is in the national or local level, elections or halalan preoccupies us; it reflects our sensibilities as a people. It fuels our society.

Months, weeks and days heading into the elections, ads and campaign sorties intensify. Motorcades and public debates become more and more frequent. Political issues banner our dailies and news programs almost every day. Tensions, feuds and controversies among the candidates escalate.

In our country, elections rather reflect our distorted notion of democracy. We vote not just to exercise of our political right but also to affirm some of our deep-seated cultural norms and ethics. By casting the ballot, we reveal our collective psyche, not to mention, the embedded social tensions amongst us. Needless to say, we make this periodic event a vital part of our national life. Thus, we could see the elections as an opportunity to cull lessons from culture; of how it shapes our perception of democratic processes. Culture is the invisible force that drives our people in joining and participating in democracy. The result: a rather confusing mix of personalan and objective discussion of platform of governance of aspiring public officials. During public debates, heated personal exchanges easily become the highlight of the program. Platform of governance, unfortunately, is usually relegated to the backseat.

Philippine elections is a phenomenon that impacts on all aspects of society. Similar to a religious fiesta, the whole town, city, or barangay awaits for its bisperas as well as the actual day of voting. Just as the chants of Hala bira! in popular Santo Niño festivals excite and prepare the people to a highly anticipated event, elections are also being looked forward to with much zeal and religious fervor. Before the anti-epal crusade of concerned citizens and groups, tarpaulins, posters, streamers and banners used to be hung in streets and public spaces like real fiesta banderitas. Our barangays, during elections, are usually bustling with social activity and political energy.

The way we conduct our elections very much reflect a Lenten sacred ritual as candidates and their loyal followers go through all the necessary "stations:" attending fora, going rounds of house-to-house campaign, delivering speeches in big social gatherings, sponsoring baptisms and weddings, dropping by funeral wakes and going to church with the entire family. All these they do as some sort of sakripisyo in the hope that their hard work reap benefits in the end. During elections, Philippine society as whole seems to be in "liminal" stage that is in-between two episodes: the period of incumbents and of the newly elected. Only after the elections that our nation returns to its "normal" state. There will only be a proper closure to this ritual when a duly elected winner is declared.

Our halalan is a site where our long-cherished social values are displayed and utilized to the hilt. One such social value is utang na loob. Every Filipino knows that when someone has an utang na loob with somebody, the debt never gets repaid in full. As for traditional politicians, halalan is the time of exacting payment. Political analysts call this situation the classic "patron-client" relationship; whereas in anthropology, this is known as "reciprocity." What most of us have forgotten is that during the pre-Spanish times, reciprocity was not at all bad: reciprocal relationships connected our datu and his people – the former defended and took care of his bayan/banwa; the latter, in turn, serve its datu both in times of war and peace. Reciprocity had also existed between kingdoms or ethnic states in order to further strengthen their social ties and alliance, thus contributing to political consolidation. Exchange of gifts and commodities had also been practiced among the various groups of islands in the Pacific despite being separated by the ocean. In olden times as it is today, reciprocity builds network; it consolidates following and support. Corollary to this, the pagtanaw ng utang na loob, is also a highly esteemed social value. An ambitious young candidate who decides to go up against his or her former political benefactor is already risking his or her political career. To be seen as walang utang na loob is never quite a positive trait among aspiring politicians.

Language is very much part of this whole electoral discourse and performance. There are many other social values at work in our electoral experience: matuwid na landas as metaphor for clean and honest governance; giginhawa ang buhay or liliwanag ang bukas as a promise for better life. In our elections, having a nurturing side like may puso and nanay ng bayan have sometimes become more effective images for candidates instead of asserting strength, intelligence and power. And when the going gets tough for a neophyte candidate, the more experienced politician would have this as an advice: huwag magbalat-sibuyas. Labels are simple, yet powerful, words that conjure up ideas of ethics and political decorum. For example, we have old terms like trapo or "traditional politicians" and an emerging label like bimpo or "batang isinubo ng magulang sa pulitika." Trapo is a worn out linen used for wiping dirty things – somehow approximating the disgusting reputation and image of traditional politicians. Meanwhile, bimpo is a fairly softer and delicate fabric used only for infants and toddlers which suggests that this type of candidate, despite being inexperienced has just been forced to candidacy by their politically savvy parents.

One of the burning issues of the current elections is whether it is time to pass a law against political dynasties. This is due to the continued proliferation of magkakamag-anak who are either running alongside each other or, ironically, against each another. In the end, whoever wins, power still belongs to the same group or family. If such a law against political dynasties is passed, would it solve the problem of few families taking control of political power in the country? I am not here to comment about the merits of such a law but I would like to say a few things as to why certain families or clans have wielded such political influence in their respective balwartes. The answer lies both in our history and culture. During the pre-colonial period, Philippine communities are largely based on kinship: networks grew out of blood relations and marriage. Almost all of the people residing in societies are related in one way or another. Thus, the datu, the leader of his own group, is also the leader of the community. Kinship expanded as ethnic states perform sandugo or other forms of symbolic alliances with one another. Kinship lies at the root of our social relationships. This culture has remained in our consciousness, albeit in different form, but basically the same logic and worldview. Who can stop people from voting for their own kin or clan? Who can stop families from looking up to their elders for guidance and instructions during elections? Halalan in our country has been a contest not only among individuals but also among clans and families. In other words, it might be very difficult to immediately put a stop to political dynasties. We cannot simply overhaul historic kinship relations with a new law on political dynasties. Perhaps, can we instead vie for a regulation of participation in politics of family members?

Another phenomenon in Philippine elections that is quite perplexing is the concept of harapan or open, public debate. Indeed, Filipinos shy away from bold and aggressive behavior in our dealing with the kapwa. But why is it that we secretly love to watch heated public debates and eagerly await the portion when candidates almost come to blows? The key to these public fora is never to get pikon. This is the irony of our own culture: we shun aggressive and outward expression of disapproval or dissatisfaction yet we enjoy the spectacle of other people throwing mud against each other. We are a culture that does strive to maintain a relatively peaceful relationship with our neighbor yet we expect public figures, including political candidates, to be fiery and articulate enough to scare off opponents.

Elections is also a national pastime. There are many things about it that is similar to sabong or other forms of gambling. Voting for your chosen candidate is like rooting or betting for your manok. Incumbents are usually called the llamado or malakas; and those who are relatively new are called dehado or mahina. Each of us has his or her own team. Some Catholic churches have even put up their own Team Patay and Team Buhay. Some Filipinos prepare their voting lists as if they are carefully selected figures to bet in Lotto.

Philippine elections are never boring. Stress-free and humorous slogans, chants, and jingles are the surest way to get the voters – and children – into one's campaign discourse. In spite of being tension-filled, there are still plenty of humorous, happy and witty things that permeate the campaign trail. In Bulakan, I have heard jingles arranged in the tune of two familiar songs: Psy's Gunnam style and Eat Bulaga's Cha-cha. Since the recent elections, pinoy rap and novelty songs have been used as popular genre for campaign jingles. In the 1950s, the catchy and upbeat music of Mambo Magsaysay has widely been regarded as crucial to the successful candidacy of Ramon Magsaysay. Though modes of campaigning have evolved over the years, age-old and time-tested strategies still work. For example, of all the various campaign strategies, the ubiquitous localized komiks still ranks among the most effective in terms of advertisement and promotion.

Meanwhile, on the individual level, eloquence is a highly valued trait among the candidates; that is why those who give the best speeches traditionally had better chances of winning than those who do not give excellent speeches. But in recent years, eloquence has been replaced by pleasing physical attributes. Good looking candidates have won in their respective races. Artistas, being both well-known and good-looking personalities, have this built-in advantage over the other canditates. Yes, not all of them won. But many of them did. Thus, the artista or celebrity factor has always been a crucial element of the political contest. If the party's manok is relatively weak in popularity, it gets an artista aboard to boost the party's "winnability." And thanks to computer editing and photoshop, pictures of candidates get their own artista look as well. Popular movie actors and singers still top the list of major endorsers of candidates.

How far have we gone from our initial lessons in democracy? One of the first things that the Americans did in our country during the early years of their colonial regime was to conduct "free" elections all over the archipelago in the hope of organizing and installing a civil and democratic government. Unfortunately, it was highly controversial mainly because of the fact that the whole country was still at war with the US which could not provide a conducive condition for such an important political exercise. Moreover, those who were elected were local and landed elites which ultimately defeat the principles of democracy. One time when I was on a research trip to an Agta community in Central Luzon, I learned from the people how an arbitrary appointment of "tribal chieftain" by lowland politicians conflicts with the powers of their own duly-recognized community leader. And when democracy is ironically imposed upon them, they choose their leaders in a manner which they could understand: instead of ballots, they line-up in front of the candidate and make an instant headcount. Instead of counting machines, each voter put a stone inside a container and the candidate who got the most number of stones wins the contest.

The way we conduct our halalan is largely shaped by our culture. By studying how elections work in our country, we also learn many things about ourselves as a people. In traditional societies, politics, governance and law are never separate and seasonal endeavors; they are part of everyday life. This explains why we sometimes confuse the political with the cultural, the social with the personal. We must learn how to deal with these aspects and try to see the total picture, especially in highly-charged situations like the elections.