Looking for the right people to vote for in the 2013 midterm elections? For starters, don’t vote for those represented by the pictures, names and initials you see plastered all over the place.
That, in essence, was what Commission on Elections Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. said recently on Twitter. After admitting that the law has not been effective in curbing premature campaigning, Brillantes said: “The best way to deal with these ‘epals’ [is to] remember their faces now and forget their names come election day.”
What a truly fitting term to describe the crime: “epal,” which plays on the Filipino words “mapapel” (roughly, attention-grabber) and “kapal” (thick-faced), and which has become synonymous with aspiring or incumbent politicians who attach their pictures and names to public works projects (and even their initials to sidewalks), as though they, and not the taxpayers, were paying for the projects. These types also put up posters congratulating graduates, announcing barangay events (free circumcision, say) and greeting residents (“Happy fiesta,” etc.), taking any excuse to mount their smiling images on every public space available. (In the not too distant past, pedestrian overpasses in Quezon City were festooned with streamers thanking Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the structures.) It’s an affront that may be classified as littering or visual pollution, apart from it being an attack on good taste.
Striking at the heart of this tacky Filipino electoral ritual is the “anti-epal bill,” officially known as House Bill 1967 or An Act Prohibiting Public Officers from Claiming Credit through Signage announcing a Public Works Project. In the explanatory note, the bill’s author, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, explained: “It is a prevalent practice among public officers, whether elected or appointed, to append their names to public works projects which were either funded or facilitated through their office.” She added: “This is unnecessary and highly unethical” and “promotes a culture of political patronage and corruption.”
The bill seeks to require government agencies like the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to take down the offending signs within three months. Regrettably, despite positive reactions to the measure, it has yet to be passed.
The latest and most heavily pilloried “epal” target of late has been Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista, whose initials “HB” were seen on decorative tiles marking city streets. These have since been painted over at no additional cost to the city on the orders of the mayor, who was apparently shamed into doing so. But he has rebounded and demanded that other misbehaving officials do their share. To be fair, it was not the first time incumbents used infrastructure to boost their reelection chances. A number of cities still have ironworks bearing the initials of politicians—a virtual alphabet carved on to everything from bridges to waiting sheds.
No, HB is not alone. Joel Villanueva, director of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and an aspiring administration senatorial candidate, has large tarpaulins bearing his picture highly visible in various points of the metropolis. Villanueva’s tarps are slowly being taken down, but residents of Metro Manila’s cities still have to endure many more similarly disgusting displays courtesy of their mayor, vice mayor, and sundry councilors. It’s time voters turned on the pressure and launched a shame campaign.
“Epal posters cheapen our electoral process as if these candidates are supermarket commodities that need to be advertised,” the Comelec’s Brillantes said in the course of expressing his strong support for the passage of Santiago’s bill. Santiago has also talked about filing a bill that requires prospective candidates to register their intent to run for office six months prior to the period prescribed by the Comelec in order to clamp down on premature campaigning.
Filipino voters have come a long way, as evidenced by their paradigm-shifting behavior during the 2010 elections. Now comes the next stage in their evolution, and for them to continue growing, bad practices must be torn down and old ideas shed. When they begin to think about which name to strike from the list of candidates to vote into public office, they just have to look around and see the warning signs.