Once again, for the first time since the 1986 snap election, the Roman Catholic Church has thrown the full weight of its political influence to challenge the power of a sitting administration seeking a fresh vote of confidence in the May midterm election.
In a pastoral letter issued on Tuesday, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines opened fire on the Aquino administration, denouncing it for its supposed failure to address “a long litany of storms besetting the nation,” ranging from poverty, the rampancy of political dynasties, “the continuing corruption and abuse of power” the “possible hiding of information,” the rise of criminality, human rights violations, and unresolved cases of extrajudicial killings.
The broadside came two weeks before the official start of the campaign for the May 13 elections for senatorial and congressional seats and more than 17,000 provincial and municipal positions.
The letter was issued at the end of an extraordinary three-day, closed-door meeting of the country’s highest Catholic prelates, which put the Church at loggerheads with a democratically elected administration that still enjoys high public approval ratings in opinion polls, but which also has received mounting criticism of its lackluster economic performance and lack of will in pursuing agrarian reform. Unlike in the 1986 snap election, this time the bishops are not standing up to the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship. Another difference is that the May polls are not a presidential election, and President Aquino is not up for reelection. The high stake involved in the balloting is that he critically needs a result that will give his Liberal Party and its coalition allies the majority in the 24-seat Senate. Thirteen seats are up for grabs in the chamber. The election results are a matter of life and death for the Aquino administration; failure to clinch a majority in the Senate can seriously cripple it and make it a lame-duck administration.
For the Catholic Church, the May elections are a test of its clout in influencing social and political policy related to “poverty, social redistribution of wealth, and the runaway population growth of the country.” The active intervention of the Church in the May elections puts it as the most formidable and most broad-based social institution in opposition to the sitting administration—a strategic political role in the context of a system of weak and fragmented political parties.
The Church is in direct collision with the administration over the Reproductive Health Law, which the latter vigorously pushed. The pastoral letter attacked the new law as the promotion of “a culture of death and promiscuity.” It pointed out: “This is due to the slavishness of our political and business leaders to follow practices in the Western countries that promote, in spite of examples that we clearly see in the West, divorce, resulting in more breakups of families and the dysfunctional growth of children, contraceptives, leading to more abortions, the use of condoms, aggravating HIV-AIDS infection, and school sex education, bringing about more promiscuity and teenage pregnancy.”
For political impact in mobilizing electoral support in May, the Church is better placed to influence voters to blackball “administration-supported candidates on issues other than the RH Law.” The bishops cited other issues that could be politically damaging to the administration’s campaign, such as the “deepening culture of impunity,” extrajudicial killings, fear of “wholesale cheating in the automated elections,” and the “unabated suffering of the poor.”
On the issue of political dynasties, the pastoral letter said: “Political authority exists for the common good. It is not to be exercised for the sake of private and family interests or simply for the interests of a political party.
“When political authority is exercised merely for these narrow interests, it betrays the reason for its existence. Moreover, such a situation breeds corruption and inhibits access to political power, which is a fundamental mark of democracy.
“Therefore, we denounce the continued existence of political dynasties and the continuing delay of passing a law to implement the constitutional provision of banning political dynasties.”
On the issue of poverty, the bishops denounced the “unabated suffering of the poor in spite of the bright economic ratings.” It is “growth that is [merely] more products and more money, and should not be the sole aim of development but also equity.” They added: “The huge gap between the rich and poor remains. There is little inclusive growth.”
The bishops also bewailed the “continuing corruption and abuse of power by public officials due to lack of information, or still worse, the possible hiding of information from the public. It is ironic that the government that prides itself in treading the daang matuwid fears the freedom of information bill because of possible discovery of wrongdoing by public officials. Why are they afraid to entrust the citizens with truth of their governance?”
On the deepening culture of impunity, the bishops noted that “extrajudicial killings, unsolved crimes and kidnappings continue, and the government is not able or lacks the political will to prosecute the perpetrators and touch powerful people.”