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11:01 PM August 27th, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, August 27th, 2013 11:01 PM

What now, my older and more cynical relatives ask, with Luneta over.

It’s hard to say, mainly because the ongoing anti-pork barrel campaign has been so similar to recent storms: slow-moving and almost unpredictable, yet protracted and powerful.  We saw, too, two typhoons that didn’t quite make landfall in the Philippines but seemed to have conspired with the habagat, the southwest monsoon, to bring torrential rains.

Look now at the parallels to current national politics. The protest actions have been diffused, with no real “eye of the storm” in the sense of any one group dominating.  The mobilization on Sunday showed this, bringing out different political groups from the left to the center, priests (and cardinals), sisters, seminarians, as well as non-aligned ones like the San Juan Greenhills Muslim Traders Association.

The turnout at Luneta was moderate but it was not small either, especially when you factor in the inclement weather.  Again using the storms as a metaphor, we have to remember too the crowds at Luneta only represent the visible storm.  Many more participated in their homes and on the Internet in a kind of political habagat.

The main “storm” in Luneta wasn’t marked by the usual indignation you find in protest rallies. Noisy yes, but more in the sense of being festive with singing and dancing.  The rage was expressed more through postings on the Internet.  Anger was palpable there in the way people talked about how hard life is, not just for the poor but for the middle classes, government and private sector employees, while our coffers were being plundered via the pork barrel.  The anger is not just directed against Janet Lim-Napoles and her US-based daughter Jeane with a penchant for ostentatiously obscene displays of wealth, but also against the legislators, many of whom are suspected now to have profited as well from the kickbacks.

Trends

Four trends are clear in the way the anti-pork movement, and broader politics, is developing.

First, this is a nationwide movement.  The focus of media coverage was on Luneta and Manila, which tends to devalue efforts in other major urban centers.  We have to remember that people are hurting too outside of Manila, especially since some of the worst cases of plunder were in provinces and cities grappling with grinding poverty.

Second, we’re actually seeing several “movements,” with no clear core yet.  The spontaneity can be healthy, but difficult to sustain in the long run.  On the other hand, trying to get a core group together can be difficult, given the way our politics has been so polarized by ideologies and personalities.

Third, the target of the protest movement or movements seems to be moving from pork barrel to corruption. I sense that Filipinos are beginning to see the problem not just in terms of individuals’ greed but of a catastrophic illness affecting the entire body politic.  There is more talk now against patronage politics, with people recognizing the irony of the pork barrel funds, politicians and characters like Napoles raiding public coffers for personal profit, while doling out crumbs to the poor and expecting the taxpayers to be grateful for the loose change.

I actually see difficulties in the transition from an anti-pork movement to one against patronage politics.  On the radio I hear commentators, and listeners calling in, to defend the pork barrel as a necessary evil, a way to help the poor.  The blinders are there and I worry that in the end, we will see the movement losing steam because Filipinos are still bound by feudal loyalties.

Finally, whatever the outcome of this anti-pork movement, I do see a turning point in our politics mainly because we’re seeing the growing use of a new political arena: the Internet and social media.  The title for my column takes off from a website called change.org/ph, where citizens can initiate petitions directed mainly to politicians on specific issues. “Change.org” is actually global, with country-specific sites, the local one being managed by Inday Varona.

The Internet can be as noisy and heated as the parliament of the streets but petitions on “change.org” indicate a more civil approach, thus my “change, please” title, but said with firmness and a sense of urgency.  The petitions are terse and to the point, zeroing in on a problem and proposing a solution.  They are more polite versions of the manifestos of the marital law era, mimeographed (older readers, please explain to the young ones) on newsprint and distributed through the underground.  Today we have a potential of reaching thousands of people through the Internet, with more sophisticated layouts and colored photographs to make a point.

The use of petitions on “change.org.ph” is still limited to the chattering classes, but the issues there are picked up by other Internet sites and by radio, television and print media.

Social observatory

I also consider this site to be a useful “social observatory,” telling us about what issues people (or at least of a small but influential middle class) care about. Let’s rank the petitions by the number of signatories:

Predictably, a call to the Ombudsman to conduct an impartial investigation of the grave misuse of public funds is at the top of the list with 16,302 signatories.  This is followed by a call for the Luneta march, together with demands to probe and punish abusers of pork, with 10,343 signatories.

A petition to President Aquino, “Stop the Tampakan Mining Project” calls for a suspension of open-pit mining in Mindanao and comes in third with 9,732 signatories.  This is followed by a petition to Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan with 6,535 signatories to keep Burnham Park green and free of commercialization.  Another environmentally oriented petition with 6,399 signatories is addressed to the Department of Public Works and to Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada not to cut down 400 trees to build an underpass on España.

A petition to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to scrap a proposed two-day number coding system for vehicles got 5,357 signatories, followed closely by a call, signed by 5,262 people, calling on the President to require government officials to take public transport at least once a month.

There were many other petitions, including variations on the anti-pork theme.  It’s interesting that petitions initiated by individuals seem to get more signatories.  One anti-pork petition initiated by Kapatiran Party only had 199 signatories—fewer than the 381 who call on Jollibee to add more sauce and hotdogs (presumably pork?) to their spaghetti.

I know, the sauce and hotdogs petition seems trivial but that’s the way the Internet social media operates.  Politics is, after all, a matter of negotiations and in the months ahead, we will see more innovative, and vigorous, turns in our political tournaments.

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