Much happened in Monday’s barangay elections to deepen popular cynicism about the corruptibility of Philippine politics. Even the usual feature stories about civic-spirited nonpoliticians doing electoral battle for the first time—regular media fare only a few electoral cycles ago—had been swept aside by the new pork barrel-soaked narrative: Corruption in politics begins at the grassroots.
But if the 2013 village-level polls will be remembered a generation from now, it likely won’t be for the pervasive reports about vote-buying (the anecdotal evidence would have turned into a blur, indistinguishable from other, general elections). Instead, it will probably be for the upsurge in election-related violence, and especially for the gruesome mass parricide in the province of Capiz.
Early last Tuesday, in Barangay Manapao, in the municipality of Pontevedra, Capiz, a defeated candidate for kagawad killed the winning candidate for barangay chair and two of the winner’s sisters. The deeper tragedy was that they were all siblings: The murderer was the victims’ older brother.
Manuel Arcenas, who was stepping down as barangay chair, fielded his 19-year-old daughter to contest the post against his younger brother Ramon, while he himself ran for a seat on the barangay council. Both Manuel and his daughter lost. The morning after the elections, Manuel attacked his siblings while they were having coffee; Ramon was shot in the head, while sisters Jennifer Nuyles and Evelyn Espinar suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
The Manapao massacre brought the nationwide death toll of victims killed on Monday alone to 12, and to 34 overall since the campaign began. The total was more than twice the death toll (15) of the 2010 barangay elections.
What can drive someone to extreme violence for the sake of a minor political office? There must be at least as many answers as there are perpetrators, but the search can begin with the acknowledgment that, while a barangay post is very local indeed, it is no longer as minor as it sounds.
The sea change in local governance has transformed the barangay; not only are the positions salaried (with the rates depending on the barangay’s income), but the responsibilities of the barangay have also evolved. There is real political power at the grassroots, even if it is only to build minor public works, hire street sweepers and night watchmen, and issue the necessary building and business clearances. Very few barangays can afford to be political power centers of their own; by and large, they still fall under the influence of the more moneyed mayors and city councilors and district congressmen they interact with. But in the last two decades, barangay chairs and kagawad have had a real share of political decision-making.
And at this level, at the level of the grassroots, the twin paradoxes of Philippine politics pulsate the loudest.
The first is that nothing is permanent. A loss today can be recovered in other ways, or in another election. Proverb-like catchphrases reflect this truth. Today’s “weather-weather lang,” for example—a “carabao English” translation, attributed to an Estrada-era official, of “pana-panahon lang,” meaning there’s a season for everything—is a gloss on “bilog ang bola,” quite literally the ball is round, thus implying that what was once up will someday be down. And that, too, may trace its roots to the once-popular figure of “gulong ng palad,” the wheel of fate.
The second is that politics is all. Despite the abundance of examples of politicians recovering from defeat (Joseph Estrada being only the most conspicuous), many candidates still see politics as a zero-sum game: The winner really takes it all.
Perhaps Manuel Arcenas had thoughts along these lines that fateful postelection morning. Having played the game, he found that he had lost everything—not only his chance to sit at the council again, but even his daughter’s. Anyone could have told him that three years was not too long a wait, that the situation was only temporary, but perhaps he felt fate’s implacable wheel behind him, and sensed that without power he was nothing. That may just be the ultimate form of corruption.
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