When politicians rule the public discourse
The daily dose of news on corruption involving powerful politicians escalates the public disgust against greed and rapacity. A headline-hogger since post-martial law times, the abuse of power and plunder are widely seen today as institutionally endemic and no longer involving isolated cases.
New allegations of corruption are also good material for public surveys. The latest surveys show that the hail of corruption charges is hurting the Vice President, with his ratings falling to unprecedented lows. And to improve their ratings, two senators are on the offensive in the corruption inquiry.
Corruption is a legitimate issue, and so are public surveys. But what is wrong?
As the stories unfold, the spin makes corruption a central issue in the next elections, the message being: Culprits should not run. Trouble is, this spin is being crafted through selective allegations and prosecution, and the public is being led into this scenario by politicians who may not exactly be the epitome of integrity and good governance.
Granting that the issues hurled at the Vice President may be valid, the effect of what his spokespersons claim as a “demolition job” is to take the heat of the pork barrel scam off the Aquino administration, leaving the top presidential contender wounded. As well, the corruption allegations against Cabinet members and administration allies are buried in the noise.
Clearly, the high-profile Senate investigation and media attention are giving many politicians the power to politicize a public issue, which then serves as a tool to undermine or enhance the “winnability” of presumed presidential candidates. Employed by either side of the political fence, the mudslinging and squid tactics that sensationalize corruption charges are marginalizing other valid public-interest issues.
Rather than directed at just one suspect, such efforts should be exerted to attack the whole corruption system by instituting bold reforms, immunizing budget legislation from pork-barrel insertions concealed as “projects,” and removing the sharks from the bureaucracy. But when big guns are aimed at one politician or a chief justice, the partisan motive becomes clear.
With the media now captured by preelection politics, pressing issues that matter most to the public are sidelined. For instance, the statistics involving the widening income disparity, unprecedented unemployment, and dismal performance of agriculture and manufacturing indicate a failed economic strategy of the administration. The move to railroad the 2015 budget with last-minute, election-driven pork barrel insertions defies public outrage and exposes the administration’s hypocritical stance against corruption.
The government stopped functioning in “Yolanda”-stricken areas with the rebuilding of lives derailed by an intra-elite feud (between the Marcos-Romualdez clan and the Aquino-Roxas ruling faction) and by insufficient rehab allocations. The Philippines’ sovereignty and rule of law are mocked by a foreign aggressor, with local authorities, its vassals, more concerned with protecting so-called “special relations” instead of serving justice both to a murder victim and a much-maligned national integrity.
Such is the state of affairs that many Filipinos, except political bigwigs, find revolting. Hence, while the poor taxpayer is hounded by the daily grind of feeding a family, the powers that be are gearing for the next election and, in the process, dominating media mileage.
There should be an end to political manipulation where rhetoric and grandstanding are billed as championing clean governance. Politicians should stop thinking that public affairs are all about popularity ratings and winning the presidency. In fact, there should be an end to notions that only the oligarchs have the right to define what public issues are, and that only they can make the right policies, decrees, or legislation.
The Philippines has been described as a failed state. Its democracy is only procedural and lacks substance. A state fails when its governance institutions cannot deliver on what they are mandated to do—raising the quality of life, ensuring the rule of law and accountability, and ensuring that elections are not monopolized by dynasties.
That only a few politicians are talking about the next presidential election when the time calls for addressing gut issues is a telltale sign of a failed state. A failed state it is when ruling oligarchs dominate public opinion in their effort to influence the voters’ choice in the next election, or when an election is trivialized as a mere popularity contest when competence, vision and programs are what count in true leadership.
The danger in the public discourse being monopolized by traditional politicians, especially in this preelection season, is that the 2016 presidential election is pushed to the center of public consciousness. It markets the illusion that the country’s future lies mainly in electing the right president with “powers” like Superman’s.
In truth, however, the more mileage such demagoguery may gain, the less credible it becomes. The adverse impact of public visibility is that it turns any rant meaningless when compared with glaring social realities that cry out to be
addressed. Among these realities are the decline of people’s trust in public authority, and the growing chasm between what politicians preach and what they do. The practice of engineering public opinion is what precisely sets oligarchic politics against the mass constituency, making whatever fantastic solutions they peddle either dubious or driven by vested interest.
Especially in the absence of a freedom of information law, the oligarchs’ monopoly of public discourse and their unresponsiveness to basic national priorities further narrow the venues for citizens’ engagement in governance. Thus the increasing resort to citizens’ initiatives, people’s marches, impeachment moves, and extraconstitutional mass protests. These forms of public indignation and intervention against bad governance, plunder, impunity, election fraud, and elite politics are certain to grow even more.
Bobby M. Tuazon is policy director of CenPEG (Center for
People Empowerment in Governance) and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.