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TALK OF THE TOWN

Turncoatism in PH

/ 12:06 AM July 03, 2016
ILLUSTRATION BY STEPH BRAVO

ILLUSTRATION BY STEPH BRAVO

IN LESS than a month after the May 9 elections, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), the political party of newly inaugurated President Duterte, said it was close to achieving its goal of creating one of the biggest alliances in Congress’ history.

PDP-Laban successfully recruited other members from the Liberal Party, Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, National Unity Party, Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats and the party-list coalitions, including Gabriela, to form what they call the “supermajority” coalition.

Politics in the Philippines swings like a pendulum and the balimbing (star fruit, which is synonymous to a turncoat in the country) rides on the crest of a wave. Hide tide or low tide, would he or she be on your side? It depends where the wind blows.

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In season

Balimbing (Averrhoa carambola) are in season. Their word-of-mouth popularity can even make macopa blush. Why? It is that time of the year when seats of power are up for grabs and everyone is jockeying for a position as the musical chairs begins.

Being referred to as one is tantamount to being addressed with disdain. Worse, the perfidious tag has stuck and most likely, cannot be undone, a term that has made the yellow-green fruit the most reviled of all Filipino fruits, innocently synonymous to a person who is disloyal, traitor, doble or muchas caras (double or multifaced).

Examples in history

History is replete with balimbing. We were made to believe that they began during the Spanish times and flourished when the Americans introduced their political way of life to the archipelago. No, not exactly.

Let’s antedate our thinking. There were biblical balimbing (Judas, Esau and King Saul) and up to the beginning of civilization. Friends, Romans and countrymen lent their ears to Brutus and his ilk. And then the number grew, from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Monarchs and despots, kings and queens, emperors and tsars, rulers and tyrants fought wars because of treachery. Up to the modern era, from Wall Street to your tiny little corporate cubicle, a balimbing exists with a “we-live-in-a-disposable-society” mind-set. Get hold of Arthur Redding’s “Turncoats, Traitors and Fellow Travelers” book and you are going to unearth more.

Every civilization or society has a turncoat. They come in different shapes, sizes and noms de guerre. When the last vote had been counted and all things had been said, they can only be summed up in either one of these two:

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“Some people aren’t loyal to you. They are only loyal to their needs. Once their needs change, so does their loyalty.”

“My loyalty to my party ends when my loyalty to my country begins,” a line attributed to Manuel L. Quezon.

Famous Filipino turncoats

Historian Ambeth Ocampo describes Pedro Paterno as the greatest turncoat in Philippine history. The “original” balimbing, according to Ocampo, was “first on the Spanish side and then wormed his way to power to become President of Malolos Convention in 1899.”

Felipe Buencamino was a fine example of the Filipino muchas caras at the twilight of Spanish rule and dawn of American regime. When the revolution broke out, he initially sided with the Spanish, reverted to the Filipino camp after being incarcerated by revolucionarios in Cavite and ultimately sided with the Americans.

Gen. Antonio Luna once whacked him on the face for proposing to negotiate with the Americans during a heated debate. They would meet again in a violent confrontation on June 5, 1899, the day Luna was assassinated.

Katipunan

Had Teodoro Patiño shut his mouth and not thought of his own interests, Filipinos would have succeeded in their planned revolt against Spain. Squealing the existence of Katipunan because of a P2-wage dispute, he led Spanish authorities in ransacking a printing shop. The operation yielded incriminating evidence against the Katipunan and doomed the fate of many revolutionaries.

Emilio Aguinaldo would not have been captured in the hinterlands of Isabela if not for Cecilio Segismundo. What made the latter reveal Aguinaldo’s hiding place? He was promised a commission in the Philippine Army and a $300 reward, allowing Gen. Frederick Funston to bring him back to Manila.

Turncoatism or politics without principles has been an integral part of our society. When self-interest mattered and egos are bruised, it is easy to set up a faction or an entirely new party.

In 1922, the young Quezon organized the country’s “third” political party—Partido Nacionalista Collectivista with all members coming from the Nacionalista Party (NP). They had accused NP president Sergio Osmeña of being an autocrat.

Ramon Magsaysay was secretary of national defense when he bolted Elpidio Quirino’s camp and joined NP. He ran against the latter and won by a landslide.

Marcos, Ramos

When Ferdinand Marcos was Senate President, then President Diosdado Macapagal promised to fully support him in the 1965 presidential election. Macapagal reneged on his promise and decided to run for reelection, prompting Marcos to switch to the NP camp. Marcos ran against Macapagal and won.

Turncoats had a heyday when Marcos formed KBL (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan). Lakas-CMD was a political party founded by Fidel Ramos in 1992. He ran because he had lost the LP presidential nomination.

Months before the 1992 elections, the House of Representatives was controlled by members of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) allied with then Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr. After Ramos won, virtually all LDP members jumped ship to Lakas.

In her Inquirer column, former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Solita Monsod, said “the sight of the Liberal Party, or most of its members immediately deserting what they thought was a sinking ship, should be denounced. The Liberals, thinking only of themselves (chairmanships bring a lot of perks, including monetary) and not of their constituents (after all, they were elected as Liberals), just abandoned ship,” she said.

Broken party system

What drives politicians to become turncoats?

Many perspectives and different opinions resulted in my interviews with some political watchers from the community. Retired University of the Philippines professor Clarita Carlos, for example, said the political party system in the Philippines was broken.

“Political parties are supposed to aggregate interests, articulate issues and prepare a program of government based on a platform of basic principles. They are avenues for socialization of its young members as they hone their skills in governance,” Carlos said.

She noted that United Kingdom’s Tony Blair of Labor and David Cameron of the Conservative Party did not just come out from a bamboo and voila, became prime minister. “You cannot have somebody from outside, suddenly catapulted to national candidacy, as had happened here, without going through the gauntlet in his/her political party. That position is earned, not freely given,” Carlos said.

Political parties make decisions on the party line to support, who is running in what constituency, etc. A member is required to toe the party line in any and all votes in the legislature. Crossing the “aisle” or changing political parties is virtual political suicide, Carlos said.

It pays to change color

She said it was not so in the Philippines, where political parties do not have distinguishing characteristics and platform. “Why is turncoatism so rampant? Because it pays to change color and yes one even gets better political largesse when he or she switches political groups.”

Where politicians are often driven by self-interest rather than ideology, switching allegiances is endemic in the country because the Constitution is extremely lax on the ability of candidates to switch parties at a snap of a finger, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a De La Salle University assistant professor.

Inescapable reality

Turncoatism is an inescapable reality in the Philippines, according to Romy Garcia, a former senior research assistant at the UP College of Public Administration.

Survival is primordial to these would-be demagogues. It is ducking the winds of change and living another day to fight, a medieval mentality of the vassal system, a kind of pledging an allegiance to the new guy on the block. “Sabi nga ng Pinoy, just go with the weather, insidious but very effective in insuring self-perpetuation,” Garcia said.

There are no mass defections in most modern democracies, like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand when a political party loses in the polls, Miriam College instructor Kris Ablan said.

“Members stay with their party and understand why they lost. Whatever the cause may be, members of the losing party take responsibility for their actions and accept the peoples’ mandate. Losing and sticking it out with each other are how political parties learn. That’s how they become stronger. It sets a good example for the people,” Ablan said.

Not limited to pols

Adie Peña, institutional communications director at College of St. Benilde, said the star fruit syndrome was not limited to politicians.

It happens everywhere. “In the entertainment industry, actors and actresses move from one TV network to another. Creative and accounts people leave their ad agencies to handle a competitive brand in another shop. Even maids and drivers will say goodbye (at a moment’s notice!) to move to another household. And it usually all boils down to a better deal. Welcome to balimbing country!” Peña said.

Accepted practice

Political turncoatism is an accepted practice among elected politicians in the Philippines, said educator-servant and professional urban planner Gabby Lopez.

“For very obvious reasons—survival politically and continuing access to valuable resources of the sitting President,” he said.

While most declare their principles, one cannot help but suspect self-interests as the basic motivation, according to Lopez of Filipino turncoats. He said adherence to party principles was conveniently shed off when survival and demands of personal interests were at stake.

“One reads many lamentations these days of former strong leaders who have been abandoned by their ‘close’ followers who have switched to the winning leaders. I have no appreciation of their righteous protestations. They wrought it upon themselves by perpetuating a toxic culture of political dispensation,” Lopez said.

Loyalty to the party seems to be a thing of the past if you ask Medy Beroy, an independent medical and legal contractor based in Georgia in the United States. “Changing political affiliations is now as easy as changing a spouse or a partner. Some candidates would sometimes opt to run as independent, giving them a lot of freedom to campaign for themselves to ensure victory,” she said. She added that even one’s own party mate could junk a candidate if he or she hindered his or her chances of winning.

Self-righteous

“Now that the postelection balimbing-bashing phase is on it last leg, I’d like to make some space in my psyche for the question: ‘What’s wrong with changing sides?’ asked Butch Tan, a retired advertising executive. “All the que horror, the demand for integrity and delicadeza, self-righteous breast-beating, they simply mean that summary judgment is alive and well, the great national pastime,” he said.

Apart from switching sides, there is no other truth, according to Tan. “Changing sides does not necessarily make one a bad person or at par with murderers, swindlers and sundry scalawags. And yet the public reaction to balimbing ranges from resentment to abhorrence,” he lamented.

He argued that in the first place political parties in the country, the Communist Party of the Philippines excepted, were not hewing to a clear, well-defined ideology. They’re more like clubs and lodges whose purpose is built around protecting members’ interests and benefiting from being in power.

Outside the ‘kulambo’

He then put in the punch line: “That last sentence is the key. Once a party is no longer in power, it ceases to be a source of power, protection and money. It’s called realpolitik. Being outside the kulambo (mosquito net) means being in fiscal and political limbo, and being in limbo affects the good and the bad equally. It’s just the way things are,” he said.

Good politicians, according to him, switch sides to make sure their constituents can get their fair share of the national budget. “Not doing so would actually be a disservice. So what about venal politicians who switch sides for self-serving reasons? I address the answer to the ones who vote them into office: Merese!”

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago said: “Most political parties in the Philippines are not composed of citizens advocating an ideology, platform, principles or policies. Traditional politicians who were not nominated by their original party to the position they desire easily changed political parties.”

Not prohibited

The prohibition on turncoatism was removed in the 1986 Constitution during the time of then President Corazon Aquino.

On the other hand, Cass Sunstein, in his Bloomberg “Societies Need Turncoats” article, gave us a mind-changing definition of the turncoat. He said: “Turncoats may be freedom fighters. In democracies suffering from a high degree of polarization, turncoats are indispensable.

“Turncoats are often independent thinkers and they promote independent thinking in other people. Turncoating can be an act of exceptional bravery. We shouldn’t celebrate those who abandon good causes for bad ones. To separate heroism from villainy, we need to specify the coat and the turn,” he said. Anyone would like to dispute that?

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