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The rise of ‘LGU citizenship’

/ 05:35 AM February 05, 2021

It used to be that regardless of where you live in the Philippines, you expected more or less the same policies and services, with only the urban-rural divide making a difference—for instance, in health care. Of course, there were variations—how friendly, how corrupt, how efficient the service was. But in terms of social services and policies affecting people’s everyday lives, the differences weren’t all that profound.

In recent years, however, a phenomenon has emerged in which some city governments offer services and benefits exclusively to their citizens (read: voters) that stand out from the rest of the country. Pioneering in this regard was Makati, which, during the time of Jejomar Binay, famously gave its senior citizens a host of entitlements like cash gifts, birthday cakes, Christmas goods, free movies throughout the year, and subsidized hospitalization.

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Other cities tried to distinguish themselves with innovative or noteworthy public policies—some technocratic, others populist, from Bayani Fernando’s Marikina and, later, Jed Mabilog’s Iloilo with their people-centered infrastructure, to Rodrigo Duterte’s Davao with its firecracker bans, speed limits, and ordinances against late-night videoke singing. To which I must add the commendable plastics ban instituted by Los Baños in 2008, during the term of the late Caesar Perez.

Beyond birthday cakes and bike lanes, the importance of what I call “LGU citizenship” has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which we have seen policies vary from LGU to LGU, in some cases profoundly determining the people’s quality of life. Some cities, for instance, are quick to enact sensible policies—like Vico Sotto’s Pasig City briskly declaring that cyclists are exempted from the face shield requirement. But others are just as quick to enforce nonsensical, even abusive, policies. like going after individuals for their social media posts.

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The most recent example relates to our foremost concern today: vaccination. Mirroring the mad dash for testing laboratories a year ago, mayors are scrambling to secure vaccine deals. Among them are Makati’s Abby Binay, who announced free vaccines for all “Makatizens” (notice these neologistic demonyms)—and Sotto, who hailed Pasig City’s being the first to have a Department of Health-approved vaccination plan.

As a result of such differences, people are talking about moving to certain cities to receive such benefits, many in jest but some in earnest.

The cynical way to view this phenomenon, of course, is through the lens of politics. Good-performing mayors make their constituents proud—and therefore likely to vote for them. Moreover, such reputation, warranted or not, can launch them to national fame. “Ganito kami sa Makati,” as Binay boasted in 2010, catapulting him to the vice presidency. Ditto with Mr. Duterte in 2016.

However, we can also view the attention over “LGU citizenship” as a reflection of the low baseline that national citizenship offers. Inclusive mobility, sound urban planning, progressive environmental policies, good health care, access to vaccines: Shouldn’t these be the norm across the country?

It also reflects inequity within our country: While wealthy cities can afford and provide free hospitalization and immunization, many others do not even have access to health care, let alone vaccines. Adding to this inequity is the fact that while the poor are mostly stuck in their own towns or cities, those with resources can move to another LGU—or even hold multiple “LGU citizenships” by virtue of their various properties.

On a positive note, LGU citizenship can encourage people to be more conscious about local politics, demanding more from their city, town, and even barangay leaders. It can also lead to the adoption of good practices all over the country, turning political competition to people’s benefit. Surely, there’s nothing wrong if a high-performing mayor gets voted someday to higher office.

Even so, LGU policies are often unstable, unsustainable, and—given the disparities between, say, Quezon City and Quezon, Bukidnon—inequitable and inefficient. We are seeing this today in the vexing issue of vaccine procurement. Just because our LGUs can shoulder them does not mean we should allow the national government to abdicate its responsibilities.

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Indeed, while we rightfully commend the mayors and governors who are serving their citizens well, I hope we can see the day when, regardless of which LGU you’re in, you can enjoy the rights and benefits that every Filipino deserves.

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