Jokes, lies, ‘bravado’

Was Davao City Mayor (and presumptive presidential candidate) Sara Duterte onto something novel when she declared, at the height of the 2019 senatorial elections, that honesty was not an issue in elections?

In other countries, candidates typically see their aspirations dashed once they are caught in a lie. But in the Philippines, said Mayor Sara, all candidates trade in untruths anyway, so their opponents and the voters “should not be making an issue out of honesty.”

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees provides a list of “standards of personal conduct” for those in government, both elected and appointed, including “justness and sincerity.” But, in the unforgettable formulation of the daughter and political heir of President Duterte: “Walang isang kandidato d’yan na hindi nagsisinungaling kaya hindi dapat nagiging issue ang honesty ngayon.”

Still, for Carlo Montehermozo, a fisherman in Infanta, Pangasinan, a lie, even if said as a joke, still hurts. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Montehermozo had been asked to take part in a “town hall” meeting and pose a question to the candidates. What he asked them concerned a matter of grave economic, if not personal, consequences: What would the candidates do to protect small fishermen like himself who were being harassed by Chinese ships and prevented from fishing in Philippine waters? This was when then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte boldly declared that he would ride a jet ski carrying with him a Philippine flag and plant it on an island occupied by China while the Chinese authorities could do with him as they wished.

That electrifying promise of fighting for the Philippines’ interests convinced Montehermozo to vote for the former mayor. Now, in the wake of the President’s admission that it was all just a “joke” and part of campaign “bravado,” Montehermozo is ruing his decision: “Ang alam namin kaming mga mangingisda lahat dito matutulungan kami sa sinabi ko sa kanya. ‘Yun pala joke lang pala ‘yung sinasabi nyang ‘yun.”

Not just a joke, apparently. If anyone believed his jet ski promise, huffed the President last Monday, he or she was “stupid.” The remarks were made in relation to Mr. Duterte’s assertions, increasing in number and vehemence by the day, that his hands are supposedly tied and his administration can do nothing against China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

Trading in jokes while secretly despising the public, especially those they deem foolish enough to believe their promises, is the playbook of cynical politicians courting the voters’ favor.

But, as Sen. Panfilo Lacson lamented, Filipino voters are also “easily swayed by jokes, Budots (a dance craze), TikTok.” What determines victory at the polls are “political advertisements, stage (performances), the singing, dancing. So, it’s really, I would say it’s pathetic that the situation is like this.” Formal debates on issues of the day, said the senator, “do not usually matter with voters as much as political advertisements do.”

Lacson believes it would take “generations” before the electorate’s “shallow” political preferences and perceptions of candidates would change to more rational, discerning standards in the future. But the disquieting truth is that tomorrow is now. A year from now, Filipinos will be trooping once again to the polls in what many observers have said is a pivotal, historic electoral exercise that will determine the deliverance of the country from the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic collapse not seen since World War II. Will a year be enough to raise the country’s political culture and civic mindset to higher standards of judgment and voting? Or will the public still be swayed by dancing clowns and singing fools?

It may be too late for hardcore partisans and voters who are so set in their ways that they see nothing wrong with trading their votes for some cash, entertainment, and good old patronage, no matter that their choices would affect their children and descendants the most. But young voters, especially first-time voters, who comprise the swing vote in the electorate, make for fertile ground to sow an urgent appreciation of the vigilance required for a functioning democracy, and a reaffirmation of honesty, integrity, and competence as cornerstones of public service—the recognition that, at the very least, a promise must be fulfilled, or the untruthful candidate will have to face accountability for having taken the public for a ride.

Will a generation besotted with social media and celebrity and bombarded with fake news be ready for the more serious and less fun aspects of citizenship? Or will Mayor Sara be proven right? Will the country see its democratic aspirations even more trivialized and belittled, such that in 2022, political jokes will remain the main draw in this benighted nation?