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‘AlDub’ and the DOH budget cut

By any reasonable estimate, reelectionist Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III will end up not only getting reelected, but will also top the senatorial polls. Ever since polling firms began asking voters their senatorial preferences for this year’s elections, Sotto has ended up consistently on top of the list. And it seems it will take a miracle for him to lose his Senate seat, or even just end up on the tail-end of the list of winners.

But miracles do happen. Women’s groups and reproductive health advocates, as well as those concerned with issues like HIV/AIDS, are bent on making the recent P1-billion cut from the budget of the Department of Health, the amount earmarked for the purchase of contraceptives, an election issue. And the “issue” is centered on

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Sotto, who maneuvered, with the cooperation of Senate budget committee chair Sen. Loren Legarda, to excise the amount meant to buy contraceptives for the use of poor women and men who otherwise could not afford the means to plan their families, from the DOH budget.

“Panlilinlang” (deception) is how former representative Edcel Lagman, author of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RPRH) in the House of Representatives, described the explanations offered by both Sotto and Legarda to justify the budget cut.

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“I put the blame on Congress, more particularly on the Senate,” said Lagman during a press conference hosted by the Purple Ribbon for RH movement to express the member-groups’ “disgust” at what transpired literally under the noses of advocates, especially Lagman, and the co-sponsors in the Senate: Sen. Pia Cayetano and Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who is herself running for president.

To be fair, Sotto’s move is not exactly shocking or even unexpected. He has been a long-time opponent of reproductive health, more particularly family planning. It would be reasonable to assume that he had a hand in the cases filed in the Supreme Court—questioning the constitutionality of the RPRH, and then claiming that certain forms of contraception caused abortions.

While the Supreme Court ruled that the RPRH law is “not unconstitutional,” to this day, a TRO on the use and distribution by the DOH of Implanon, a brand of contraceptive implants that are effective for three years, has prevented the use of these devices by the people who need them most. When the implants were rolled out, they were so popular that they even threatened to surpass the use of contraceptive pills.

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But to return to Sotto and his enduring popularity among the voters.

The reason he ranks so high in surveys is not exactly a mystery. In fact, it can be summed up thus: the kalyeserye (street series) segment of the noontime variety show “Eat Bulaga.”

A quick reference to Wikipedia describes Sotto as an “actor, comedian, singer, songwriter, TV host, journalist (?) and politician.”  But to most Filipinos, he is best known as a member of the troika of “Tito, Vic and Joey,” who have enshrined themselves in Philippine entertainment as the hosts of “Eat Bulaga,” which has ruled the noontime TV timeslot for over 30 years.

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In recent months, “Eat Bulaga” has soared in the ratings on the strength of the kalyesere, a segment of the show that stars the “phenomenal” but “accidental” love team called “AlDub.” AlDub stands for Alden Richards and Yaya Dub, an actor and a dub-smashing talent who found themselves part of an astonishingly popular love team.

AlDub are fixtures of the daily segment, which also stars the “Explorer lolas,” three cross-dressing comedians, who lead the duo not just in promoting the love team and their budding onscreen romance, but also in visiting a recipient of the show’s daily charity.

And this is where Sotto’s political stock gets a major boost. He regularly sits on a “panel” consisting of the “Eat Bulaga” hosts who feed lines to the kalyeserye stars and lend a touch of credibility and social relevance to the proceedings.

The senator lends a touch of gravitas to the otherwise wacky show, and he gains a measure of credibility as well from the show’s charity projects: plastic classroom chairs and refurbished libraries for public schools around the country, as well as the shower of prizes in cash and goods from selected sponsors.

But it’s clear the senator spends none of his personal wealth or even his allocation for projects. It’s all the money of sponsors (who pay to get their names and products in the public eye), and the hosts are just facilitators. But is it enough to earn or deserve a Senate seat?

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Well, in the Philippines, it seems it is. We have seen people assume a place in the “upper chamber” on nothing more than a recognizable name and face, no matter if the candidate happens to be a bad actor, unfunny comedian or athlete past his prime. Some senators run on nothing more than a recognizable family name, even if he or she has little to show by way of personal accomplishments or reputation.

This is why someone like Sotto—and Legarda in a costarring role—feel he or she can do something so outrageous as erase with the stroke of underhanded skullduggery poor women’s and men’s access to life-saving contraception without facing electoral backlash or losing political capital.

At the press conference, which ended with living effigies of the two senators being “stoned” with purple balls by an angry public, speakers urged voters to make their sentiments felt through the ballot. But will anger at losing access to contraceptives—and thereby endangering the lives of women, children and people living with AIDS—prevail over the national obsession with AlDub and their enablers?

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TAGS: AlDub, budget cut, Eat Bulaga, reproductive health, RH law, tito sotto
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