‘Pasyon,’ politics | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

‘Pasyon,’ politics

/ 12:11 AM March 23, 2016

I was at a birthday party Monday night of a former staff member and kumpare (his daughter is my godchild), intending to leave early because of work the next day. But my kumpare insisted I stay and join his friends for some beer.

Why not? I figured, my social-scientist instincts getting the better of me because I knew alcohol always lubricates discussions about politics. It was an all-male, working-class group, ages ranging from the 20s to the 30s, which made me feel like I was 100 years old. But they were completely at ease, calling me by my first name.  Except for my kumpare, none knew about my job at the University of the Philippines, or that I wrote for the Inquirer—an advantage, I thought, for getting candid opinions.

I’ve been asked several times why I haven’t written about the elections, and I’ve had to explain that as an appointed government official, I am not allowed to publicly endorse any candidate or political party. So for my only column for Holy Week, I was ready to write something on religion. But after Monday night’s discussions, I realized I could do a column that deals with politics, as well as some religion, without being partisan.



In effect, the birthday party gave me an opportunity to do an FGD (focus group discussion), where you have a small group of people with similar demographic backgrounds talking about a particular issue.  It’s widely used by marketing companies who want to check consumers’ preferences. In the last two decades or so, FGDs have been used to help in the formulation of political campaign strategies.

It was my kumpare who got the election issue going when he asked who I would vote for. I shrugged and said I hadn’t decided, but the others all named their candidates, almost simultaneously.

All six of the men watched the presidential debate last Sunday, and seemed quite certain about who they would vote for. I was expecting that most of them would vote for Rodrigo Duterte, especially because three are from Mindanao and the Visayas, but I was wrong.

Only two, one from Pangasinan and the other from Zamboanga, said they would go for Duterte, strongly arguing that he had the experience of running Davao City and would instill discipline and get rid of “criminals.”  Later that night, another party guest, much older than the others (but still younger than me), joined us and also argued for Duterte.  He is from Manila and not the South.


There was one supporter of Jejomar Binay in the group who again cited “experience” as important, then recited his candidate’s accomplishments as mayor of Makati, specifically providing charity health services, and the University of Makati.  When one in the group asked about corruption allegations, the Binay supporter said even if the candidate was indeed corrupt, he at least gave back services.

A supporter of Grace Poe then shot back that the cities of Davao and Makati were different from the rest of the Philippines.


‘Malakas’ and ‘Mabait’

The remaining three were Poe supporters. I was first puzzled, thinking that this very macho group would all go for Duterte. But no, they were actually using a gendered dichotomy in their preferences. However, instead of “Malakas” (Strong, Forceful) and “Maganda” (Beautiful), it was “Malakas” and “Mabait” (Kind), with Duterte standing for forcefulness and Poe seen as having strength derived from being kind and helpful.

The Duterte supporters said Poe, as a woman, would not be able to handle criminal elements, especially “Isis terrorists.”  I pushed them about Isis and one Duterte supporter said these terrorists were so formidable he even had doubts that his “idol” could handle them.

The discussion took a new twist when a Poe supporter argued that the problems Filipinos face with peace and order are not because of criminals but because of corrupt law enforcers, to which another Poe supporter took issue, saying that the police are often misunderstood.

“Not all police are corrupt,” he protested, and went on to explain that his father is a police officer and an honest one, so honest that he got into trouble with a local powerful politician and the family was forced to leave its hometown in Mindanao and move to Manila. He was quite dramatic in describing how a price was put on his father’s head.

His answer perplexed me. Here was someone who knew that honesty could get you into trouble, but didn’t see an iron hand as necessary. In fact, he was convinced that a “mabait” candidate, Poe, could better handle peace and order problems.

Political issues have a way of firing up conversations, but can also die out quickly.  I asked who their choices were for vice president, and two chimed, “Bongbong.”  The others said they hadn’t decided, and when I asked who the other candidates were, it took some time to get the candidates’ names out.  It was clear that the vice presidential race was not something they considered too important.

The group’s discussions began to drift away from politics. I was drawn into another conversation when the guy next to me asked how many children I had, and then took out his cell phone to show photos of his 18-month-old daughter. I thought of how, in upper-class gatherings, the men don’t usually bring out photos of their kids.

On the side, I could hear the policeman’s son still arguing for Poe. When his friend, the Binay supporter, said people should vote based on a politician’s accomplishments rather than promises, the Poe supporter waffled momentarily, saying in Filipino, “Yes, we poor Filipinos keep getting fooled… It’s always been this way, even in Rizal’s time.”

Roxas’ ‘dating’

A group of seven cannot reflect the national electorate, but I did feel our discussion provided some insights on what Filipinos are looking for in a candidate.  I did worry that Mar Roxas was not named by any of the seven, and when I asked about him, it was almost as if they didn’t hear me, continuing their discussions about the other three main contenders.  Mar’s campaign strategists are going to have to work extra-hard about his impact on the electorate, best described in Filipino as “dating.”

And so the night unfolded, politics retreating as people talked of their families, of going overseas to work.  Welding seems to be the new favored occupation, but I told them women welders now have an edge over men when it comes to employer preferences, wondering afterwards if perhaps this was a similar situation with presidential candidates.

I felt that the group was thinking out the issues, not quite as gullible as the stereotypes go.  They worry about the future, and know how important the elections will be.

I thought about how, in the past, activist groups would stage a different kind of commemoration during Holy Week, enacting a different kind of “Pasyon,” based on the trials and tribulations of Filipinos.

It will be a long, hot summer before the elections.  Might we find some redemption then?

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TAGS: Elections 2016, holy week, pasyon

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