According to Bienvenido F. Nebres, S.J., president of Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, the current state of national politics in the Philippines is so confusing that “nobody knows what differentiates the opposition from the current government.”
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming national elections on May 14 between supporters of incumbent president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her challengers, he believes very little is likely to change.
“There are no clear issues in the current election,” said Father Nebres, a Filipino and former provincial of the Philippine Jesuit Providence, speaking at a seminar sponsored by the Graduate Program in International Political Economy and Development (IPED) on April 10. “Some people might tell you then don’t like [President] Arroyo but they don’t like anybody on the other side either. It’s a stalemate. People will vote for the most-known candidates. There is no particular issue around them, they’re just well known.”
Father Nebres said that the elections where voters can make a real difference are in the 72 local provinces. Father Nebres works with a grassroots national housing network, Gawad Kalinga, which builds homes for the poorest Filipinos, many of whom are squatters, in 900 Philippine communities. Father Nebres credited the network of local mayors with helping Gawad Kalinga secure the land needed to build new homes, and suggested that their role would be “central” to real election reform in the nation.
“There are more mayors who are beginning to focus on providing basic services and basic needs, such as housing, schooling, and job development,” he said. “They see there are better ways of winning elections than through favors and buying votes. You can do something to make a difference for people and you can be elected for that.”
Ateneo de Manila University is offering a master’s degree program specifically for local mayors, to teach basic skills for “social entrepreneurship” — the use of business management systems to solve social problems. Father Nebres said that mayoral skills such as learning how to float a municipal bond can dramatically help improve a local province.
President Arroyo successfully weathered the “Hello Garci” scandal of 2005, in which critics alleged that she and Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano had engaged in voter rigging during Arroyo’s successful 2004 election campaign against popular actor Fernando Poe Jr. Two impeachment attempts, one in 2005 and another in 2006, failed, and perjury charges against Garcillano were cleared in 2006. Arroyo is not running for re-election until 2010, but 24 senate seats are up for election. In the Philippines, all senate elections are national.
Nebres said that a fiscally healthy government, a lack of strong opposition candidates and the failure of the impeachment bids have kept the current administration in power.
– Janet Sassi