The circus is back in town: an ordinary priest looks at Philippine elections

The circus is back in town: an ordinary priest looks at Philippine elections

“Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong.”
— Daniel O’ Connel


A Clue From an Icon

Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of America whose administration lasted from 1861 to 1865, the year he was assassinated. He never had any idea his country would have anything to do with this country. He lived and led at a time when the Philippine revolution and our sense of nationhood were, at best, nascent. But he could just as well have described our election politics when he said: “If ever this free people—if this government itself is utterly demoralized, it will come from this incessant human wriggle and struggle for office, which is but a way to live without work.” Lincoln must have been equipped with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor, as we might notice here. But I do not share his view that the “wriggle and struggle for office” could “demoralize” us or the government that rules us. On the contrary, election politics in the Philippines has a way of boosting the people’s morale. There is this brisk business of buying and selling principles, or the lack of them, in search for votes that become themselves objects of commerce, and all of this springs from a much-anticipated brew of showbiz and rhetoric, aside from the staple news on assassinations—of character or of persons.

Local politicians would probably take Lincoln to court for saying that what they do is just “a way to live without work”. They are that sensitive. After all, they could turn the tables on Lincoln by simply pointing out that he himself went into politics and got himself elected. Still, they cannot accuse Lincoln of not working after he won, something that could be extremely hard to say of many Filipino politicians. After all, Lincoln ushered in what most civilized human beings consider today as quintessential America: “a nation…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—and democracy: “a government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

A Free People?

I have doubts, though, about calling Filipinos “a free people”. The trouble with Philippine democracy is that to say Filipinos are free is highly debatable. They are not, for instance, free from foreign powers interfering, however subtly, in their (economic, political, socio-cultural) affairs. They are not free from poverty which singlehandedly drives many of them away from making wise choices. They are not free from political predators who take advantage of their dire economic and social conditions by the bread and circus of promises, payoffs and/or well-played-out-but-often-unsubstantiated acts of principled standpoints, feigned solidarity with the poor, and many such other forms of gimmickry.

They are not free from their own tendency not only to not learn from their mistaken choices but also to not take seriously the consequences of such choices until it is rather late. For example, Martial Law should have taught us a thing or two about not being too friendly with autocratic visions of a “new society” and “tunay na pagbabago (real change)” only to fall hard and flat, again and again, into trampled human rights, an ever burgeoning national debt, soaring inflations and the further descent of the poor into ever lower levels of misery. “When will we ever learn?” is indeed a question that cannot be sneezed at.

A Game Poor People Play

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that Filipinos are gullible or intellectually challenged by nature. If at all, they know and understand how politics and politicians can and do actually hoodwink whatever dreams they have of better lives. They too see how politicians have used power to aggrandize wealth at their expense. Many times, especially in rural Philippines such as my home province of Eastern Samar, the poor simply choose to pretend to play the politicians’ game so as to make the most benefit for themselves while they are being wooed for their votes. “We know you are out to get our votes and, ultimately, the taxpayers’ money as a reward for having bought our votes. But, heck, rather than allow you to get all the aces, better recognize that elections are ours. Yes, our way of at least milking something out you who, in one way or another, will fleece us. You want our votes? Be the highest bidder!”

This cynical view of the electoral privilege confounds so many priests, pastors and ordinary faithful who take to heart the sanctity of the ballot. But it is a reality that we have to confront and recognize as a response by the poor to the continuing crisis in Philippine politics that theoretically mouths service but practices self-interest and self-promotion, preaches the common good and justice but thrives on party, family, business or personal goals. For many poor Filipinos democracy is experienced as a farce; and thus their sometimes farcical treatment of elections could be understood in this light. Of course, this is a gross moral wrong that has until now spawned many other wrongs with it.

A Way Out

St. John Paul II in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) observes that true change of society and its structures, politics included, is impossible without “a conversion of hearts”. In the Philippines the chronic poverty of the masses, the basic symptom of a failed political, social and economic system, needs a conversion of hearts that must also be massive.

But how is this possible? The role of the Church is inevitably called into question. That after almost five hundred years of Christianity the Philippine Church cannot yet speak of a truly Christian political landscape in the country is a living testament to our collectively missing the mark of evangelization. After all, the summons to genuine conversion of hearts has to be first heeded by the shepherds of the flock. Is not the flock in disarray when the shepherds themselves are?

A Spiritual Tool, an Unspiritual Goal

Perhaps we should begin with the words of the Master: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). Considering that both Caesar and we the governed are God’s, then to arrive at a transformed society, both shepherds and flock, which includes candidates and voters, must recognize, and live by, total submission to God and his ways. Unless we do so, it is nigh impossible to observe the Master’s summons: “The is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News” (Mk 1:15).

Right Ending Means the Right Beginning

Next, I suggest that we follow St. Paul and permanently pray for our own conversion and those of our actual and potential leaders. “I exhort therefore that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and the giving of thanks be rendered for all men (and women); for kings and for all that are in authority, that we may all lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of our God and Savior” (1 Tim 2:1-3). I often wonder why this prayer is often confined to the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass when it should, by necessity, be made an integral part of prayers in homes, offices or marketplaces. Perhaps we priests and pastors are often embarrassed about, or are tired of, praying in private places for public purposes. We should not be. It is far more embarrassing when we are not familiar with our own strengths because we do not scout and explore the depths and potentials of our own terrain. We could find answers there that are not even imagined elsewhere.

But, to me, the overriding and compelling truth is: We cannot attain a just society without the help of God, who is best reached not by the flower of words or flurry of activity but by the “surge of the heart”, to borrow from St. Therese of Lisieux. Through heartfelt prayer, individually and communally, we could join Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan in begging of God for every candidate to become a “politician who listens to the people before, during and after the elections, and who listens to God in prayer…, who has no fear of the truth or the mass media, because at the time of judgment, he will answer only to God.”

We may not completely achieve our goal only through prayer. In fact, it would be extremely naive, and erroneous, for us to think of Christian prayer as isolated from action; in fact, they are mutually inclusive. One leads to the other and vice versa. But, with our ever-constant prayer for the “conversion of hearts” of “sinners” that we ALL are (the call at Fatima too), we shall not have erred on where to begin right.