Intermission politics

Listening to Senator Panfilo Lacson’s expose of the alleged misuse of sweepstakes funds to subsidize the campaign of administration candidates in the last elections gives one the sick feeling that we’re back in the familiar track of Philippine political life.  The awesome events of this world are occurring elsewhere, while we seem fixated with the intermission stuff of petty and unrelenting political games. It’s no longer amusing.

This is the mood created by Lacson’s privilege speech on the supposed Mike Arroyo-led “Department of the Underground” – “the most inventive, creative, and innovative agency of grease, graft, and corruption.” I do not believe the senator is simply trying to divert attention from the serious allegations of wrongdoing that he himself is facing.  What he seems to be doing is to get the public to believe that all the criminal charges that have been filed, or will be filed, against him have a singular underlying motive.  And that motive is to stop his rise to the presidency.

The senator clearly sees himself as the logical heir to the political base of Joseph Estrada.  Like Erap, he enjoys mass appeal.  Though not himself a movie actor, he too knows the art of plain talk.  But unlike Erap, he comes better prepared.  If Erap is hedonistic, he is nearly ascetic.  If Erap is unschooled, he went through the discipline of military training.  In 2004, the opposition will have no one else to field but Lacson, whereas there is no assurance that President Macapagal will not be challenged from within her camp when she seeks re-election.  Lacson wants the public to think that from here on, events can only be understood through the political prism of the 2004 election.

The only defense he has put up against the flood of criminal charges that have come his way is that all these are politically motivated.  By a technicality, he has avoided being tried for the mass murder of the members of the Kuratong Balaleng gang.  He has distanced himself from the criminal activities of police officers who formed his loyal core of implementors when he was head of the Presidential AntiOrganized Crime Task Force and later of the Philippine National Police.  He has refused to sign a waiver that would allow foreign banks to divulge the existence of large dollar accounts traceable to him even after the National Bureau of Investigation and the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines have publicly accused him of maintaining huge foreign deposits.

Now he has taken the offensive. It is as if he’s saying: “You want to play politics?  I can dish it out too if you won’t stop or leave me alone.”  This tactic is effective because it rides upon a growing cynicism in our society about the character of our public life.  The view it encourages is that no one in government can claim to be absolutely clean, that charges and counter-charges are part of the game of politics, and that investigations are nothing but political weapons.

The consequence of this attitude over time is the pervasive politicization of all social institutions.  The judicial system loses its legitimacy, trust in the police and the military is eroded, the civil service becomes a plaything of the powerful, the mass media become sources of propaganda rather than of information, and schools and churches are seen as tools of power.  In such a situation, the competition for power becomes the principal impulse of society. Justice is held in abeyance until the political results are clear.

Our own everyday experiences may often validate the deep suspicion that our society is indeed hopelessly trapped in this state of affairs. This explains our tendency to talk about the future of our country in tones of despair and exasperation whenever the subject of politics comes up.  And yet, to our own surprise, between long intervals of pessimism and drift, we have more than once shown our capacity to assert the power of new values against the inertia of entrenched practice.  We have resisted being immobilized by the knowingness that often comes with dealing with a particular type of politician too long.

Senator Lacson’s problem seems to stem from the fact that while he is a first-timer in electoral politics, he is really not a stranger to politics.  He has seen and heard too much, and what he knows especially during Erap’s time has made him cynical.  He suffers from a corrosive knowingness.

And so to charges that he keeps unexplained dollar accounts abroad, he responds by accusing no less than the Secretary of Justice himself, Hernando Perez, of hiding millions of dollars of bribe money in a Hong Kong account.  To the charge that he has enriched himself by engaging in grave crimes like drug trading and kidnap-for-ransom, he reacts by accusing Mike Arroyo, the husband of the President, of dipping into public funds to promote the candidacy of administration senatorial candidates.  These charges may or may not be true.  The point is to determine if they are and to prosecute those who may be guilty.

Having spent time as head of the PNP, Sen. Lacson may have more damaging information about other key figures in our political life that he is reserving for the future.  In the kind of politics he seems to know, the preferred method for buying immunity from attack is the method of mutual deterrence.  We are seeing that in full display today.  It makes for good sound bites, but, from the long-term perspective of our needs as a nation, it is neither useful nor entertaining.


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