The culture of cash politics

What has drawn sustained public attention to the recent distribution of cash gifts to congressmen and local executives is not so much that unaccounted money was given to politicians, but that it was done on such a scandalous scale and right in the presidential palace itself.  No one believes this can happen without the knowledge or permission of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is known to micro-manage things.

As a sociologist, what I find truly remarkable about this is that it could easily have passed on as a non-event.  If Pampanga Governor Eddie Panlilio had not spoken to media, no one among the recipients would have made a big fuss about it.  Yet, even the much-admired governor’s first statements about the money were quite naïve. They suggested an initial readiness to keep the money so long as it was not in exchange for anything and was to be used for social projects in the province.

It is exactly how our culture assimilates and neutralizes bribery.  The clever briber never explicitly asks for anything in exchange.  But the whole context in which the act is performed leaves no doubt about the briber’s intention.  The demands of conscience or face, if they should arise at all, are quickly eased because the bribe is represented as a small gift, a token, a contribution to one’s favorite charity, or assistance to one’s constituency.  Bribing etiquette typically requires that some distance – in time or space – be placed between the principal and the receiver.  This is to avoid any possible awkwardness.

In this regard, the cash-giving in Malacanang last Oct. 11 was extraordinary. It was done right at the official residence of the President, and immediately after the breakfast and lunch meetings hosted by Ms Arroyo, at which the main item for discussion was the filing of another impeachment complaint against her.  It showed an absolute disregard not only for the law, but also for political form. Without her intending it, it served to dramatize the contempt with which Ms Arroyo regards her own allies.

Our politicians do not seem at all offended by this treatment.  Indeed they welcome it, believing it to be an integral part of our politics. Maybe they are not far off the mark in this belief.  An Inquirer item the other day reported former Maguindanao Rep. Guimid Matalam as saying that being given gifts, including cash allowances, was not unusual even in the first post-Martial Law Congress of which he was a member.  “Matalam said aside from funds from Malacanang, congressmen also received ‘lobby gifts’ from some company executives.”  I do not doubt this.

It may well be that the only thing that distinguishes the Arroyo presidency from any other is the manner in which cash-giving has become so much a part of the standard operating procedure of her office.  No other administration has been known to resort to buying political favors so literally, as brazenly, and as routinely as Ms Arroyo’s.  If this is what it takes to awaken us to the glaring discrepancy between the laws we profess and the dirty practices by which we conduct our national life, then surely we have her to thank.

In our quest for reform, we tend to ignore the realities that constrain our politicians and our electorate to behave in particular ways.  We are engrossed in the easy moralism that permits us to express our disgust for the failings of our leaders in government.  We cling to the belief that if only we can rid the nation of the present bunch of politicians, the country will surely be better.  I think we forget that our leaders, like many of our voters, are no more than actors in a political stage governed by the hidden scripts of social inequality and dominance.  We expect great things when we replace old actors with new ones, unaware that without a fundamental revision of the script, the performance will not be very different.

That script, the one that animates what we call traditional politics, provides not for the roles of government and opposition, as in the modern stage, but only for a set of patron and client roles.  Under its terms, political power in our society is to be contested not by alternating majorities and minorities, but by a very small ruling class. Unchallenged in its dominance, this class creates the illusion of plurality and choice through the constantly changing composition of its factions.

What does all this tell us?  It tells us that the modern institutions by which we are supposed to conduct the governance of our nation will never function properly so long as the masses are trapped in poverty. It tells us that the choices offered by our present political parties, including those that purport to represent the poor, are false.  It tells us that political parties that are not themselves financed by their members are a sham.  It tells us that public officials who buy their way into public office are no more than merchants or agents; they are not the leaders. It tells us that voters who are hungry and needy cannot be political subjects in a democracy.

This political culture is bound to change, albeit slowly, as more and more of our people get out of poverty, largely by finding work abroad. The change is becoming visible in our growing intolerance for money politics and in the impatience with which we scan the horizon for new leaders.


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