A reformer’s cross

The election of Catholic priest Fr. Eddie “Among Ed” Panlilio in 2007 as governor of Pampanga was nothing short of phenomenal. Although “Among Ed” won only by more than a thousand votes, his triumph signified for many Filipinos a watershed in the country’s political life, a stunning breakthrough in the longstanding quest for good governance.  Overnight, Among Ed became the sensational personification of reform.

The two candidates he defeated – one, the wife of a reputed gambling lord and the other, the incumbent governor himself, the actor-son of an actor-senator — not only represented the twin faces of traditional politics. They were also, not surprisingly, the closest political allies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who traces her roots to Pampanga.

Among Ed’s first few months were marked by a dramatic achievement that conveyed the simple message of reform.  He organized a group of citizen-volunteers to streamline and strictly enforce the collection of government fees from the quarrying of lahar material. (For many years a curse, deadly lahar flows from the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo had left a rich deposit of gravel and sand on Pampanga’s rivers that has become the main source of the provincial government’s revenues.)  Governor Panlilio achieved the unthinkable: he collected in three months the equivalent of what the previous administration of Mark Lapid collected in three years.

Today, just a little more than a year since the priest-governor took office, people are wondering what is happening in Pampanga.  There is a movement to recall Among Ed as governor.  Among its signatories are about a dozen Catholic priests from the province who made a show of signing the recall petition at a press conference.

As an observer of Pampanga politics, I do not assign any positive value to this recall movement.  Behind it are politicians closely identified with the defeated candidate, former Lubao mayor Lilia “Baby” Pineda.  At best, its claim is ambiguous (“loss of confidence”); at worst, it is too much like the pot calling the kettle black – it reeks of hypocrisy.  Similarly, no one is impressed by the behavior of the priests who signed the petition.  A number of them were sighted a few months ago in Malacanang, soaking the beleaguered Ms Arroyo in prayer after it became known that she distributed cash to governors and congressmen who were invited to have breakfast and lunch with her. Among the perplexed recipients of the cash gifts was Governor Panlilio himself, who told media about it. Moreover, it is no longer a secret in Pampanga that the tentacles of “jueteng” have long reached the door of the Church.

But what I take seriously is the clear-headed call for reform coming from the same civil society groups that organized the campaign to make Among Ed governor of the province. One of these groups is Kapampangan Marangal Inc. (KMI), an association of professionals, business people, and religious leaders who lent their time, effort, and meager finances to jump-start the ragtag quixotic campaign to elect Among Ed.

KMI firmly rejects the recall initiative against Gov. Panlilio and urges the elected officials of the province “to heal the wounds of divisions through dialogues and peaceful negotiations.”  In its statement “No to Recall, Yes to Reforms,” the group calls on their governor: (1) to ensure a system of checks and balances, instead of concentrating decision-making in the hands of his provincial administrator; (2) to give substance to his pledge of economic empowerment for the poor in order to wean them away from dependence on “jueteng”; and (3) to observe due process in the handling of allegations of corruption against the volunteers who were instrumental in raising lahar tax collections to phenomenal levels. These underpaid volunteers are currently on strike to protest their summary dismissal by the provincial administrator without the benefit of a fair investigation.

When Among Ed decided to run as an alternative candidate in 2007, I knew he had embarked on a difficult crusade.  When he won, I had hoped that his training and background as a priest would not be a hindrance but rather a resource he could tap.  It now looks to me that he did not have a full appreciation of what it means to be a reformer.

In one encounter with him as a friend, I reminded him that the work of a reformer is an ironic one.  Its main purpose, I remember telling him, is to destabilize the old norms and demonstrate the viability of a new way of doing things.  But the most challenging part, I said, is achieving this by working as much as possible within the culture, rather than against it.

It is my impression that this man of the cloth brought to his position not just good intentions but also an insidious form of moral righteousness that suited him more for a scorched-earth type of crusade than for politics as we ordinarily understand it – i.e. the art of compromise.  This mind-set inclines one to uniformly treat every instance of opposition as an arena in which to wage war against evil, rather than as an invitation to find a common ground.  This is the worst attitude one can ever bring into politics.

Last week, in her acceptance speech as 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Government Service, Isabela Governor Grace Padaca said something along these lines: We cannot afford to fail when we cast ourselves in the role of reformers.  If we fail, the failure is more than personal.  It often kills hope in reform itself.

If Among Ed fails, it will be a long time before the concerned citizens of Pampanga can again believe in the possibility of peaceful reform. That is the bigger tragedy.

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