Why presidents go local

What is wrong with the President’s frequent visits to her native town in Pampanga? Nothing – if they are the simple visits they are made out to be by her spokesmen: sentimental trips we all make to the communities of our childhood.  Everything – if their purpose is to single out a hometown or province for special favors because of its personal or political importance to the incumbent head of state.

For, the president of a country is the president of all its citizens. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s sphere of authority, as president, covers the entire nation, not one town, or province, or region.  She is expected to rise above all claims of kinship, ethno-linguistic, and religious affiliation. This is the same principle behind the modern rejection of all forms of particularism (like nepotism and regionalism) in government.  Indeed, this is the same standard against which all corrupt practices are measured.

Yet many people who wield official positions in our society take for granted that they can use public power for private ends, so long as other people are benefited in the process. Thus, town mayors routinely prioritize the improvement of roads that pass through their private residences.  Congressmen allocate their pork barrel to build roads and bridges that connect their vacation villas to the town proper.  Senators use their clout to divert highways in order to raise the property value of their lands. Public works officials use government equipment and resources to create roads that go to the remotest ends of a jurisdiction because that is where their properties are.

This practice extends to the appointment of public officials.  Although our laws demand that strict rules of eligibility must be universally enforced in the recruitment of individuals for government service, the observance of this rule seems to apply only to relatives.  We take it for granted that the appointment of people whose most important asset is that they belong to a president’s ethnic group is a prerogative of the appointing power.  We view ethnic affiliation as having the same significance as political party affiliation.  This is, of course, hardly surprising in a society in which the political system has been unable to differentiate itself from family, ethnicity, religion, and business.  We saw this in full display during the Marcos regime, when the best roads were to be found in the Ilocos region, and when one had to be Ilocano to become a top general in the armed forces.

Ms Arroyo’s weekly visits to Pampanga in the last few months — in particular to the six towns of the second district — not only bring the country back to this dark era of pre-modern regionalism, they also recreate a vicious form of sultanic patronage that has no place in a modern society.

During these local visits, the President brings with her virtually the whole superstructure of government, notably the departments that deal with frontline services – social welfare, public works, health, education, etc.  A full-service medical mission usually accompanies her on every visit.  She distributes PhilHealth cards, scholarships, land titles, and microfinance checks. She hands out food, medicines, seeds and fertilizers.  With the wave of a hand, she causes roads, bridges and dikes to be repaired.  She orders, inspects, or inaugurates the installation or upgrading of electric power lines, water systems, irrigation systems.  She oversees the dredging of local rivers, the construction of classrooms, school fences, and multipurpose sheds.  It is not hard to believe it when her people say she is a hardworking president.  But one has to ask whether she understands the work of a president.

When the President of the nation has to personally attend to the construction of barangay roads and dikes, there is every reason to think that the local officials and the public works agencies have miserably failed in their work.  When the President has to bring a medical mission into a town, the message it conveys is that the health authorities have failed to do their job.  When the President has to personally oversee the construction of barangay classrooms, one must ask what the Dept. of Education is doing.  What does it say of the agencies of government when the president herself has to personally handle the distribution of PhilHealth cards, land titles, and scholarships?   Surely, one cannot fault a president who performs a symbolic gesture of inaugurating a barangay classroom in order to kick off a nationwide program to rehabilitate basic education.  But Ms Arroyo’s recent patronage forays are not national in their import but unmistakably local.  There is a motive behind them that we need not discuss here.

It is enough to say – here is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with our country’s system of governance. Our local communities – our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our provinces – have been so stripped of their power and initiative that they can do very little for their constituencies.  We have reduced them to mere outposts of a central government, surrogates of an imperial authority based in Manila, forever waiting for Malacanang’s caravan to visit their hapless towns.

Just because we hold periodic elections does not mean we are a modern democracy.  In fact, we are not; we are trying to be.  Still, our ideas and aspirations are far ahead of the system of dependence and patronage in which the majority of our people remain stuck because of their poverty and powerlessness.  Elections can bring nothing new unless this system is first overturned.

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