Barangay autonomy

As the nation goes to the polls tomorrow to elect officials of the barangay, the smallest administrative unit in our system of government, it is well to reflect on what it means for barangay elections to be nonpartisan. There is a direct connection between nonpartisanship and local autonomy that is not always appreciated by our political leaders and citizens.

Nonpartisanship in this context means that political parties are barred from fielding candidates for barangay positions, or from interfering in any manner in these elections so as to shape electoral outcomes. This rule, as we know, is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Although political parties do not overtly field candidates, barangay elections have, over the years, become crucial battlegrounds for control over municipal and provincial constituencies. Based on the number of barangay captains they can count upon, local politicians can calculate the approximate number of votes under their command.

It is these command votes that constitute the crucial bargaining chips in the sometimes elaborate transactions that take place during midterm and presidential elections. In view of this, barangay elections become dress rehearsals for political contests at the municipal and provincial levels. Barangay captains are perceived as nothing more than vote aggregators for the higher-level politicians they serve, and hardly the voice of the grassroots community they are supposed to represent.

This sad turn of events in our national life went hand in hand with the weakening of the local community as a source of pride, identity, and communal solidarity. The process began during martial law when Ferdinand Marcos sought to consolidate his power by transforming the barangay into the basic tool of his “New Society” program. In the absence of elections, the dictatorship’s idealization of “baranganic democracy” served as a cover for its recurrent need for instant political legitimation. It was the barangay assemblies, or what passed for them, that Marcos turned to when he sought the speedy ratification of the 1973 Constitution.

The politicization of the barangay unfortunately continued even after the collapse of the Marcos regime in 1986. Even as the new 1987 Constitution paid ample lip service to local autonomy, it was difficult to reverse the transformation of the barangay as a political unit of the central government. Ironically, as grassroots initiative slowly receded, the more the status of the barangay in the structure of government was institutionalized, as in the 1991 Local Government Code. Barangay officials began to think of themselves as occupying a key position in the governmental hierarchy and less as civic leaders. They learned to take their cues from the political bosses at the top than from the organic community from which they are sprung.

The local community lost its autonomy as it became integrated into the structure of the state. To make this point clear, we only need to recall the basic tenets of subsidiarity, the social philosophy that gives us the fundamental meaning of local autonomy. I quote here the principle as it is formulated in Catholic social teaching: “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

Perhaps it is bound to happen: that at a certain point in the path to modernity, the local community loses its character as a self-producing social unit once it comes into contact with dominant function systems like the state and the economy. This need not be a permanent condition, however. Like the family, the local community—the village, the barrio, the neighborhood—can recover its functionality as a zone of solidarity, intimacy, memory, and pride.

Nothing shows the urgency of revitalizing the local community better than the serious damage inflicted on the local ecology by the unabated exploitation of common-pool resources—black sand quarrying, to take just one example. Commercial activities of this sort are often undertaken solely on the authority of the mayor or the governor, and with the tacit consent of barangay officials. But the barangay assembly itself is never convened to discuss the pros and cons of allowing these. The 2009 Nobel Laureate for Economics, Elinor Ostrom, wrote extensively about common-pool resource management systems designed by local communities, which have been proven to be vastly superior to those imposed from above by state authorities. But one wonders if our local officials can still think with their communities.

This year’s barangay elections have brought out an unprecedented number of candidates.  People are actually spending tons of money to win barangay seats. This is not surprising in view of the perks that come with these positions. Apart from the basic honoraria, insurance coverage, medical and hospitalization benefits, tuition privileges for their children, preferential appointment to government positions at the end of their terms, etc., barangay officials in rich cities have turned their Internal Revenue Allotments into their own pork barrel.

The local community is the true realm of civil society, a sphere that revolves around the “creative subjectivity of the citizen.” This is what we give up when we allow the barangay to be no more than an administrative unit of the national government.

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