Can democracy work in a tribalistic society?

Mon, 04/05/2010 - 00:00
In Cebu City and the area then defined as the second congressional district the famous battle cry was’ “Bisag Unsaon, Kang Serging Kami”(Regardless of anything we are for Serging). Serging meaning the late Sergio Osmena Jr. the undisputed king of Cebu politics whose power and control over the electorate there seems to have perpetuated itself to the present day. The Osmena clan still holds much sway over Cebu politics. Serging’s children, nephews, nieces and other allied relatives and close supporters have successfully occupied public office.

What I found in the 1960’s when I was, as a student, involved with political campaigns, was the degree of clannish fanaticism with which the late Sergio Osmena Jr. was adored and venerated. Issues did not matter as far as his supporters were concerned. And this devotion from the Cebuanos both in Cebu and parts of Mindanao (to where many Cebuanos had migrated over the decades) was in fact a cornerstone of Serging’s strategy when he run as an independent candidate for the vice-presidency in 1961. In an interview with journalists covering the campaign he pointed out that next to the Ilocanos, the Cebuanos were the most clannish voters in the Philippines. And he almost won in 1961, just short by about 100,000 votes nationally.

And the “bisag unsaon” phenomenon is not limited to Cebu and Cebuanos. In other regions of the country clannishness is a trait just as ingrained. Consider, for example, the term “solid north”. It meant the unity among the predominantly Ilocano population in the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Isabela, Abra and what was then known as the Mountain Province. And, whoever had control over these votes had a very good chance of winning the elections on the national level.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with voting for members of one’s clan. A valid rationale is that, once in office, this person would enhance his native region with public works projects and other economic advantages. There is also pride say, for the Ilocanos, if an Ilocano is the president, vice-president or a senator.

But our problem is that, it seems, this type of “tribal” loyalty extends way beyond support of a “favorite son”. In many cases people seem to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the crimes and transgressions of these politicians provided they come from their tribe or clan.

It is no surprise therefore that in the Ilocano provinces we see this seemingly bizarre resurgence of the Marcoses as political leaders. There is even talk that Ferdinand Jr. is contemplating a run for national office as a senatorial candidate, based no doubt on the expectation that he will get a commanding lead in the “solid north” and also win the support of Ilocanos all over the islands.( Perhaps it is a trial balloon for seeking the presidency one day? A scary thought, for many). The Ilocanos, it seems, have forgotten the carnage and the plunder visited upon the country by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos; or worse yet, they remember but accept it for the very base and simple reason that Marcos is of their clan.

Clannishness and tribalism are perhaps unavoidable and enjoy much practice in many nations and cultures. Yet for Philippine democracy to truly take root and blossom into the best institution there is for the advancement of the Filipino, it will be necessary for the electorate, the citizenry to hold their elected leaders accountable; leaders must be held responsible for their sins and transgressions while in office. This is true whether those leaders be the Marcoses, the Osmenas or the Macapagal-Arroyos. If elected leaders violate the public trust the voters must render a verdict of guilty and vote them out regardless of the filial, familial or tribal links to these leaders.If candidates have a background involving corruption or have amassed wealth they can neither explain nor justify, they should not be elected to office even if they belong to one's clan, province or region. The very essence of democracy demands this. When accountability is short circuited, democratic principles die.

A good recent example of how this principle and process should work is the case of New Orleans Democrat William Jefferson, a congressman for nine terms. He was indicted for bribery when a $90,000.00 cache was found in his office refrigerator. Since he was not yet tried and convicted he ran for a tenth term in a city and congressional district dominated for several decades by Democrats and the population was predominantly black just like Jefferson. He thought he would win handily as he had done nine times before. To his surprise the predominantly black and Democratic voters kicked him out and elected a neophyte Vietnamese American candidate by the name of Anh Cao, who ran as a Republican.

The message was loud and clear: regardless of racial, ethnic and clannish identity an elected congressman known for a corrupt act was voted out of office. It was a clear and vivid example of a mature electorate that valued democratic principles over above all else. (Jefferson was finally convicted and now serves and 13 year prison term for the crime of bribery)

Will the Philippines ever see the day when the voters will use the ballot as a weapon to punish those who have violated the public trust? Will the time come when our citizens evaluate their candidates based strongly on qualifications and character? Will true democracy ever become a reality? Or shall we continue to wallow in the quagmire of clannish-tribal politics?

It has been more than a century and a decade since the death of our national heroes Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. It has been more than sixty five years since the blood of our soldiers were shed on the battlefields of Bataan and Corregidor. It is some twenty six years since the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. As I recall it, no one ever asked or cared if these heroes were Cebuanos or Ilocanos or Tagalogs. We only knew and cared that they were Filipinos. From Aparri to Jolo, from our cities teeming with vibrant humanity, to the barrios and villages where simplicity and grace continue to abound, from the sylvan mountain tops to the seashores caressed by emerald seas, we embraced them, our heroes. Isn’t it time that we truly honor them by embracing what they stood and died for?

They did not die for an Ilocano or a Tagalog or a Cebuano or any of the hundreds of linguistic and ethnic identities that comprise our nation.They died for all Filipinos. They died for freedom and democratic principles. It would be fitting if, on May 10, 2010 our ballots would carry the names of the candidates best qualified for the positions they aspire to regardless of clan identification. Then, and only then, can we with certitude and pride say that Rizal, Bonifacio, Aquino and our other heroes did not give their lives in vain.

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