Parsing Villar, self-proclaimed trapo

Doubtless I am fighting a moot, not to mention lonely, semantic battle, but, to my mind, there are few examples that better illustrate the unwieldiness of political bywords than “trapo”. A contraction of “tradpol”, which itself is a contraction of “traditional politician”, it has found its way into popular vocabulary as a term of unequivocal opprobrium. Even the most cursory examination, however, would reveal that “trapo” is underpinned by a problematic assumption. It is reasonable enough to posit that there exists in the political realm a specific set of traditions, which might be tentatively defined as practices that are formalized, usually de facto, for the purpose of ensuring their repetition, and, by such repetition, acquire the sanction of perpetuity—this is, after all, true of any given arena of human activity—but “trapo” implies that these traditions are always already detrimental to the general public.

This is not to deny that there are bad politicians, but configuring the ills of the state along such simplistic lines as “traditional” and “non-traditional” is, in my opinion, ultimately unproductive—consider, as a parallel example, how thoroughly demonized “politics” has become, given how it has been indiscriminately used as a synonym for engagement in symbolic battles over trivialities, or for poorly cloaked self-aggrandizement, as might be sensed in the phrase “politically motivated”.

One might also wish to think about how unfair “trapo” is to the rag, which, if a scrap of cloth, at least has the ability to sop up messes—hardly a description that can be applied to the many venal “honorables” that haunt government offices everywhere in these islands. Is the negative connotation perhaps inadvertently revelatory of a widespread aversion to cleanliness, and, by extension, godliness?

In any case, that “trapo” tends to confuse rather than to clarify is easy enough to demonstrate. Last year, during an interview of presidential candidate Manny Villar by veteran journalist Cheche Lazaro for Probe Profiles, the issue of “traditional politics” was brought up, and his response is worth quoting at length, in all its convolutedness:

But what is traditional? Yun ang gusto ng tao and inihalal ka ng tao demokrasya kasi tayo. And kung nagustuhan ka ng tao, yun yung sistema natin. At yun ang tradition. Di lamang tradition yan. Yun ang sistema natin. So, hindi ko maintindihan yung salitang traditional siya. In fact, ako nagdududa ako pag may nagsabing non-traditional. Baka naman mali yung kampaya niya. Pero ibig ko lang sabihin, yung mga nagsasabi ng ganyan, either di naintindihan yung ating sistema ng gobyerno o nagsisinugaling siya.

…Kung traditional yung pagkampanya, traditional. Pero kung sa objective at nagawa, hindi siguro traditional. Dahil siguro bilang naging Speaker of the House and Senate President, tayo lang naman ang nakagawa niyan post war. And kahit papaano naman, may mga nagawa na tayo ng nakaraan na maipagmamalaki ko naman. Nakatulong sa ating mga kababayan. In that sense, hindi ako traditional. Kaya kung ang kampanya, traditional yan kasi that’s the only way you will win pero du’n sa performance mo, dun na nagkakaiba. Because du’n sa performance mo, may magandang performance, may hindi. May hinahangaan, may hindi. Yung hindi, kung karamihan, mababa ang grade, ika nga, yun ang pangkaraniwan, ikaw ang exceptional.

Villar himself is confusing, of course: if he does not understand or disagrees with the concept of “trapo”, how did the lines “Akala mo trapo/Yun pala katropa mo“, an assertion that he is not traditional, come to find their way into one of his campaign jingles? (An extended discussion of his discomfiting slipperiness may be found in Blog Watch.) Still, the idea that tradition is rooted in what the people generally desire is not without merit—traditions are consensually established, anyway—and thus it can be said that Villar is a trapo in that he believes he can deliver what the people want.

The pertinent question, then, is this: What does Villar think that the people want?

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Question: Does Villar think that the people want a president with a clear, reliable platform—that is, a set of declared principles that will guide all policy decisions?

Answer: No.

In an interview on The Big Picture with Ricky Carandang, Villar said, “Kasi yung mga plataporma, madaling sabihin ‘yan e. Pagagawa mo lang sa speechwriter mo ang mga plataporma mo, sasabihin mo ‘yan, me-memorize-in mo ‘yan, okay na.” (See 7:01 to 7:10 of the video above.)

This may explain why, despite the so-called “mutual adoption” of platforms that took place between the Nacionalista Party and the leftist Makabayan coalition, the platform is nowhere to be found on the Nacionalista Party web site, or on any of Villar’s official web sites.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that his attendance at public forums has been notoriously spotty. As he said to Carandang, “Nakikita ko na ‘yung mga forums na ‘yan, parang…parang nakakasayang lang ng oras.” (See 8:23 to 8:28 of the video above.)

Question: Does Villar think that the people want a president who tells the truth?

Answer: No.

Asked if it was true that he had benefited from the construction of Daang Hari—a road that was opened in 2004 and links together Las Piñas, Muntinlupa, Laguna, and Cavite—because it courses through seven or eight subdivisions that his various real estate companies had built, Villar told ABS-CBN reporter Ted Failon that, “Akala lamang nila, pag-aari po natin, at hindi pa nga ako nababayaran ng gobyerno ng right-of-way nila. Iniimbita ko po kayo, at sasamahan ko po kayo. Papatunayan ko sa inyo na hindi ako nakinabang diyan.” (See 1:53 to 2:03 of the video above.)

Failon took him up on the challenge, and found that Daang Hari passed by a whopping 23 of Villar’s developments in the area. It may be that Villar has yet to be paid by the government for right-of-way, but that is an ancillary issue at best—the point is that he was caught on television telling an outright lie.

Question: Does Villar think that the people want a president who will not spend more than he and his allies can legally and ethically recoup once he is installed in office?

Answer: No.

According to a study by Nielsen Media Research, Villar had already spent about PhP325 million from May 2008 to October 2009 on media alone.

There can be no doubt that he is the biggest spender among the current crop presidential candidates. He told Reuters back in March 2009 that, “If you can’t even raise one billion pesos, why even run?” and so it can be safely assumed that this is the minimum amount he is prepared to spend.

How does a president with an annual salary that does not even reach one million pesos earn one billion back over a six-year term? Is this not a losing proposition for any entrepreneur, especially one with the much-vaunted experience of Villar?

Manolo Quezon asked in his January 21 Philippine Daily Inquirer column, “Does [Villar’s quest for] public office mean that money is merely a means to an end or is it public office that is merely a means to an end?The Philippine Star columnist Billy Esposo, on the other hand, has warned that “the biggest campaign spender can also be the worst possible plunderer“.

Villar also had this to say to Reuters: “With me, what you see is what you get. With some candidates, you’ll have to ask, who’s behind you? They say there is one golden rule, he who has the gold rules.”

Was that an admission that he will buy his way into the highest office in the land?

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To recapitulate: Villar, a self-proclaimed trapo, thinks that he can give the people what they want. If his statements are any indication, however, he obviously believes that people do not want a president who (a) has a platform, (b) tells the truth, or (c) spends within reasonable limits.

In view of the foregoing, there can only be one possible answer to a Villar presidency.

NO.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

Truth and lice

Whatever else can be said about the adoption of Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan (Makabayan) senatorial candidates Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza by the Nacionalista Party (NP), it is definitely nothing less than an event for the history books. After all, Ocampo and Maza are militant leftists, while the NP is a party headed by real estate mogul and presidential candidate Manny Villar, and also includes Bongbong Marcos, the son and namesake of dictator Ferdinand, in its line-up for the Senate.

If I understand the official statements on the alliance correctly, Ocampo and Maza, as well as the members of Makabayan, view it as a significant opportunity to shift their revolutionary struggle onto the center of the national stage and into the limelight of public affairs. It may be useful to frame the situation in classical terms: Ocampo and Maza constitute the Trojan Horse of the Left, with which the walled city of Philippine politics, sitting high on its dung heap of graft and corruption, and gleaming with impunity, will be infiltrated, conquered, and rebuilt anew. Of course, one must admit that such an explanation is not quite adequate: to resort to it is to elide the fact that Ocampo and Maza were already mainstream politicians to begin with, as both have been serving in the Lower House of Congress as party-list representatives since 2001.

In any case, already the horse has begun to roll forward, as the NP agreed to integrate the Makabayan platform into its own, leading to the production and release of the document entitled, “In Response to the People’s Concerns“—a document strangely unavailable on the official NP web site as of this writing.

Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino, in “Misunderestimating the Philippine Left“, one of the more recent commentaries on the issue, put it this way: “Villar’s brave decision to openly embrace a platform-based unity with the left has smashed the taboo in Philippine politics. From now on, the participation of the left will be expected in future electoral contests for top political posts.”

That a taboo exists at all, as may be inferred from the assertions Palatino makes in the essay, has to do with how (orthodox?) leftists have been spoken of by various “academics and commentators”, “liberal right-wingers”, and “apostates”: demonized all and sundry as destabilizers and terrorists, leftists suffer from “not [being] recognized as legitimate political players who can use valid political practices in the electoral arena”. This is a claim not without merit: surely it cannot be just to refuse the left a seat at the table of democracy on the basis of what Palatino refers to as its “past mistakes”—ones, he adds, that the extreme left has apologized for. To reduce the left to its history of bloody violence is itself an act of violence—such an act condemns the left always and forever to irrelevance, death, or both, and denies the transformative possibilities of ideological difference.

That said, I have to take exception to how Palatino read the motives of those attacking the NP-Makabayan alliance: “The anti-left gang is mad not because the left endorsed a presidential candidate. They are mad because the left has refused to endorse Noynoy Aquino.”

Tonyo Cruz has said in his Asian Correspondent blog that, “It is a matter of public record that Noynoy Aquino shut the door on Ocampo and Maza, despite the Makabayan coalition’s earnest overtures.Manila Standard Today columnist Jojo Robles, who recounted how Ocampo described his meeting with Aquino, thought it was “unfortunate that Noynoy Aquino and his traditionally bourgeois collection of yellow-clad supporters may have missed out on this major political development.” How, then, can Palatino’s statement make sense? If (a) Aquino and the Liberal Party rejected the left, and (b) the anti-left “gang”—whatever that might be, as I am not convinced it even exists—supports Aquino, how does one arrive at the conclusion that (c) the anti-left “gang” is angry at the left for not endorsing Aquino?

Furthermore, anti-left sentiments are hardly exclusive to any one political group: BANTAY Party-list, to cite one example, was founded precisely on such sentiments, and its leader, Jovito S. Palparan, is running as an independent candidate for senator.

It may well be accurate to say that I am guilty of nitpicking, but one would be wise to bear this in mind: where there are nits, there are lice—which is to say that more than simple logic is at stake.

If, as Palatino says, the left is treated unfairly when it is conceived of as a monolithic, hence totally reprehensible, entity, is he not doing the same thing by speaking of an anti-left “gang”, which he then uncritically equates with the Aquino camp? Does not the lack of self-reflexivity in his argument—the same lack that he decries as the “pathological narcissism” of the anti-left—register as disingenuous, as an instance of victimage?

For the members of any given minority to strive to overturn the regime that tyrannizes them is perhaps understandable, and yet what is gained if and when they accomplish exactly that? To succeed in turning over structures of oppression is certainly to redistribute power, so that what once was reviled becomes revered, but by no means does the oppression dissipate—rather, the instruments of torture simply change hands. To seek a reversal of terms is merely to honor, reinforce, and perpetuate such terms. Therefore, when a political project remains trapped in old categories, how can it claim to be truly revolutionary?

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]