Friday, September 26, 2008

A changing of the guard?

Commentary : A changing of the guard?

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: September 26, 2008

In a small rented room in the Baseco Compound in Manila’s Tondo district that serves as the office of the people’s organization Kabalikat, some 20 leaders, mostly women, waited for the arrival of two young princes of Philippine politics, Senators Manuel Roxas II and Benigno Aquino III. Manila Mayor Fred Lim and former secretary of education Florencio Abad were also expected. The room is used for a tutoring class, so the people were squeezed into the children’s small chairs.

There is a countrywide consensus for a more democratic, egalitarian and participative government, but what would it look like in the concrete? People want a changing of the guard, an end to the “trapo” [traditional politico] system, but how would the new politicians act? People in that small room that morning saw some signs of what this new politics might be like.

Lim came first. He stayed on the street outside the room, gathered crowds of people, children especially, and gave them P20 bills until the bags of money he brought with him were empty. He talked to Roxas when the latter arrived, and then went away.

Roxas went around Baseco for an hour or so, an area of 56 hectares at the mouth of the Pasig River. It is home to about 10,000 families. One woman he met told him she paid P6 for a 20-liter container of water, which translates to about P300 for a cubic meter. Ordinary users of supply from Manila Water Co. pay only P10 a cubic meter. The poor pay more in every conceivable way.

Finally, the two senators and Abad came into the meeting room and spent the next two hours talking with the people. They listened as the people explained the problems they faced with light, water, drainage, incomes and schools, and how at present they feared they might be removed from Baseco, even though the land was proclaimed for them by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2002. They believe powerful and well-connected businessmen want the strategic area for commercial purposes.

The government cites a 2004 soil analysis that predicts the soil in Baseco will liquefy if there is a strong earthquake nearby. The study concludes that no homes are safe and all the homes must be removed. This is because the reclamation done in Baseco by the government used garbage instead of good soil and rocks, the analysis states. Other engineers say it is still possible to build safely one-story or two-story houses, provided ordinary building precautions in such a hazardous area are taken.

A cloud of secrecy covers the government’s real plans. Understandably, the people fear they will be evicted and sent 50 or 80 kilometers away, far from their work and the children’s schools, and that they will be replaced by offices, harbor facilities or houses of the rich.

The people told the senators they believed the proclamation gave them ownership rights, and on that basis they, with the help of Gawad Kalinga and Habitat for Humanity, built 2,000 neat, one-story houses. Another 1,000 families built in a government sites and services program. The remaining families have built as the poor have always built: shacks of secondhand materials wherever there was space. The people believe these steps strengthened the ownership rights, and they feel they cannot be evicted arbitrarily.

They told the senators that they should be told what the plan is, and if there is no plan then government should put that in writing and continue instead to upgrade the area as the proclamation states. The senators promised to help them find out what they could about the government plan.

As the morning went on, there were signs of a changing of the guard, from the old-style politician, or trapo, to a newer, more democratic style.

Lim may not be the best example of the trapo, though he very often refuses to meet with groups of poor people. He does help in his own way. In a more democratic style the senators visited the poor, they listened patiently and they offered to do what the people wanted them to do.

The senators took part in a dialogue with the people that was informal, friendly, one in which each side treated the other with respect. Perhaps that’s the essence of new governance: respect, willingness to enter into dialogue to form solutions, and cooperative action. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, however. Everyone hopes the senators will maintain their opening to the poor.

There were signs within three days after the meeting that the senators had begun to do what they promised.

The experience of Mayor Jesse Robredo in Naga City and Mayor Tomas OsmeƱa in Cebu City shows that the urban poor will vote in overwhelming numbers for the candidates who have helped them between elections. The poor are a more reliable constituency for a politician than the business and special interest groups they usually serve.

It would be wonderful if politicians took the poor seriously and won their votes, not by handouts, but by performance, by solving the very serious problems the poor face.

Is there hope of a changing of the guard?

Dennis Murphy works with Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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