Monday, 25 May 2009

The Lords of the Ring

(as you read this piece, bear in mind how the arguments can be located in the political landscape of Bohol)

Introduction





Manny Pacquiao’s victory over Hatton in their recent fight gained several descriptions attached to our political development as a nation. National dailies said that his victory once again “unified the nation” or that it showed that “the Philippines still has hope”. Even the Bohol Chronicle said that “we have not had this high feeling since EDSA 1986”, and that “Boholanos back pacman’s politics”.

The Philippine fanaticism in boxing as a sport dates even beyond the time that Gabriel “Flash” Ilorde was proclaimed by the WBC as the “greatest world junior lightweight champion in WBC history” in 1972. Records show that the Philippines had its first international champion in 1925, at a time at which the country was experiencing its painful journey towards autonomy from the United States regime. Coincidentally, it was also the time when local politicians seemed like boxing champions, trying to defend their titles in the political arena from somebody else’s grab, to ensure their place in the government in transition.

Thus, boxing is all too familiar to the Filipino’s political psyche. In Philippine local politics, politicians were likened to boxers by voters who also seemed like spectators of a highly exclusive political fight. Like the lords of the ring, they prepare themselves extensively before a fight, publicize well their match, hire coaches and water bearers as well as cheerers in the crowd, and do all means to secure and keep the belt in however way they can. While analysis of politicians vis-à-vis boxers is not new, it is worthwhile to look into how local bosses in the Philippines act like boxers, by looking into the way they prepare for and keep for themselves a much-coveted prize in local politics.

This paper will compare and contrast three famous and notorious local bosses in Philippine politics, in three different local landscapes and across different time zones – Jejomar Binay of the prime business district of Makati in Luzon, Democrito Plaza of the once logging empire of Agusan in Mindanao, and Ramon Durano of the gun manufacturing city of the province of Cebu in the Visayas. To allow analysis in parsimonious fashion, only two frames of comparison will be used – the manner by which these bosses rise to power and the way by which they ensured to stay there. The intention of the paper is for the reader to find similar patterns here in the beloved province of Bohol, whether our politicians are just lousy copycats of these premier boxers or were able to develop a style distinctively their own.

Similar Beginnings

It is striking to note that Binay, Plaza and Durano do not come from rich, political and influential families. Binay was orphaned at an early age and worked his way through college. Plaza, on the other hand, managed to pass sixth grade and started to farm land for subsistence when he was 19. While Durano seemed to be the best-off among the three, he still was not considered wealthy based on the standards of his time. The three had big dreams in their own fields, Binay wanted to be make a difference in the country, Plaza to be rich, and Durano to become powerful. Each of them, in the pursuit of their desires, went through life in different ways but landed on the same dangerous ground – politics.

Jejomar Binay while finishing law at the University of the Philippines was lured to activism and even continued as a leftist activist during the martial law years. He was reported to have joined a liberation movement, the PLM, and was one of the strongest supporters of Corazon Aquino in her bid for presidency in 1986. After the EDSA revolution that ousted Ferdinand Marcos out of power, Binay, then 44 years old, was blessed to head the country’s rich financial district – the City of Makati. He became its first mayor ( and still is).

Democrito “DO” Plaza, on the other hand entered politics at the prodding of his uncle, once a mayor of a town in Agusan, much to protect the budding logging business rather than serve the people. In 1950, at the age of 35, he became the province’s congressman but later on opted out in the next election to concentrate on the building of his logging empire. However, sensing how other loggers not into politics were left wanting on logging concessions, he made a political comeback in 1967, in Agusan’s bloodiest elections, in alliance with other major loggers known as the Seventh Fleet, and won as governor, a post he occupied until Marcos’ downfall in 1986. Plaza ran again for congress in 1988, won and retained his post until nine years later.

Ramon Durano, the most senior among the three, started out as a high school classroom teacher in Cebu, ran for municipal councillor and won, and later on pursued a degree in law and became a member of the Philippine bar in 1936. After conducting law practice for a while and running a cement company, he tried his first luck in provincial politics and lost. The Japanese occupation of the country halted his political career, but he found a strong comeback in 1949 as Cebu’s first district congressman with the support of Mariano Cuenco. Ramon Durano remained one of Cebu’s influential local politicians despite the number of times he lost, until his death in 1988.

Securing the Prize

It is interesting to look into the political strategies employed by Binay, Plaza, and Durano in making sure that they secure the power that they hold most dearly. For this purpose, I looked into three points of analysis of their political machines – violence, money, and campaign organization.

While Binay was not seen to be a local warlord in the country’s prime business district, he was rumoured to be responsible for the deaths of several local leaders who ran opposed to him not only in elections but on several policy concerns. At least three barangay captains, staunch oppositions to Binay’s rule died since 1986, 32 killings were seen as politically-motivated and a failed ambush on Binay’s opponent in the 1989 elections occurred. These, however, can not be directly linked to the mayor – the opposition can only speculate based on the presence of a security group that Binay keeps for years now, members of which comes from Remulla’s Cavite.

Danao, on the other hand, never ran out of guns when Durano was in power. It was both a source of business income, reaching as far as Taiwan and Japan and as a threat to local politicians who will oppose his or his family’s rule. Durano was also rumoured as responsible of the deaths of his political opponents during the Japanese occupation and several others during his rule. Among the three, only Plaza was not notorious in using violence to win an elected post. It was only in 1995, when he was opposed by a military man, Coronel Noble, that Plaza hired for the first time, a personal security group to defend him against the threat of Noble’s military power and the latter’s threat of a coup if he will not make it in the elections.

While Binay and Durano were dependent on national patrons in waging victory in their areas, Plaza was also different. He ran and won and never lost elections on his own, even without political support from the national party. In the elections in 1995 for example, he openly told presidential candidate Edgardo Angara that he would not ask for any support from the national party and that he would take care of Agusan province on his own. Binay, on the other hand, retained his post by his close affinity with the people in Malacanang, even evading graft and corruption charges when Corazon Aquino was still president. After his last term in 1997, Binay was appointed MMDA Chair by Joseph Estrada and lost the position when the latter was ousted in the EDSA II Revolution in 2001. Similarly, Durano’s rise and fall in his political career, especially in the provincial level, coincided with the rise and fall of the national patron to whom he subscribed – the reason why he was very keen on delivering the votes for the patron during election day.

Binay’s charm in Makati’s elections does not rely on the business conglomerates that control the city’s financial success. He hated them, and even openly criticized them, especially when Bea Zobel de Ayala supported his opponent in 1992 and also because the Makati Business Club has never honoured him with an invitation in one of their business functions. He portrays himself as one with the people, jogging with them, talking to them, personally visiting them during times of sickness and mourning. He always corners the votes of the poor in Makati, to whom he promised protection against demolition. Plaza situated himself in Agusan in the same way. He was the poor people’s patron, a stark reminder that the poor can go a long way. He even identified himself as a native Manobo, an ethnic group that is about one fifth of Agusan’s population. He likewise portrayed the role of a provider, during and even after elections, the fact that his poor constituents displayed his picture and burnt candles for him when he died. In contrast, Durano was never seen as somebody close to the people, but rather somebody feared and revered. He sought compliance by fear through hiring goons before election day, kidnapping political opponents, and even shooting them. However, he compensates for this notoriety his large donations to the Catholic Church and his occasional display of faith.

In effect, Durano did not actually need money to buy voters on election day (though he did distribute but not in material sums). The “gold” that he accumulated from his different businesses he used not to buy votes but to pay his personal army, composed of casuals and regulars from the slums of Cebu, and the notorious criminals of Tondo and Cavite. Plaza, in contrast, has one political strategy that was proven effective all throughout his political career, and that was to outspend his opponents. The nagging poverty in the area provided a fertile landscape to this strategy. As a matter of fact, Plaza was reported to have spent nine million pesos in 1995, though others think this is grossly underestimated. While Durano and Plaza acted only months or days before elections, the former in sowing fear and the latter in buying votes, Binay took another route. Political analysts contend that Binay treats every move he makes at the start of his term a chance for campaigning, for establishing ties and patronage. He personally delivered goods to his constituents, he ran his own foundation, he controlled employment in the city hall and made sure he has their loyalty. On top of that, Binay, like Plaza, flooded the streets with money days before election day. In 1988, he was estimated to have spent 20 million pesos in buying votes alone.

It is interesting to know where these politicians got their money, aside from the usual national party support. Plaza, undoubtedly, has his logging empire as his resource base, which later on expanded to real estate, cement, rubber, shipping, and transport. Plaza was already relatively rich even before he hit congress for the first time. Durano on the other hand has a string of companies that started off from coal mining to cement, to guns and to many more, all products of favours and grants of concessions from the national government to which he was then allied and with which he was able to extract sums to expand his asset base, later becoming one of Cebu’s landed elites. But Binay?

The Transparent and Accountable Governance project in a special report revealed that Binay, after only a decade of public office, was able to accumulate 92 million worth of real estate properties in Manila and Batangas, 90 percent of which was undeclared. The same report questions how Binay was able to accumulate such wealth given the fact that the monthly salary was only thirty two thousand pesos (P32,000) and with only a base figure of only 3 million pesos in 1992. During his tenure, Binay was not a businessman, unlike Plaza and Durano, in his own backyard. Makati’s opposition politicians only have one thing to offer as an explanation for this incomprehensible increase in wealth – the granting of business and construction permits that ran very costly in terms of “under the table” deals. However, Binay was also charged by the Commission on Audit in 1988 to have misallocated close to 1.2 million pesos to “ghost employees”, illegal acts and purchases under “unusual circumstances”. In another audit in 1999, COA found a 58 million peso discrepancy in Makati’s cash in bank and 10.5 billion peso unverifiable fixed assets. Despite this, Binay won 4th runner up in World City Mayor Search in 2006.


Keeping the Belt

Binay’s, Plaza’s and Durano’s political machineries converge in two distinct terms – the use of networks and their families. Binay, for example, considers the bureaucracy as his biggest asset. He boasts of an employee base of 9,000 people and their families, loose and informal organizations of vendors, barangay tanods, slum dwellers, barangay captains, police forces who have representatives with whom he consult and hear information from. He also has a foundation for and of mothers whose main job is to turn in support for Binay in several functions and in elections as well as a network of political ward leaders actively functioning all year. Most important of all, he relied on public school teachers to rake in the votes on election day.

Durano worked the same way. The uncontested supremacy of the Duranos in Danao, apart from the customary violence showcased during election day was the use of the political exercise itself and its supposed administrators, the public school teachers, to falsify registrations, switch ballot boxes and fabricate election results. He also had a large employee base due to his many companies based in Danao, but that did not matter. Under Durano’s reign in Danao and the First District, violence and election fraud was more than enough. Plaza, on the other hand, relied on his political allies to support his gubernatorial bid all throughout. His only strategy was to bankroll their campaign and for them to deliver the votes on election time. It was not clear from literature though (there is a drought of sources on Democrito Plaza) if his supporters resorted to the same dirty ways that Binay and Durano did, or if he rigged election results at the provincial level.

All three maximized the opportunity to wrench control over their bailiwicks by perpetuating their political base through their family members. Binay’s wife ran for city mayor and won when he was no longer eligible to run because of term limits, and one thing he will do again when he ends his third term in 2010. Durano’s wife, sons, grandsons, and relatives controlled the municipal government of Danao and the adjoining municipalities and districts even until now. Ramonito Durano III, Ramon Durano’s son, is Danao City’s mayor at present. Plaza’s wife, brother, sister in law (with whom he had a feud but reconciled later), son, alternately hold different offices in the province of Agusan del Norte. Democrito Plaza II, DO’s son, is currently the mayor of Butuan City, the provincial capital.


Conclusion

Based on the discussions above, we note of particular similarities in the manner by which the three featured local bosses secure and maintain their power. While used at varying degrees and with different intensities, the political machinery of the three were tainted by the use of money, violence and intimidation, as well as a strong network of relationships and a line of patrons that make successful a bid for candidacy. Across time, and across different contexts, the rules of the game seem not to change – the one who knows how to whip an appropriate mix of these factors, with due consideration of the changing politics of the area, would surely win. Like boxers, they did have certain skills, more importantly in using the hand that delivers the best punch and by compensating deficiencies with other means.

But one common feature that made all these things possible is the landscape outside the boxing ring, a grim picture of poverty and destitution all present in the three areas, even in the premier business district of Makati. Binay’s “jog with them, eat with them” appeal did not work with the rich people at Bel-Air’s plush villages who do not think he is important anyway, but raked in the votes in the poor areas of the city. Plaza’s “outspend them all” strategy was very effective in the dirty poor Agusan, and Durano’s “intimidate them, feed them” stance was very effective with people with the least economic and political power.

This weaves a picture of “instrumental friendship” between two unequal parties (Scott and Keklviet 1977) where the patron, does not only take advantage of his position by buying out the client, but also makes sure that the latter’s dependency, insecurity and poverty is sustained for his benefit (Sidel 1995). The poverty in Agusan was denied by Plaza, even when it would have meant social reform project funds to flow in the area during Ramos’ time. Like him, Binay’s interest was not to empower his poor constituents, not matter how much he gave them, but to make them remain poor and dependent on him (Rocamora 2000). Durano, on the other hand, was not only interested on maintaining the poverty of the people, but to make sure that they were in fear as well.

The lords of the ring did not only fight against their opponents, but also made sure that the crowd were kept to their side. In the Phillipines, the spectators at the bench are poor, unable to place bets, but claps the hardest.