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Corruption begins at the barangay level

The Barangay and Sanggunian Kabataan elections (BSKE) are over and what is left is the postmortem task of dissecting the carcass of democracy that was laid bare. “Be honest at all times,” admonishes President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to the newly elected officials. He singled out the barangay captains to remind them about the true calling “to serve the people. “

He then gave the imprimatur to the COMELEC Chairman Erwin Garcia’s overall assessment of “peaceful” elections. There were 19 election related deaths and 244 related incidents that were reported, according to published reports. One hundred 68 vote-buying reports were received by the COMELEC who noted that the number was way down compared to 1,200 reports during the May 2022 elections.

It’s like comparing apples and oranges. The 2022 elections were national, thus, the higher figures. This is a barangay election that should be vote-buying free, but barangay captains now have been elevated to an important role in local government elections. It’s no wonder that a governor in Luzon and 13 mayors are facing a vote-buying probe.

This is the dark side of democracy in politics. The Filipino citizenry complains of corruption in government but they themselves, as voters, really abets corruption by agreeing to be bought. Every election, voters expect to receive money and the amount varies by positional hierarchy. The higher the position in the food chain, the higher monetary value is expected. It is truly a scourge because the political system is taking advantage of people’s misery and poverty.

The question is, however, where are these candidates getting their money from because most of them are not rich unlike the mayor or the governor. For one thousand pesos per voter, sums up to a good number. Presumably, the mayor is the source because mayors need to control these barangay captains to advance their own personal agendas. Did the money come from the governor who is equally vested to control mayors for their own political survival?

The problem with dark money is that we really don’t know if it represents a bigger corruption of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) that is automatically shared to local governments. In many municipalities, their IRA allocation is about 90% of their total revenue. Barangays also get separate IRA; thus, it is another temptation for people to run for office. Their monthly salaries alone are already a good source of livelihood.

But, what if the money is being laundered through such exercise? And worse if illegal drugs money influences such democratic exercise. Of course, moneyed interests like the rich taipans, have a vested interest to keep subservient politicians in place where they want them. The more insidious ones are those from foreign sources because the modus operandi is to influence media outlets and is normally aimed at incumbents by using “news” as a tool for disinformation to further such intervention.

Clearly, barangay elections can now be (or has it always been?) the gateway to a more pervasive political corruption that is already eating away at democratic institutions. But what can the government do to stop corruption at such a level? People openly talk about how such monies move, especially the evening before election day.

Authorities can easily trace large bank withdrawals because many of the paper bucks being doled out are crisp and devoid of old folds or creases. The smell of money obviously excites voters into going into bed with them. After the election dust settles down, the “winners” proudly lay their claim as if they have truly earned such votes. But, if the proper authorities constantly check on their lifestyles, they’ll net bigger fish.

Over the years, “allowing” vote buying to exist has made it difficult to eradicate it because everybody has their hands in the cookie jar. Lifestyle changes among barangay captains are easily spotted but that is as far as it would go. There are laws in the books, but the legislators themselves are part of it so it is such a futile exercise. Making noise about amending certain electoral provisions are but pro forma.

In the news a couple of months was the former COMELEC Chairman Andres Bautista, an appointee of the late President Benigno Aquino III and kept by President Rodrigo Duterte. The bad news was that Bautista was being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for money laundering that stemmed from a bribe that was deposited to his bank account.

The money purportedly came from Smartmatic subsidiaries, the technology firm that has cornered the contract for vote counting machines in the 2016 Philippine presidential elections that Duterte won by a large margin. It was the same technology company who handled the 2010 presidential elections that Aquino miraculously (sympathy votes) won.

The news of Bautista’s indictment sent ripples to the Philippine political world because of the implications of it. Did Smartmatic rig the 2010/2016 presidential elections including the most recent one where Marcos won by a landslide? Did the president, former presidents, their vice presidents, and winning senators know? Will Bautista implicate them, or will big names intervene not only in the Philippines but in the United States as well?

This is precisely the problem with political corruption involving dark money. Voters think that the money exercise ends after the election. Some even make fun that some food joints have more than their usual customers on the day after. In truth, the web of corruption is so wide that it goes beyond elections. More so, is there was quid pro quos involved between parties, even between heads of state and foreign countries.

Think of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for example. Did the Americans know about the Smartmatic magic and used it as leverage to get EDCA signed into law? In furtherance, one should also look at the UNCLOS ruling to help pursue the West Philippine Sea claim, although it is not enforceable? How are the Chinese connections involving state projects from former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to Rodrigo Duterte?

What about those that are deeply hidden in layers like in narco-politics? Why can’t the Philippines effectively run after drug lords? The United States keeps pointing an accusing finger to China and Mexico about Fentanyl trafficking in the country. Is the Philippines part of their trafficking routes through locally run cartels? It really goes far and wide.

The barangay should be the first step in any effort to put a big dent on political corruption. But the last election tells us that it is a flourishing trade that LGU executives would rather promote in furtherance of their ambitions “to serve the people.”


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