Valdehuesa: All we have is a caricature of democracy

TO INSTITUTIONALIZE true democracy, it is important to ensure that it is operative at the grassroots, the primal base of a political system, whence emanates state sovereignty and all government authority.

To speak of the grassroots is to refer to one’s community – in our case, the barangay. It is our basic political and economic unit.

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One wonders whether anyone knows that governing a barangay means giving due attention to its three dimensions — as a government, as a public corporation, as an economy.

Unless these three elements are recognized and appreciated, all we have is a caricature of democracy at the grassroots and a non-performing base for our national economy. Only in the barangay is it possible to exemplify democracy as "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

How is the barangay a government OF THE PEOPLE? Before 1991, it was merely an appendage to the municipal/city government, with no powers or resources and no legal personality. Its officials were basically coordinators, with a quasi-official role and no real authority.

Today, it is a full-fledged government with power to tax, to police its jurisdiction, and to exercise eminent domain or expropriate private property for public use).

Like the municipal and upper levels, it has three branches: executive (office of the chairman), legislative (sanggunian), judicial (lupon). And its officials are elected by the people.

Thus it is a government of the people. They create it through their votes, just like the higher levels.

Is it a government BY THE PEOPLE? Here one encounters serious difficulty; because in fact it is not the people who govern but their presumptuous servants.

In the context of the local government code, "government by the people" means it is a direct democracy — like the canton in Switzerland and the kibbutz in Israel — the Athenian model of direct democracy. There all villagers convene periodically to discuss and decide how to manage or regulate their affairs. They pass laws or ordinances, or approve them directly — meaning the people govern directly.

It is the same in our case as stipulated in sections 384 and 397-398 of Republic Act 7160 (Local Government Code). Barangaynons are supposed to govern directly. They do this as members of the Barangay Assembly, which is supposed to convene periodically to deliberate on community concerns, to initiate measures for its welfare, to approve its budget, to ascertain the will of the community on any issue, and so on.

But in no barangay is this happening. On one hand, the officials are illiterate, ignorant, or mindless about the law; on the other, the residents are unaware or ignorant of what the law binds them to do. Thus neither the rule of law nor democracy is operative in the community.

Is it a government FOR THE PEOPLE? Despite the claim of the officials, it is not. It serves their purposes more than the people’s. Except for token benefits derived from the pork barrel of their political bosses, which they distribute to gullible segments of the community, the officials spend most of the barangay’s income to cover their own allowances/expenses. They serve their personal and family interests more than the people’s. The allowances they allocate are for their own pockets. The jobs they create are for their sycophants or supporters.

The benefits they distribute are for the gullible, the naïve or the squatters — people who pay back such "generosity" with their votes. They don’t even clean or cover the neighborhood canals, or build sidewalks so people with no vehicle are safe and comfortable. Their reading center or library, if any, is laughable. There are no skills development programs, nor the cultural or educational sort.

Go over the substance or efficacy of ordinances/projects they initiate, which they claim at election time as "achievements;" mostly political gimmicks! Rarely, if ever, do they consult their constituents. What little good they do advances their interests more than the people’s.

This portrait of governance at the grassroots is but a caricature of democracy, a make-believe arrangement, where the sum total of a citizen’s participation is to cast a vote on election day, only to be forgotten till the next election.

Much of this can be blamed on the elite classes who leave the fate of the community to incompetent but politically savvy sectors. More on this topic in subsequent issues. But if you can’t wait, talk to Bencyrus Ellorin, James Judith, or Fr. Nathan Lerio of Camaman-an.

A former UN executive and vice chairman of the Local Government Academy, Manny heads the Gising Barangay Movement. He writes Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays.