Ferdinand Marcos having been deposed and his People Power successor Corazon Aquino having failed to control the country, an election was due in May 1992. In which, fortunately, no one from the Aquino clan wanted to stand. Our candidate was (General) Fidel Ramos, but care had to be taken not to be caught appearing to interfere in a foreign election.
Given the chaos of the previous elections and the bad tempered and violent nature of Philippine politics, a Commission on Elections (Comelec) was set up to oversee the process. As well as the great and the good, a couple of divisions of troops were available to enforce the Commission’s decisions. Comelec decided that the best way to keep the campaigning under control was to ban campaigning. But it could only be banned during the campaign (February to May) so candidates set off right away campaigning before the campaign, then the whole thing ground to a halt when the actual campaign started. Got that?
Candidates were allowed one interview on TV but weren’t allowed to mention politics or policy, just to answer easy biographical questions about themselves. Leaflets were handed out with just a name written on them and some candidates handed out leaflets of their CV.
There were also local and national elections allowing a flurry of paper. To get around the restrictions, candidates able to do so renamed their businesses ‘Vote for me FM’ or ‘So and So Promises Freedom Taxis’ etc, but they were slapped down by the Election Commission and threatened with the firing squad.
At this point I was down in the south in Davao City in Mindanao, because of the insurgency it was generally out of bounds to Manila politicians, but a few brave souls made the effort.
One of whom was Ferdinand Marcos’s widow, the redoubtable Imelda, her of the ten thousand pairs of shoes in the Malacanang Palace. She had another palace built, Bond villain style, at the top of the Tagaytay rim of the Taal volcanco. It was called the ‘Palace in the Sky’ but was latterly unfinished, nationalised and renamed, by Aquino, as the ‘People’s Palace in the Sky’, in order to annoy Imelda. Which it did. To add salt to the maggot infested gangrenous raw wound, Aquino allowed coach trips of poor people to trample through. Imelda resolved to get her palace back by being elected president.
Mrs Marcos had a certain charisma about her and it was possible to both like and dislike her at the same time. Her non-campaign even avoided leafleting and interviews and got right down to the nitty-gritty by consisting of giving money away. We’re familiar with such as promises (often broken) in the West but Imelda took it much more literally and henchmen with carrier bags stuffed with cash handed it out to people who attended her non-campaign rallies. Now Imelda had been a singer and a rare beauty in her day, all she had to do was show face, belt out a couple of tunes at her ‘concert’, give away money and, you never know, people might accidentally vote for her. The gathering I observed in the south attracted, perhaps not surprisingly, a very large and reasonably enthusiastic crowd.
Imelda was very popular with poor people, even before they’d trousered the money. They absolutely loved the glamour and the glitz. Perhaps it was escapism? Or aspiration, as Imelda like themselves had had her ups and downs and had prospered. For whatever reason they, especially older ladies, queued up to meet and mob her and tried to touch her for luck. A mixed blessing for a political candidate. Mrs Marcos’s face was a picture as she gurned her way through shaking the hands of the unwashed.
Incidentally, your humble author once met Prime Minister John Major, and his wife Norma. I was really looking forward to it and had such a lot to say. The pair of them were immaculately turned out and very pleasant. He had these beautifully presented hands and nails. Anyway, I took a very deep breath while he shook me by the hand. Meanwhile, with his other hand, he was holding my elbow and saying,
‘So pleased you could come.’
And then, very professionally, he moved me to one side by the elbow, did exactly the same thing to the next chap, and before I realised what was happening I was half a dozen people away from him, just about out of the door and hadn’t had a chance to say a word. Can you blame him? I think the politicians call this manoeuvre ‘grin and grip’.
Another ambitious politician whose palace was slightly further down the rim of the volcano, in every sense, was Freddie Webb who had therefor to try a little bit harder than the others. More of which later. But for the time being, suffice it to say, he got out and about, obviously not to campaign, but to give away medicines that just happened to have his name printed on the bottle. Helping was a relative of his called Gisele.
The hospitality of the Filipino people is legendary, however in my case the free lunches were beginning to amass ominously above me like a queue of comets over King Harold at Hastings. These included a scandal touching Freddie Webb and by association, Gisele’s family.
Colleagues warned me that, if the whiff should reach me, the consensus was that I’d be machine gunned to death by gangsters which, sadly, would create a lot of paperwork back in the office. Instead I should concentrate on the business side of things, which I shall refer to under the guise of the ‘Anglo Philippine Friendship and Enterprise Company’, which became a euphemism for many things.
Another presidential candidate that caught the eye was Miriam Santiago, who didn’t take a lot of notice of the Commission, strayed way off message in her TV interview and made it be known that anyone who didn’t vote for her would be ‘chopped up into bits and fed to the sharks in Manila Bay’. And it worked for her, to an extent.
Closer to election time there was a nightly news program on TV, presented from Manila, in an American style, called ‘World News Tonight’. There was an expectation that it should be watched and anything locally relevant recced and reported upon.
On one particular night, the item that stood out was the rumour of a coup de tat. Not thousands of miles away, but in the road outside my accommodations. I sat up all night listening and sure enough there were vehicles on the move. It was difficult to go out in the dark because of the local situation. Even with the army about, parts of the city, often a pitch dark warren of improvised squatter’s huts, were ‘critical’ at night. My accommodations guaranteed my safety when I was in them, the second I tipped my hat to the guard on the door, asked politely of his good wife and eleven children and stepped into the street, I was responsible for myself.
Remember that Vietnam war film when a girl is deliberately shot in the stomach so that the rats will eat her alive through the night? That’s the kind of thing that used to happen. Can you imagine the noise the victim makes? And can you imagine not being able to go out to help because you know the same thing will happen to you? You get used to it.
I was in the habit of rising at 4:30 am for church anyway, so the following morning I ventured out as early as I dared. Sure enough, some armour and soldiers were still about the place and on the move. I took a slightly different route than usual and managed to bump into a couple of chaps in uniform guarding an electricity sub station. I pretended to be lost, asked directions for church and fell into conversation with them. There wasn’t a coup but they were practicing overnight, just in case, getting to and securing bridges, public buildings and the like. After that there was a split decision. Soldier A expected the election to collapse into chaos and for there to be a military takeover. Soldier B predicted an orderly election but with the wrong candidate winning therefore necessitating a takeover anyway. There was certainly a suspicion that if (General) Ramos didn’t become president then General Ramos would.
Just a few weeks later the actual election went very well and passed off relatively peacefully, helped by nuns chained to ballot boxes and the like.
Even after all these years, if you meet one of Miriam Santiago’s supporters they will claim that she won the election but lost the count. This is a bit harsh, President (General) Ramos appeared to get more votes than anybody else by a couple of million, was a good chap and subsequently took proper control of the country. His wife, Bunny, was an excellent host and one of his daughters was on a government committee with one of Gisele’s sisters. As the newly elected president, Ramos also received a grace and favour home on the rim of that volcano. All was well with the world.
Elsewhere, Freddie Webb was elected the senator for Paranaque and Rodrigo Duterte was re-elected mayor down here in Davao City. He continued his good work. Little things made a big difference. He doubled police wages meaning that they stopped taking bribes.
Every property received half an oil drum with a view your putting your rubbish in it, rather than just tipping it in the street. There were daily garbage collections. Within a couple of weeks the city was a better place. Taxi’s had to have a proper meter and seal and weren’t allowed to pick up trade by crawling along the road beside you blowing their horns. Power barges were hired and moored in the bay, providing useful but noisy electricity which ended the power cut ‘brown outs’.
Duterte also had a robust response to criminality, although there was a whispered suspicion, then and now, that he was thinning the streets of other people’s criminals in order to create a bit more space for his own.
Another excellent idea, rolled out across the archipelago was ‘Trading Triangles’. Two places would be paired off with each other and then each again with a different third. Communications and transport would be set up between them and business clubs formed, in order to allow a network of producers and consumers to get buying and selling across the country and into nearby parts of South East Asia.
The Philippine Republic consists of 7,641 islands, 2,000 of them inhabited. For the purpose of our tale we shall invent a 7,642nd and 2,001st respectively. The largest island is Luzon which is slightly bigger than Portugal, followed by Mindanao which is about the size of Scotland. The smallest islands are no bigger than an English hillside showing above a tropical sea. Our new island is about the size of four English shire counties. It is slap bang in the middle of the archipelago. It called Josephina Island and is average in every way. It’s biggest city and provincial capital is Josephina City.
One such obvious ‘Trading Triangle’ was Manila (in the North), my patch Davao City (in the South) and Gisele’s family’s home island, yes you’ve guessed it, Josephina, (in the middle). An added bonus was that her relative Senator Webb’s Paranaque constituency was in Metro Manila. Everything fell nicely into place for everyone’s future success. But there was a bit of a fly in the ointment that needed to be addressed. Remember that earlier oblique reference to a ‘scandal’? It was spoken of in frightened whispers behind closed partitions and was beginning to cast a slight shadow across our ambitions. Hardly surprising when it concerned a murdered mother and her two murdered daughters.
To be continued ……..
© Always Worth Saying 2019
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