Inside Story

In Angeles City, all politics is local

On the ground, the Philippines midterm results look less like an endorsement of Rodrigo Duterte’s policies than an illustration of the power of money. Photos by Dave Tacon

Margaret Simons 15 May 2019 2978 words

How-to-vote cards litter the ground at Jose P. Dizon Elementary School in Pandan district of Angeles City on the day of the Philippines midterm election.

It was Sunday, the day before the Philippines election, and I was in the slums of Hadrian’s Extension, Angeles City, about two hours’ drive north of Manila. Like any other Westerner, I soon drew a crowd of curious children. They had the big eyes and dusty, dusky skin familiar from the begging letters of aid agencies.

A toothless old lady pedalled by with a sidecar full of fruit, and I bought oranges at thirty pesos each — about eight cents — to hand around. The plastic bag was almost torn from my hands as the children pushed each other aside. They bit straight through bitter skin and pith to fill their stomachs.

It’s one thing to know that these children are hungry, and another to see them respond to food like that. Just like it’s one thing to hear of an election — in this case the national midterm election — and another to be here, in the hot, wet slums with their sour cream smell, during the campaign.

The people of Hadrian’s Extension are among the estimated 30 per cent of Filipinos who lack the basic necessities of life. Some of them don’t officially exist — the funds were lacking for their births to be registered — and can’t vote. As for the rest — the election runs on their backs. Understand the slums, and you understand how Asia’s oldest democracy works in practice.

Yesterday the world heard that the election result strengthened president Rodrigo Duterte’s hold on power. Not a single opposition Senate candidate — even Bam Aquino, scion of a dynasty that includes two former presidents — has won a place. All this despite a bloody war on drugs in which an estimated 30,000 people have been gunned down by police and vigilantes, mainly in the slums.

Philippine politics matters to the world. This country of over one hundred million people has little in the way of power but everything in terms of geopolitical significance. Its archipelago cradles the South China Sea, where American strategy is to encircle China and prevent its influence from spreading outwards. If China is to burst out of its cage despite its inferior naval power, an understanding with the Philippines is crucial.

For decades, the Philippines was a near colony and firm ally of the United States. President Duterte has changed that — opening the door to Chinese loans for dams and roads, and welcoming Chinese foreign workers. Disputed islands claimed by China belong to the Philippines, according to international courts — but Duterte has been conciliatory.

Opposition election candidates suggest that the enormous pro-Duterte spending in Monday’s election was financed by Beijing, although they admit they have no evidence. But we know for certain that Duterte is furious about US criticisms of his regime. In geopolitics, he has been playing a weak hand cunningly.

But, as they say, all politics is local.

Friday morning, three days before election day, a refashioned version of a popular song is being blasted over the slums of Hadrian’s Extension. It’s a catchy tune, and soon an earworm. It extols the virtues of one of the candidates for mayor of Angeles City — sixty-one-year-old Alex Cauguiran.

Mayor Alex, Mayor Alex
You are my shield, my hero, my saviour…
Mayor Alex, Mayor Alex…

The noise is coming from a pig farm — a collection of stinking, barred enclosures under a corrugated iron roof. This is the local headquarters of the Cauguiran campaign, and today the muddy area to one side of the yards is packed.

In an iron shed, giant forty-gallon drums of rice and noodles are being cooked over hot coals. Goats wander through the crowd and raid a scanty vegetable garden that grows in the muck from the pigs. Instructions are yelled over a megaphone to the hundreds of people queuing outside a building. Stay in line, they are told. Don’t panic. Everyone will get what’s coming to them.

Inside, people have their names registered and are given a ticket and then a container of food. Eventually — out of sight — they will exchange their ticket for 600 pesos (about A$16).

A volunteer campaign worker, local school student John Santos, says that this centre just covers the local barangay, or shire. Across the city around 4000 Cauguiran campaign workers are each paid a similar amount and given a meal. This in a city of around 500,000 in population. They will hand out flyers and persuade their families and friends to vote for Cauguiran and his ticket of councillors, and some of them will be poll watchers on election day, paid an honorarium to scrutinise the vote.

Teresa Villamor, eager and thin, queues up with her sleeping three-month-old daughter, Princess Jade, clasped to her chest. She says she supports Cauguiran because he has promised an improved hospital. Then she begs to be released from the interview, for fear of missing out on her payment.

Alex Cauguiran, running for mayor of Angeles City, talks to regional television at Jose P. Dizon Elementary School in Pandan district before casting his vote on Monday.

The system works. Across the slums, people tell us that a family, or a whole narrow laneway of dwellings, is backing one candidate or the other because an aunt, a sister or a cousin is a “campaign worker.” Vote-buying is pervasive in the Philippines election, and illegal. But this — the paying of “poll watchers” and “campaign workers” — is on the right side of the law.

Most of these voters live in homes built from refuse. The best homes are concrete-block shanties under roofs of iron weighted with discarded tyres. The floors are usually earth, or concrete for the better off. Up to a dozen people share a room. Often, there is no running water. The poorest draw water from the same nameless stream that is their toilet. Electricity to run a fan in the stifling heat is a luxury. Air conditioning is something you get in shopping centres, if the armed guards don’t turn you away.

It’s never cold here, but now is the hottest season. Warm rain falls most afternoons, but before that the temperature soars. Nobody here has thermometers to measure it, but in any case there is no escape and it is the same every day, so what would a number tell us?

Asked about the campaign workers, Alex Cauguiran concedes that there is a blurry line between legal payments to campaign workers and vote-buying. He insists he is on the right side of the line. Meanwhile, he says, he is receiving a chain of text and Facebook messages from campaign workers telling him that other candidates for the mayoralty are out-and-out buying votes on a massive scale.

They would deny it, he says. They would claim that they, too, are merely paying campaign workers.

How is he financing his campaign? The campaign workers on their own must, on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, be costing him at least 2.4 million pesos (about A$800,000), and that doesn’t count the hand-held fans printed with his image and platform, the pop singers hired to belt out that jingle, the cars and trikes trawling the streets blasting his praises.

The money comes from family members, his own savings and local business owners, Cauguiran says. The latter don’t wish to be identified. But whatever the source of his funds, it is clear a few days out from the poll that he is being massively outspent. Money is flooding into the slum.

Cauguiran has granted me an interview in the air-conditioned comfort of the local Century Hotel on election eve. He is one of seven candidates for the mayoralty, with the main opposition coming from two members of rival political dynasties — Carmelo “Pogi” Lazatin and Bryan Nepomuceno. (Neither would agree to an interview.)

Raul Miranda, a garbage collector, outside Gueco Balibago Elementary School on the day of the Philippines mid-term elections. Miranda said his family is backing a candidate in the council elections who has promised them 1000 pesos (about A$27) if elected.

Cauguiran came to prominence as a student activist in the last days of the Marcos regime. He chaired the university student council at the Holy Angel University, and was a founding member of the Coalition for Restoration of Democracy. He once had to go underground for weeks, and was eventually captured, imprisoned and tortured by the Marcos regime.

He came from an ordinary Angeles City family. His father was a carpenter before travelling to Saudi Arabia, like so many Filipinos, in search of better work. He worked as a driver there, and died without returning home. Cauguiran’s mother ran a sari-sari store — one of the tiny convenience shops with goods stored behind metal bars, which dot the Philippines slums and save the locals the cost of transport to buy basic needs.

His opponent Carmelo Lazatin’s family, meanwhile, is a fixture of Filipino politics. His father, Carmelo “Tarzan” Lazatin, was a five-term congressman. And the Nepomuceno family owns a local shopping mall and trace their involvement in politics back to the 1800s. The contest might be local, but the campaign machinery behind their tickets will also boost their endorsed Senate candidates.

On paper, Cauguiran is the best-qualified candidate. In fact, he would be well suited to contest a mayoral position anywhere in the world. He worked for the local government for years, has previously been a councillor and, most notably of all, he was chief executive of the local Clark International Airport and oversaw its growth after it stopped being a US military base. He has decades of public service behind him.

Today, Clark is like a little piece of California planted in the third world. A special economic zone, it is home to call centres, accounting firms and dozens of other back-office functions performed for foreign companies. The success of the airport itself relies largely on the biggest industry in town, which is sex tourism. Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, but Cauguiran admits there are “reports” that prostitution takes place in the red-light district of Fields Avenue. This is a bit like a man in a monsoon conceding there have been reports of rain.

The sex workers are the women of the slums. Their children often have foreign fathers, who either don’t know they exist or have abandoned them. Cauguiran says he wants to change all this, and make Fields Avenue a place of “family entertainment.”

It is almost inconceivable that this could happen. You can spend weeks in Angeles City and not encounter even one Western woman. It is Western men you see, and an increasing number of Koreans. Cauguiran says he would rigorously enforce the law against prostitution. If that were possible, if he could tackle the network of illegality and corruption involved, it would mean that half the city would likely starve.

Cauguiran remembers the people-power revolution of 1986, or the “parliament of the streets” as he describes it. He remembers the optimism as the new constitution was being written. He favoured a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one, but the Philippines constitution grafted a form of the US political system onto a country used to politics of patronage and dynasty.

How does he rate the health of Philippines democracy today? How does he feel about the fact that Imee Marcos, eldest daughter of the dictator who jailed him, is likely to win a Senate seat and that other members of the Marcos family are also leading candidates? “I don’t blame them. I blame us,” he says. “I blame the president, the legislators, the teachers. I blame us.”

Today the people-power revolution is regarded with cynicism. The generations of politicians who followed Marcos came, like him, from dynasties. They failed to demonstrate the benefits of democracy to the people. It was democracy by elite.

Cauguiran’s campaign motto is “strong managerial leadership.” He thinks Angeles City could be a new centre, outside the fetid Manila. It needs good management, he says, rather than being subject to the dynasties need for a power base. What is the solution to poverty? In the short term, jobs, he says. In the long term, education.

His pitch highlights better hospitals, an ambulance in every barangay, and education access for the poor. He wants at least 30 per cent of new jobs created in Clark to go to locals, so the benefits of the special economic zone spread to the poorest.

He is backing only eight Senate candidates for twelve positions. His ticket is a mixture of opposition candidates — he remembers some of their fathers from the days of people power — and Duterte candidates. These eight are the only candidates he feels are of sufficient quality to attract his support.

Asked about Duterte, Cauguiran is cautious. He is worried about the president’s influence over all the arms of government, but says that the Philippines is still a functioning democracy. The constitution remains in place. There is fear, but nothing like the pervasive terror of martial law under Marcos. As for being a mayor in a country where some local politicians have ended up dead: “Providing you are doing the best thing for the people, you have nothing to fear.”

It’s Monday, and polling day. The local news is reporting that a family clan has been intimidating people in Cebu City in the central provinces — telling them not to vote or they will “come back for them.”

At 6am, the polls open at the Gueco Balibago Elementary School, which educates the children of the Hadrian’s Extension slum. Vendors set up outside selling drinks and fried food. Under election law, selling and drinking alcohol is banned from midnight to midnight on polling day. So is the carrying of guns.

Many of the voters are illiterate. The “poll watchers” help them to find their names on the long lists that hang outside each classroom. They are given a card bearing a number, and queue again to vote. On the back of the card is an injunction for them to vote for the candidates they prefer — a tacit admission that many of them might be governed by other motives.

Once inside the classrooms, they sit at the school desks to shade the circles next to the names of the numbered candidates. Then the ballots are fed into automatic counting machines, and the voter’s finger is painted with purple ink to show he or she has cast a ballot.

As the day wears on, reports come in from around the country that hundreds of the voting machines have failed. In one of the classrooms here, the paper jams. The queue grows longer while it is fixed.

Volunteers from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting at Jose P. Dizon Elementary School in Pandan district on the day of the Philippines midterm election.

Outside the school, campaign workers are handing out how-to-vote cards the texture of toilet paper. Nobody is handing out the ticket for the “Straight Eight” Senate candidates opposed to Duterte. I eventually find one lying on the ground.

Alex Cauguiran votes at about 8.30am at the nearby Jose P. Dizon Elementary School in Pandan, a better-off area of the city. Here there are four volunteers — nice middle-class people — from a Catholic Church–backed group called the Council for Responsible Voting, who want to try to ensure fair play.

I tell them that there are clearly many more “poll watchers” in the voting rooms in Hadrian’s Extension than are allowed under the election regulations. They are concerned; only one of their volunteers is there, they say. When I catch up with them later, they agree about the excessive numbers of poll watchers but don’t think it is their role to intervene so long as they don’t see poll watchers directly interfering in the rooms where people are voting.

Cauguiran mops his brow before doing an interview with the local television station. He says that it is “sad” that vote-buying is “massive” — far worse than he had expected in this election. Does he still think he can win? The heat is close to unbearable. “Of course I can win,” he says.

The volunteers intervene. He should not be being interviewed so close to the polling place, they say. Campaigning is banned on election day. Meanwhile, the poll watchers continue their work unchallenged, and discarded how-to-vote cards litter the street like autumn leaves.

The first election results were available within an hour of the closing of the polls at 6pm. With just 0.3 per cent of the vote counted, Duterte-allied candidates had dominated the top twelve positions in the Senate. Then the electoral commission’s system broke down. No more results were available for seven hours — including the results for the Angeles City mayoral race.

Yesterday morning, with almost all the votes counted in the Angeles City mayoral race, Carmelo Lazatin was clearly in the lead with 58,955 votes, followed by Bryan Nepomuceno with 45,479. Cauguiran was a distant third, with just over 26,000 votes.

The national vote was clear. Not a single member of the Straight Eight opposition ticket had been elected. Duterte will now control the Senate, which has been the main check on his power.

Asked what he would do if he became convinced that the country’s democracy was at risk, Alex Cauguiran is not sure if he would still have what it takes to oppose the regime.

“I am a senior citizen,” he says. As for the electorate, it is “sad” that nobody remembers the optimism of thirty years ago, when the current political structures were created. It should have been taught in every school, he says. But he doesn’t think things will get that bad. He has seen worse. Much, much worse.

Back in Hadrian’s Extension, the money will continue to flow for a few days as people collect on promises. Then it will be back to life as normal. •