Published on March 17, 2015.
The papal visit last January was a forceful reminder that populism is not necessarily a bad thing. Too often identified with the masa politics of Joseph Estrada and other celebrities-turned-politicians, populism in the Philippines was usually understood and practiced as nothing more than an appeal to the basest motive, the lowest common denominator. (Mea culpa.)
In Pope Francis’ embrace of popular piety, animated by his practice of the so-called theology of the people, we find the positive meaning of populism. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” referencing the pope of his formative years in the priesthood, Francis wrote: “Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades following the Council. In the ‘Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi,’ Pope Paul VI gave a decisive impulse in this area. There he stated that popular piety ‘manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know’ and that ‘it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief.’”
Popular piety, then, is founded on a culture of respect for the common life (what a British critic, in an entirely different context, referred to as the ordinary universe). Populism at its heart is not the angry mob or the paid crowd, but the community of the poor and the simple. The emotion that pumps through that heart is not vengeance or self-interest, but “generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism.”
With Mayor Junjun Binay’s blatant appeal to his constituents to protect him from the agents of the government he himself serves, we find the complete opposite. I do not discount the possibility that many of those who ran to City Hall to put up a human barricade against Department of Interior and Local Government officials seeking to serve the suspension order of the Ombudsman did so out of genuine conviction; they were perfectly within their rights. But the statements emanating from Binay and his top allies are another thing altogether. In them we find the irresponsibility of reckless leaders who do not have their supporters’ own wellbeing at heart.
Last Friday, Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco challenged Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who had been directed by the Ombudsman to serve the suspension order on Binay, to do it himself. “Why does it have to be the [Southern Police District] or the Makati police district [sic] that will serve the suspension order, when Roxas was the one directed to do that? He should come here. If he believes what he’s doing is right, he should not order other people [to do the job].”
This was a provocation, of course. Aside from the impracticality of his suggestion, there was the hypocrisy: If Mayor Binay believes that what he did relative to the controversial Makati parking building was above board, why did he send Tiangco, lawyer JV Bautista, and others to try to represent him at the Senate hearings? But Tiangco’s irresponsible challenge was meant to stoke political tension, not to ease it. Never mind if, in the event Roxas did show up in his political arch-rival’s territory, violence might have broken out—and Binay’s own supporters would have been hurt. This is not the generosity and sacrifice two popes have contemplated, but the disregard for ordinary lives that our political leaders have long displayed.
Bautista tried to imitate a lawyer with a literal viewpoint and a limited imagination when he insisted that the instruction for Roxas to serve the order was “clearly and categorically stated” by the Ombudsman. “In other words, the Ombudsman is not telling the department to do it. It is directing and ordering Roxas to do it. So Roxas … do it. If you’re really a man, you come here and serve the order.” It is easy for Bautista to also imitate a man of courage if he is surrounded by thousands of supporters. But his premise has interesting consequences: If in the rarefied precincts of Makati a Cabinet official’s power to delegate or deputize does not hold, does that mean that the city mayor has a direct hand in all transactions—including the allegedly anomalous ones being aired in the Senate?
The mayor himself took direct aim at Roxas.
After the interior secretary responded to the provocations of Tiangco and Bautista with a derisive comment about their “high school mentality,” Binay issued a statement criticizing Roxas. “We do not resort to pettiness and name-calling. Secretary Roxas is a lot older than me. I would have expected him to show some maturity.” This, after his own ally Bautista challenged Roxas’ own manhood.
Yesterday, as the DILG was set to serve the preventive suspension order (it is only for six months, and designed to insulate city hall while Binay is undergoing investigation), the mayor scored the presence of Philippine National Police personnel who had taken positions outside his office. “Around 4 a.m. today, some 2,500 members of the PNP and including commandos swooped down and barricaded all entrances, effectively disrupting the services in the city hall. We understand and we sympathize with the members of the PNP and the SAF. They are being used for political gain.”
I think it is clear that Mayor Binay sees the world in simplistic terms: Everything is political. (He even refused to meet Jesse Robredo because he belonged to a different party.) But in fact he was the reason so many police officers had to be deployed. He did not issue an order to his supporters to stand down; he did not scold his camp’s provocateurs; he did not say, I will spare the people I serve any violence, I will face the DILG alone.