[Editorials of The Connection] Political epal and citizens’ vigilance


(photo from www.epalwatch.com)

This is the Facebook age. Things people do and say can be easily uploaded as pictures, statuses and comments —even jokes, or worse memes. Thanks to Facebook, people are spurred to become human CCTVs (closed-circuit televisions). Facebook is Philippine society’s Big Brother device.

Be careful with your actions now, or else you will get caught and be known online and offline. That is why the citizenry is now bolder and spot on to unearth local officials’ alleged misdeeds, or even legitimate policy differences.

Now that national and local elections draw near, politicians are expected to capitalize on the pre-campaign period to project themselves. But voters are abreast and know the different forms of pre-campaign electioneering.

Pre-campaign here includes actions done in the years prior to the next election, the time when the winning candidates are sitting in power. Filipinos are oh-so familiar with these forms of electioneering (many times using people’s money): billboards and tarpaulins announcing government programs but bearing the local official’s huge face, calendars of the local chief executive and his/her family, congratulatory remarks plastered during graduations and local fiestas, tarpaulins of cause-oriented groups’ medical missions but with the image of the mayor.

Go to Mandaluyong City, or Quezon City, or in many other areas of the country. Such numerous forms of electioneering are prevalent and done by barangay council people, up to the nationally-elected officials. In Filipino conversational parlance, there’s a term for this: epal (from the root Tagalog word papel —as a verb, mapapel— to imply that somebody grabs the credit). Epal in Philippine politics seems culturally rooted already.

To be fair to President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, one cannot find any project billboard announcing that a national government project is Aquino’s handiwork. Aquino’s message is counter-culture to what current prevails here. In the Senate, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago lobbied for the passage of an anti-epal bill, prohibiting officials from announcing their names and showing their faces in government projects. The Commission on Elections is also on the lookout for the early electioneering after the Oct. 5 deadline of filing certificates of candidacy.

Unfortunately, as Comelec itself admitted, there is no law punishing pre-election pseudo-advertisements. One senatoriable got away with advertising the country’s health insurance program. Another one, aligned with the ruling Liberal Party, masqueraded his environmentalism.

Ojo! Don’t forget local politics. That’s where many forms of epal prosper.

If the citizenry is becoming more brazen, politicians just shrug off these anti-epal lobbyists and their messages. Rallies in Metro Manila had been held against it, and rallyists remain voices in the wilderness. A page for Sen. Santiago’s bill had become a page on Facebook, but with only 50 likes. And no matter how many times President Aquino convinces partymates and sitting leaders and officials to remove the epal billboards and tarpaulins, they don’t give in.

This reminds of a priest’s homily. As a response to the epal phenomenon, the priest mentions the lack of humility —or its absence— among elected officials. What also seems to be lacking, the priest adds, are officials who look at themselves as servants, which includes not becoming credit grabbers. Obviously, changing politicians’ mindsets is a tall order —even if the President of the Republic of the Philippines himself is setting an example already.

So in pragmatic terms, how can the anti-epal movement prosper?

Well, there’s social networking sites to reveal more of those forms of epal. If your governor or mayor is grabbing credits for taxpayers-bankrolled government programs on education, health and infrastructure, exposing them on Facebook is the easiest to do. Show the pictures of the tarpaulins and paintings on waiting sheds. Monitor their epal-related activities, especially during the coming Christmas and graduation seasons. Talk about them online. Flood the zone.

Since politicians are present in social networking sites, exercise fraternal correction and tell them boldly you have found their epal poster, tarpaulin or billboard. Then share that post to your friends on Facebook. Batanguenos here, the primary audiences of this newspaper, can do the same —and Facebook becomes the cheapest, most effective mechanism for public transparency and accountability.

If you the citizen are easily irked at these epal politicians (whether they’re performers or not), take it to the ballot this May 2013 and don’t vote for them.

What is the point of these actions? The message here is the aspiration of having a more mature Filipino voting populace. Now that elections have become automated (thus diminishing significantly electoral fraud), the significant next step is to make elected officials aware that they are accountable to voters —and that voters aren’t dumb anymore to be fooled by political credit grabbers.

The Comelec said the campaign period for senators and party-list groups is from Feb 12 to May 11, 2013. As for congresspeople and local officials, the campaign starts March 29 and ends also on May 11. If politicians say they are servant-leaders, are accountable to the people, and are not credit-grabbers, formal electioneering can wait.

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