The last bulong
As in previous processions, there was an impressive turnout of Catholic devotees at the annual Black Nazarene traslacion last week. Considering all the insults heaped by President Duterte on Catholic bishops and priests, and even on “their” God, could that massive crowd be considered largely anti-Duterte?
The President, who finished 2018 with comfortably high survey ratings, saw the numbers fall last year when consumer prices soared, pushed up by higher taxes particularly on fuel plus a shortage of cheap rice. But his ratings saw the steepest plunge after he called God “stupid.” He continues to explain that remark by saying that he has a different God.
Does that enormous crowd at the Nazarene traslacion buy that explanation? Do they take offense when the country’s highest official insults God and the shepherds of their faith? Since the Catholic Church played a key role in the people power revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Philippine presidents have courted Church support.
The Church has had a mixed record in its forays into politics. It seems Filipinos listen to the bishops for people power, but not for choosing elective officials. Despite the Church’s preference for the Catholic Ramon Mitra Jr., the Protestant Fidel Ramos won the presidency in 1992 (although from the grave, Miriam Defensor-Santiago will continue to dispute this).
Joseph Estrada, the candidate with a penchant for expensive red wine, women and gambling, also won the presidency by a landslide in 1998. But the Church got its revenge in 2001, when it supported his ouster and replacement with his prayerful vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The Church loved GMA, a president who reportedly started her day by attending mass and actively courted the bishops’ support. Her nine years in power can be attributed partly to that support.
But lying down with her scandal-tainted administration took its toll on the credibility of the Church. When Noynoy Aquino became president and GMA landed in hospital detention without bail for plunder, among the issues raised against her were the Pajeros she gave to several Catholic bishops, one of whom even wrote a letter requesting for the sport utility vehicle.
The Church had supported P-Noy’s mother Corazon since her campaign against the Marcos regime and throughout her presidency. But even as Noynoy Aquino became the black swan in the 2010 presidential race, he was already showing that he intended to draw a clear line between his administration and the Church.
Using his considerable popularity, which he retained till he stepped down, P-Noy got the reproductive health law passed. Of course the Supreme Court then sat on the law, which is just starting to be fully implemented.
Duterte is just the cruder version of P-Noy in thumbing his nose at the bishops.
Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to power has been seen as just the latest manifestation that there is no such thing as a Catholic vote in this predominantly Catholic country.
If Catholics voted as a bloc, would President Duterte be as rude and confrontational toward the Church and its clergy?
Political analyst Dindo Manhit of policy think-tank Stratbase ADR believes that the influence of the Church on voters cannot be belittled.
Manhit, who faced us on The Chiefs on One News / Cignal TV the other week, cited the late former health secretary Juan Flavier, who consistently topped surveys on Senate candidates, but always landed several rungs lower in the actual vote. Manhit attributed this to the active Church campaign against the guy who openly promoted condom use.
The last day of campaigning is always on a Saturday, Manhit pointed out. “We vote on a Monday; we go to mass on Sunday,” Manhit told us, stressing that the Church then gets to give “the last bulong” as voters go to the polls.
This is partly true. Unfortunately for our weak democracy, the last bulong can in fact be given late on Sunday night when all the anticipated masses are over, or even on Monday, election day itself.
The bulong or whisper is given by candidates’ local leaders – often barangay personnel, even if they are barred by law from engaging in partisan activities – after they have handed out cash, rice, medicine packs, canned goods and other items.
The distribution of cash and goods would constitute vote-buying. But campaigning has become an anythinggoes activity in this country, with the Commission on Elections emasculated by the Supreme Court and the executive.
For those living a hand-to-mouth existence, and even for those who are not as impoverished but still below the poverty line, rejecting such gifts from candidates is silly. They would rather heed the advice to accept any gift from candidates, but to vote with their conscience.
That advice was famously given during elections held in the twilight of the Marcos regime, as the lupus debilitated dictator struggled to cling to power by throwing money at his eroded public support.
The advice for voters to take the bait but not the hook was given by people power icon Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin.
There are continuing debates on whether a polarized country actually gave Marcos a razor-thin victory in the 1986 snap election, or whether his machinery stole the vote from Cory Aquino.
In any case, if Cardinal Sin’s bulong didn’t work on the electorate, it worked to mobilize people power against Marcos.
Today another President is fighting with the Church, heaping profanities on God and religious mysteries and urging people to rob and kill bishops. The verbal abuse is passed off by Malacañang as a joke.
The upcoming elections could indicate if the Church would have the last laugh, after giving the last bulong.