ALTHOUGH it may have been accelerated a bit by the scandalous aftermath of the Mamasapano massacre, the beginning of the campaign season should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Even though these seemingly interminable civic exercises are depressingly predictable, there is always the hope at this point, about a year before the actual election, that there is time to shape a different outcome.
That never seems to happen, of course, and while that may be a boon to the pundit business, it is stifling any chance at real development in the country by perpetuating an unproductive mentality among both the public and the political class who seek to lead them.
It is a problem that does the most damage below the national level, at the level of the provinces, municipalities, and even individual barangays. These are the levels at which the economy has the greatest impact on people and businesses, because it is at these levels where day-to-day interaction with the government takes place.
What happens when the “campaign season” starts is that the incumbent—who may either be running for reelection or for a higher office—will naturally apply whatever resources he can (we assume legally, optimistic though that assumption may be in many places) to making an “end-of-term push,” pursuing objectives that will return the biggest amount of reputational capital in the shortest amount of time.
Developmental NGOs and companies wishing to engage in CSR activities suddenly find an interested reception among officials, and the people, small, unconnected groups of them in most cases, find themselves benefiting from random largesse—donated classroom fixtures and supplies from a local company’s CSR program here, a medical program to provide treatment for cataracts or cleft palate or diabetes there. Public works projects of the sort that can be contracted and funded with a minimum of hassle by the local government unit are not overlooked, either; ‘re-asphalting’ of local roads and streets is one popular choice, to the point where it has almost become a political cliché.
These activities certainly do have benefits to at least some of the people. But because they are essentially reactionary in nature, they necessarily diverge from any sort of comprehensive economic or development plan, and the diversion of resources prevents any return to it at a later date; by the time those resources become fully available, the election-driven cycle has to start again.
For the political opposition with access to much lesser resources, often the only option available is to attempt to thwart the functions of the incumbent, either by diverting public attention to unrelated (and hopefully scandalous) issues, or by challenging the incumbent’s initiatives through legal or regulatory means. None of this contributes to any sort of forward-looking plan, either; the best-case scenario for the opponent, unseating the incumbent, only means that he becomes the new incumbent, with no more freedom of action than his predecessor.
For the people, the entire political exercise becomes a transaction, and they make political judgments based on that outcome. That perspective, in a sense, is what is meant by the term “dole-out mentality.” It is no accident that the provinces where the pattern described above is most prevalent are the poorest in the country; there are sufficient resources available in most of those places to provide for economic development, but the constraints imposed by the political system prevent them from being tapped efficiently. The constraints themselves are products of a short-term mindset—change the mindset, and the anti-development cycle is broken.
The question of how an aspirant for public office might accomplish that when faced with an electorate for whom a material favor very well might have an impact on survival does not have a simple answer. It is even more complicated by the reality of politics; one cannot stray too far from convention all at once and still hope to win an election.
Nonetheless, one must think that changing mindsets can be done, because it has to be; poverty and stagnation are not actually stable economic models, although their prevalence in this country might give one the impression that they are.
Developing a clear plan is a good first step. Even if political expediency dictates that one approach the election campaign in a more conventional way, having a strategy allows one to relate typical (and therefore expected) short-term gains—like a new layer of asphalt on the streets in a vote-rich barangay—to a bigger picture. Once that bigger picture is successfully communicated to the public, expectations become bigger as well. And that is the key; when people set their sights on larger, longer-term goals, they are more likely to understand and participate in the process to reach them.