A struggle for the soul of the Philippines


THERE’S a brief snap – the sound of a hammer hitting a nail: metallic but light.

A man – his limbs are bound to a life-sized cross – winces as the metal pierces the palm of his hands. There is no blood. Another man, dressed as a Roman soldier, holds the hammer.

It’s Good Friday, April 19, and Team Ceritalah is in Pampanga, two hours to the north-west of the Philippine capital of Manila. This is rich agricultural country and the heart of Luzon island. For Christians, and especially Catholics, Holy Week – commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – is the high point of the religious calendar.

Every year, scores of penitents – called mandarame – willingly submit to being crucified, often in fulfilment of a vow of some kind. Elsewhere, groups of mamalaspas (flagellants) whip themselves as they re-enact scenes from the Bible in order to expiate their sins.

These bloody rituals – which the Roman Catholic Church (that commands the allegiance of more than 80% of all Filipinos) has never approved of – draws thousands of spectators.

Still, this is the Philippines and more worldly matters are never far away from the sacred.

Rocking on: Duterte’s machismo populism maintains support for him despite some unpopular policies. — AP 

The 108 million-strong republic, after all, is awash with campaign posters and a flurry of activity as candidates ramp up their canvassing for the midterm elections on May 13.

There are almost 2,000 positions up for grabs in countless legislatures. But the biggest prize is one of the 12 seats in the Senate – exactly half of the Upper House. While it may sound mundane, there’s much more at stake than is immediately obvious.

Senators are elected on a nationwide ballot and by dint of that, they can become pan-Philippine political figures from Batanes in the far north to Tawi Tawi in the south.

So as Filipinos cast their ballots next Monday, they could well be also anointing a potential successor to the colourful (if profane) President Rodrigo Duterte, whose daughter, the ambitious Davao Mayor, Sara Duterte, just so happens to be running a slate of her own senatorial candidates via her Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) party.

Whatever the case, these elections have been framed as a referendum of sorts on Duterte’s first three years in office.

How many of his “senatorial bets” make the “Magic 12” will be a key indicator of whether Filipinos back the man and his controversial policies. These include a violent crackdown on drugs, an unpopular dalliance with China as well as intemperate outbursts castigating both the media and the Catholic Church.

Worker bees: Thousands of workers who are not fans of the president march with an effigy of Duterte that was eventually burned in an event celebrating International Labour Day last Wednesday.  

Interestingly, one of mamalaspas flagellants, the 37-year-old Franko and Pampanga local, is a diehard Duterte supporter. A food vendor in his daily life, he has spent each of the last 17 Good Fridays whipping himself through the streets of San Pedro.

Gulping beer during a break, Franko insists that the president had done a lot of good things, such as getting rid of drugs on the street and building infrastructure.

The Good Friday crucifixions and whippings in many ways are emblematic of the contradictory, often dualistic, nature of Philippine public life.

On the one hand, you have a country that is supposed to be a virtuous, devoutly Catholic republic. Superficially, it’s a South-East Asian version of the United States, ruled by a globally-connected, Manila-based and Forbes Park-inhabiting elite. There are dynasties with familiar names like Aquino, Macapagal and Roxas, not unlike the Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys.

On the other hand, there is the prevalence – even proliferation – of folk practices steeped in superstition and machismo such as the crucifixions and the magic-

infused anting-anting amulets for sale outside churches. Indeed, the larger-than-life Dutertes with their rough but earthy ways are an essential part of this world.

It’s as if the leadership – indeed, the very “face” of the Philippines – has oscillated between these two competing narratives and personas. Which one represents the real Philippines? Which will ultimately prevail in the “war” for the republic’s soul?

Across the cities of the provinces, groups of mamalaspas (self-floggers) engaged in a radical form of religious worship: flagellation. 

The country has undeniably adapted – and in many cases, subverted – international norms regarding politics and leadership.

The Philippine struggle for national identity, freedom and dignity owes an equal debt to the high-minded writings of the ilustrado (ie, the educated, colonial -era elite) par excellence Jose Rizal as to the swashbuckling exploits of school dropout Andres Bonifacio.

The dominance of Imperial Manila has been rocked by hinterlands like Davao in Mindanao, a rivalry and resentment which whispers of federalism have not succeeded in dampening.

Every Macapagal or Aquino presidency has been preceded, or followed by a Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph “Erap” Estrada or Duterte.

In Duterte, it would seem as if the probinsyanos – or provincials – are now ascendant over the “Manilenyos”, or Manila denizens.

Indeed, recent polls suggest that a healthy bulk of the potential Magic 12 finishers are at least friendly to his administration.

Why? Quite simply, because ordinary Filipinos see him as one of their own, compared to the well-heeled elite of Manila (arguably the descendants of the ilustrados) who shudder as his crassness.

Franko may have been on to something when describing his flagellation: “One must have a pure heart and intention when doing this.”

Franko, a mamalaspas and staunch Duterte supporter, said that the most noticeable change after Duterte’s election are the much safer streets.  

Duterte captures and channels the generally ignored feelings and aspirations of the Philippine underclass – a man who is matapang: someone who is courageous, persistent and won’t back down.

They know – or at least they feel – he will have their backs.

A midterm triumph for Duterte’s slate of candidates will not only allow him to push through ambitious measures like tax reform, but also set the stage for a possible new dynasty to emerge if and when his daughter Sara makes a bid for Malacañang Palace (the president’s official residence and principal workplace).

Could a new matapang – whether from the probinsyanos or (ironically) from the elites they have displaced – eventually emerge to challenge them?

Whatever the case, the Philip-pines will continue to play by its own rules.


   

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