The three boys are all wearing the t-shirts of their barangay’s Brigades and they have volunteered, been trained as, ‘watchers’. Elections of neighbourhood councillors and captains are taking place across the country today and the atmosphere, aided by a national holiday, is festive. Schools are given over to polling stations and teachers to the tasks of poll captains and the Philippine version of returning officers. People don’t just vote and go home: they hang out. Vendors of street sweets keep them fed while children run and jump and play in and amongst the clutches of adults discussing potential results.
The polls will close at 3:00, the counting done by 6:00 p.m. with winning candidates’ celebrations following. Voters are provided in classrooms with the list of two or three dozen names of those contesting seven council seats and the position of barangay captain. On a separate piece of paper, they write their choices, copying from the list provided.
The left thumb is inked and pressed onto the ballot to validate the voter’s identity. The ballot is then torn in two, with the names and the thumbprints going into separate slots in a large box. The last stop in the process is more ink, this time purple, into which the right index finger is dipped. It will be two weeks, I am told by women not necessarily happy to have their manicures marred for so long, before it finally disappears.
I am also watching, trailing around behind one of the candidates as he chats with his neighbours, shakes hands with the squatter-entrepreneurs that energise Veteran’s Village. We are invited to taste Bing Bing Alavanzas’ simmering pork and green banana estafado, today’s feature item on the menu. Two wooden tables and a few plastic chairs are seated with a few early customers. Lines of laundry hang across the street above large blue and red and orange buckets of wash- and rinse-water that has been drawn from open wells. Edwin, the cobbler, also fixes umbrellas. Edrie himself runs a little store out of the front room of their house.
Prayers were offered in church yesterday – ‘that there be no killings’. These elections are taking place in a context of failed peace talks – sparking bombings and renewed clashes between the Philippine army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, rising violence and protest in the face of environmental destruction by foreign and domestic dam-builders and resource extractors and daily revelations of multi-billion-peso pork barrelling in a country of dynastic and movie-star politics, all of it swelling the ranks of both NGOs and the New People’s Army. Earthquakes, mudslides and typhoons add to the death toll and a growing sense of either national calamity or hope for change.
I ask the three young men just what they’re watching for. ‘We help people find their names on the lists’ – a worthy project I am thinking as I note people wandering from one list of names to the next to find their own and mark down their voter number to take into the classroom-polling stations. ‘Also vote-buying,’ says another. ‘What would that look like?’ I ask. One of them is the son of a former barangay councillor who was supplementing his meagre income with drug sales and distribution, now in prison. ‘We watch how people approach one another, their faces, their posture. We watch to see if they try to sneak something to someone, hand them something. It might be money; it might be a two-kilo bag of rice. Doesn’t matter; it’s vote-buying.’
Forty percent of the voters have already been approached and are in no need of further incentive, their votes already bought and paid-for. The candidates’ volunteers work for election-day food. The ubiquitous street signs urging people to be honest, not lie, to set aside the temptation to corruption rust and fall over in the first strong wind of yet one more multi-billion-peso report of breath-taking national, regional and local thievery of the commons. Corruption at the top fuelled by grasping greed is echoed at this level in ways that are both mimetic and desperate.
Bing Bing Alavanzas, an unlikely, I am thinking, conscript to corruption, lives in squatter housing and runs a squatter restaurant; she is also a candidate for kagawad or Council. She invites me to the celebration that she is certain is going to happen this evening.
I awaken to newspaper headlines of election-day massacres and fraud and the latest chapter in the money laundering scandal that threatens to reach into the office of the president.
At lunch my attention is drawn to the restaurant flat-screen television and its flashing images of young people, dancing, singing (or lip-synching, not sure which), competing for baubles. This country’s making-up-for-lost-time dash towards ‘modernisation’ is marked by vacuous entertainment that numbs the mind and corporate rapaciousness that is filling these poured-cement cities with vehicles making them every day less breathable, vacuuming up every last drop of clean water for re-selling back to its original owners for a profit, turning the waters that flow from these mountains to the sea into cesspools of agricultural, household and human waste, extracting minerals, building dams, stripping the land of trees, exhausting it and scorching it, sending its ‘export quality’ products – including its women – to countries like mine for our entitled usage.
Ostentatious dynastic wealth exists cheek by jowl with the most precarious of lives and housing, perhaps most obvious in the bamboo squatter housing precariously constructed out from the banks of the Jaro River a stone’s throw from SM City, one of the jewels in the Sy family holdings.
And a typhoon is on its way…