Freewheeling Philippine democracy

Pork-barreling is one of the most prominent characteristics in Philippine politics. At the end of most campaign speeches by President Ferdinand Marcos there is a flurry of activity on the stage. Aides and local party chiefs come up and pass the President a stack of files.

He reads each in turn -- many of them obviously for the first time. He declares that the area he is visiting will receive ``top priority'' in development. He announces government aid for a depressed industry. Or he cuts electricity rates.

The pork barrel is at work. The granting of favors -- from tax breaks and land titles down to T-shirts and stickers -- play a major role in Filipino elections. Politics are still based to a great extent on personal relationships. The granting of a gift, a job, or other forms of patronage are thought to establish a personal bond. The recipients are in turn expected to show their gratitude with votes.

Despite years of rather dubious elections, interest in politics remains high in the Philippines. Part of the reason for the excitement is perhaps the handouts and the glamor of a campaign visit -- the film stars and rock singers who accompany the President and the opportunity to see the candidates in the flesh.

But the degree of political debate is high, and the level of political sophistication is growing. Not everyone feels this is new. ``People have always been politicized here,'' says a parish priest. ``Pundits always like to talk about gifts and gratitude, but if that's all there is to Filipino politics, no ruling government would ever be defeated.'' The government has traditionally been the dispenser of favors, he noted.

During the 1984 elections, there were the usual cases of gift-giving and outright vote-buying. Opposition candidates began to suggest that people should take any money they were offered -- and then vote for the candidate of their choice.

Eventually, political activists hope, understanding the issues will destroy the pork-barrel approach to elections here. Then there will be just two other blights to eradicate: fraud and electoral violence.

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