A journalist looks for reasons to hope: Covering Trapos

By Tita Valderama

IN A recent interview with TIME Magazine, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave a penetrating, though rather embarrassing, remark about the Philippines. He said: “Look at the marketplace of ideas in the Philippines, and see the chaos.”

It’s not as if Filipino politicians themselves don’t know it. Not so long ago, Senator  Edgardo Angara described the present Congress as the “worst” in 20 years in terms of performance.

Of course, politics has something to do with it. Bad politics.

Politicians like Angara have called for reforms but they, like him, have done little to start reforming themselves.  For example, the former senator himself has switched parties countless times that one no longer knows which side he is on at present.

Technically, Angara belongs to the opposition-affiliated Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. Yet, he is viewed as a closet ally of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

During the campaign for the 2004 presidential election, Angara pushed for the candidacy of movie’s “Da King” Fernando Poe Jr. as an opposition standard bearer. But rumors went around that he did so in order to divide the opposition votes between Poe and another opposition candidate, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, thereby helping President Arroyo win in the end.

We call it traditional politics, and their practitioners, trapos.

In almost two decades in the political beats, I have seen the different colors and shapes of a traditional politician. Still, it’s not that easy to tell a trapo from other politicians. They all look the same. You can’t identify them just by looking at their faces, by the way they dress up, walk, or speak. In fact, you can’t tell them apart even by their party affiliation. It’s the character that makes them trapo.

Some trapos can be charming and even humble. I was surprised to hear about this congressman, who comes from a well-known political family in Mindanao, inviting some reporters to his yacht and demonstrating his talents in the kitchen.  It seems that envelopmental journalism is not the only way to a journalist’s heart.

Another Mindanao congress-man would give chocolates or some other gift “for the girls” after a press conference. He’d also have something else “for the boys,” particularly the television news crew.

Stronger after ’86
“Traditional politician” is a phrase used to describe an old, corrupt politician who clings to power. And while traditional politics was associated with the Marcos regime, it has continued and even become stronger in the administrations after the 1986 “People Power” revolution.

In recent years, younger and energetic politicians have emerged, oozing with idealism, enthusiastic for change in the political system the first time they were elected to office. How long can they hold out?

Angara’s son at the House of Representatives, Rep. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” M. Angara representing the lone district of Aurora, has shown eagerness to reform the slow-paced legislative system. He has been an active member of the minority but he has yet to stand up for an issue he could champion. Born two months before Marcos declared martial law, the young Angara comes across as an idealistic lawmaker who is willing to take a position opposite that of his father’s.

Party-list Representative Joel Emmanuel Villanueva of the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (Cibac) has expressed a few times his displeasure over the padrino system or favoritism in the selection process for positions in the House leader-ship structure as well as in the releases of “pork barrel” alloca-tions. Only on his second term as a congressman, Villanueva has said he has grown sick and tired of the system.

The notable thing about Joel Villanueva is that he is the son of evangelist Eddie Villanueva who ran but lost in the 2004 presidential race. Joel Villanueva and his father are not the only ones in the family who are into politics.  His brother also ran, but lost, in the mayoralty race in Bocaue, Bulacan. In 1998, the Villanuevas supported the presidential bid of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. but today the young Villanueva has been complaining about the de Venecia leadership.

I remember Bukidnon Representative Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri shedding tears before reporters shortly after the 2001 elections.  Barely making it to victory, he said one couldn’t win unless he was willing to sell his soul, dance with the people, and give them money.

I didn’t see him crying anymore after winning his third term. And he’s said to be eyeing a senatorial seat in 2007 if the Charter-change train gets derailed.

Their parents’ children
While covering the presi-dential beat, I rarely saw Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of then President Corazon Aquino. I came to know Noynoy only when he became congressman in 1998. He was in business when his mother was president. As a lawmaker, Noynoy has shown his commitment to his work and the principles he believes in.  Aware of the people’s expecta-tions of him as the son of very famous parents, he is known to work until the late hours to make sure he could speak out on certain pieces of legislation he finds objectionable and cast his vote.

The 46-year-old bachelor would always consult his mother and be reminded of what his father would have done when faced with a similar situation.

The opposition leader at the House of Representatives, Francis Joseph “Chiz” Escudero, looked like a schoolboy the first time he won in 1998. He took over the position left by his father, Salvador Escudero, who became agriculture secretary and was promised a slate in the Ramos administration’s senato-rial slate in 1998. The promise, however, was not fulfilled.

Famous among high school and college students, and even among gays and matronas, Chiz Escudero became even more popular after the live coverage of the “Hello, Garci” investi-gations by five committees of the House last year.  That controversy enabled him to project himself as a young leader who would dare cross swords with veteran politicians, a veritable candidate for senator in 2007 and perhaps for president in the future.

And then there is Ilocos Norte Representative Imee Marcos. Nowhere to be found during the crucial voting on the impeachment complaint against President Arroyo in September 2005, Marcos later blamed her mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, for her absence.

At another time, her office came out with a press release protesting Escudero’s threat of expulsion to opposition mem-bers who would not support the second impeachment attempt against Mrs. Arroyo. Marcos branded Escudero’s warning as a form of “bullying.” Later, she sent a text message to Escudero to say that her statement was “tsika lang.”

Heirs to the throne
After the 1986 Edsa revolution, many new faces have emerged. Some of them are still around. Others were replaced by their spouse, children, or siblings. In some places, two families swapped positions when one was no longer qualified to run for the same position after three terms.

That’s a basic character of a trapo: making sure that power does not get out of the family. Politics is considered a family enterprise.  A political position is held like a baton that is passed from one generation to the next. Just like royalty, trapos have their heirs to the throne.

I have seen how incumbents prepared their spouse, son or daughter, brother or sister, or somebody else in the family to take over in the next term. Looking at the staff of a politician, one is likely to find a relative of the politician in the latter’s payroll. They are employed as chief of staff or consultant. Then, they could be the candidates in the next election.

In the present Congress, at least two incumbent members of the House are children of former congressmen. They served as chiefs of staff of their parents before running for office themselves.

A former congressman barred by law from seeking another term was replaced by his wife. He was listed as a “consultant” after he lost in another position. Their son is currently chief of staff in the office.

Covering the House of Representatives on its fifth term, I have seen how the quality of debates in committees and in plenary sessions has deterio-rated.  One time, a party-list lawmaker delivered a privilege speech looking either drunk or high on drugs.

A senior member of Congress once stood up in plenary session to protest against her daughter’s citation for a traffic violation. Why, she asked, was her daughter apprehended by a traffic officer even though the daughter was driving a car with the plate no. 8, a special plate reserved for members of the House?

Party-list: Any hope?
Members of the Congress have very weak party loyalties and they change party affiliations easily. But even party-list representatives play this kind of political game. In the past two Congresses, most party-list lawmakers aligned themselves with the majority.

In dealing with the media, party-list lawmakers are quite accessible.  Sometimes, they become too accessible that one could get tired covering their theatrics intended to dramatize and get their messages across.

Rep. Satur Ocampo, “Ka Satur” to everyone, stands out among the present crop of party-list lawmakers. Maybe it is because of his age, maybe it is his experience and background as a former journalist. He strikes journalists as a gentle father who would patiently explain an issue.

At 40, Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel of Akbayan has shown good leadership abilities. Soft-spoken by nature, she has nevertheless shown that she is not beyond raising her voice when doing battle.

But even party-list organiza-tions have their own share of trapos. Take this party-list law-maker who agreed to broaden the coverage of a particular bill, to the consternation of his colleagues in the party-list and despite strong objections from the bill’s original beneficiaries. The same lawmaker further agreed to reduce the appropria-tion provided in the bill, saying this was an order from higher-ups.

The lawmaker justified his action, saying that the nature of legislation is to strike compro-mises to get a bill passed. One can’t get a bill approved unless one is willing to accommodate, he said.

Another party-list congress-man refuses to be identified with Malacañang but takes the position of Malacañang and is often seen in Malacañang. He is probably following up funding releases for projects.

In last year’s impeachment vote, many of the trapos were on the side of the administration. Some were with the opposition, and others played safe by not showing up when their presence mattered most.

When will the rule of the trapos end?  I think they’re here to stay.

Tita C Valderama covers the House of Representatives for People’s Journal.

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