(This column, except for a few minor changes, is the same column I wrote in Business World seventeen years ago (July 28, 2005). That it may resonate even more powerfully today is an indictment of our failure as a people to take advantage of the real people power given us by our Constitution. But it is not too late to do so, especially with the Barangay Assembly coming in October, and the barangay elections scheduled for December)
Do we feel powerless, voiceless, or cut-off from our government? No reason why we should, says the late great strategic planner and local government expert Manny Valdehuesa. Do people want “good government that begins at their doorstep in the barangay, and does not end before the closed door of a bureaucrat in Metro Manila”, to quote from a passage in President Arroyo’s 2005 SONA that was met with thunderous applause? There is no reason why we can’t get that now, says the same Manny, who had served both with the Local Government Academy and the DAP, aside from stints with the UN, and founded the Gising Barangay Movement.
And this without charter change, even. Because the Local Government Code already provides for it. The power, the voice, the participation in government, are reserved to every citizen of the Republic. Specifically, every Filipino who is at least 15 years old, is actually a government official, a member of parliament in her own community, because she is a member of the Barangay Assembly (BA), in the barangay where she resides. The BA is a forum which meets twice yearly (in March and October), during which the local chief executive must account for his actions, and where he can be given policy direction and mandates. Valdehuesa says that the BA “exemplifies the direct democracy practiced in Ancient Greece, or in our time, the Israeli kibbutz or the Swiss canton.” Consent of the governed is not confined to a vote at the end of the term, it has to be secured twice yearly.
Why does membership in the BA make one a government official, a member of parliament? Because any member can initiate or propose legislation, sponsor a resolution, set funding priorities, review or approve programs and finances, or even question or move to nullify official acts and decisions. During the deliberations of the BA, even the lowliest in the neighborhood speaks and acts in his own right without need of representation or a spokesman. How about that for power?
So then why do we feel powerless and voiceless, and cut off from government? The answer is simple: because when the BA meets, we don’t attend.
Somehow, according to Manny, no one bothers to see to its formal convening: not the government, not civil society, not the community. And on the occasions that the DILG might call for it to convene, the agenda is dictated by the DILG (or Malacanang), not by the Assembly’s membership. And most times, there is no real deliberation. In effect, what we have is a very powerful, but non-performing body.
Which is a terrible waste, and a blow to democracy. Consider that the barangay is supposed to be performing vital tasks in nation-building, such as being the primary planning and implementing unit of government, providing the forum for issues that concern the citizens in the community, and for resolving neighborhood disputes. It is our first line of defense in security and peace and order issues, and also a front-line supplier of government services.
Consider also that the barangay has taxing power, police power, even power of eminent domain, with the requisite personnel, budget, revenues, equipment pool, and enforcement units. It also has three branches – executive, legislative, judicial – ALL presided over by one and the same official—the Barangay Chairman, as in a parliamentary system, where executive and legislative powers are fused. Without countervailing power from his peers, the people themselves, to keep him accountable and subject to scrutiny at all times, those powers can be abused. The BA – we, the people – are supposed to provide the checks and balances.
If we don’t attend the BA, the power of the Barangay chairman goes unchecked. The people are prevented, bemoans Valdehuesa (and so should we, too), from asserting their sense of what their government ought to be doing, what community priorities ought to be funded by its internal revenue allotments and other income, or simply inquire into its acts. We, the people, are unable to check corruption or abuse. What happens is that “street-smart politicos continue to enjoy a free ride at the expense of the community – perpetuating their hold on power while enabling undeserving dynasties at all levels to dominate Philippine society”. Even barangay chairmen groom wives or children to succeed them.
Thus, says Manny, we have a government of politicians, by politicians, for politicians. The barangay chairmen, along with their kagawads, either unaware of or ignoring the system or unwilling to submit to it, simply ape the mayor, the governor, or the president, performing their duties as if “consent of the governed” is confined to the vote at the end of their term – a travesty of the local government code.
Look at the present scenario, as painted by Valdehuesa: Without a BA to check him, the barangay chairman “is the operator who stacks the cards and loads the electoral dice in the precincts. It is he who makes it possible for mayors and big-time patrons to manipulate the votes of entire communities….if his political bosses need a rah-rah crowd as a backdrop for some function or photo opportunity, the chairman can be relied upon to collect the idle, the hungry, the bored….Come election time, he is the cowboy who herds the voters and loads them into trucks and jeepneys for delivery to the voting corral.”
And this will go on unless, his peers, we, the people, convene and hold him accountable for whatever he does.
So now that we know what was not pointed out from the start: that we have an important role in the functioning and importance of our Barangay Assembly as a local parliament – are we prepared to do something about it?
Are we going to turn on the power that our present constitution gives us, or are we going to continue to think that something new will be better? More to come….