Politics, why does it matter?

Politics, not so long ago the presence of upright Spanish men wearing suits, is now, wonderfully, open to all. Then the ladies may mark their ballots, although not if they’re in Saudi Arabia obviously. Mendiola, Manila has gone bravely interactive, and there was great excitement in the press in 2004 when it was revealed that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (our former president) had taken to telephoning Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcilliano allegedly talking about the rigging of the national election results to which she and her vice president Noli De Castro won. At the same year, across the Atlantic, George W. Bush was drawing crowds when he won the 55th quadrennial presidential election against John Kerry. Democracy had surely reached its crest and peak.

Yet the line goes that the young Filipinos are a bit delayed in political apathy. Even in the thrilling Philippine election of 2004, four in ten people turn up to vote*. No one cares anymore, politicians are all the same. The “It has nothing to do with me” perception is still evident. In this day and age of globalization, there is a suspicion that politicians may be entirely irrelevant. The vast multinational conglomerates are the ones who really rule the world. Take for example public signages that we often see in Manila. Have you ever noticed why there will always be an “SM *insert location here*” included? Politicians may talk nicely of the environment and healthcare and pensions, but the oilmen and the pharmaceutical companies and the hedge funds have the last word. The world is deemed to be greater when it is ruled by private parties.

Paradoxically, at the exact same time, the public seems to expect these pointless political operatives to fix all the ailments and the needs of the nation. Elected representatives must prevent floods, convert the creaking healthcare system, eliminate juvenile delinquency or crimes, and solve the international credit crisis, preferably before dinner or even before bedtime. The citizenry thinks of them as idiots, and demands that they cure deprivation, eradicate criminality, slash red tape, and put everyone to work. They must guard the children and provide for the old.

Beyond all these confusions, there is a suspicion among the righteous that the political class is traced with the three C’s, Crime, Corruption and Cruelty – they are in it for the money, fiddling their expenses while Rome burns. We contend occasionally dull – but it is not institutionally and irredeemably corrupt. If you want proper, ocean-going corruption, just try living in a cozy little “banana republic.” This is not because all politicians are saints, although we suspect that most of them do go into it for honorable reasons. The presence of corruption is for one boring and obvious reason: politics is where the big money is. The men and women who go into public life have the exact same qualifications (sans the educational background) that the big corporate raiders look for, they would go and join a multinational company, receive bonuses in the high millions, and get to screw the world without guilt. In ever representative democracy, there will be a few or more eccentrics and dolts and crooked arrows who hit the headlines. What the newspapers rarely report are the persistent operatives who devote their time cleaning up the drinking water or making sure the children of the future can read.

The bad idea has twined around the public mind like a tight knot rope: all this politics is disconnected from the daily concerns of the “ordinary person.” Reporters talk of the poor and the unemployed, just as in Washington they refer to Inside the Beltway, as if what goes on in the seat of power has absolutely no relevance to an individual.

But just because your politicians might not be the towering figures that you subconsciously want them to be – better and cleverer or even just plain smarter and a leader, without a stain on their moral character or a blot on their private lives, and yet, of course, just exactly like you, understanding all your needs and desires – does not mean that politics itself is something to be written off as of no importance. Politics affects everything, from the wages we earn, to the bus we take to work, to the very air we breathe.

If you don’t believe the last one, consider the thick smog that enveloped Metro Manila on January 1st, 2012. Where airport officials had to cancel and divert planes landing at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) complex to the Clark Airport in Pampanga due to poor visibility, to be looked at with nostalgia, as part of the Good Old Days. That was the noxious smell in the air. That was the scent of the New Year in the city as Metro Manila residents woke up on a Sunday morning coughing and sneezing to a city enveloped by dense, dirty and toxic air. The data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed that the measurement of the total suspended particles in the city’s air, which is unclean to begin with, went through the roof, thanks to the firecracker explosions that greeted 2012. Just think about it, 800-1000 micrograms per normal cubic meter of contaminants like sulfur, potassium and carbon particulates were settling over the city. Oh those good ol’ days

It is politics that has made such a disaster a distant memory. The Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999 or the Firecracker Limit was formulated to create programs of air pollution that shall be implemented by the government to encourage cooperation and self-regulation among citizen and industries through the application of incentives market-based instruments. This act includes the setting up of a funding or a guarantee mechanism for clean-up and environmental rehabilitation and compensation for personal damages.

None of these pieces of legislation has the swagger or glamour of diplomacy or tearing down the Berlin Wall; most people today could not even tell you that there was a Clean Air Act, let alone when it was passed, or by whom.

So the next time you take a deep breath in a city street, you might reflect that it was those despised politicians who enabled you to do so. Politics is not perfect, or always fascinating or edifying, but it absolutely does matter. A piece of advice, orange never looked good on anybody, not even Victoria Beckham.

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