‘The personal is political’

By Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover, PhD

I was in Elementary when EDSA-I People Power happened. I remember my family listening to news updates on the radio, days before the Marcoses left Malacañang. I also remember waking up in the middle of the night on February 25, 1986, to find my mother praying tearfully in front of our makeshift altar.  When I asked what she was doing, she replied that she was concerned with the turn of events and that she was praying for the country.

My parents were both public school teachers and for all intents and purposes, they embodied the apathy of the time—those who went about their lives un-critically trusting that the government has their best interests in mind.  Ironically, in her desire to have me earn the law degree that her late father didn’t get to finish due to World War II, my mother pushed me to take up Political Science in college.  I didn’t get inspired to take up law but rather had my political consciousness expand and deepen in the Political Science discipline, eventually leading me to the politics of gender relations.

I talked about the politics of gender relations in my previous columns, but I would like to focus our attention to societal politics this time.  Like gender relations, Filipino politics is rife with power relations that deal with the personal.  As we commemorate EDSA-I’s 36th year today, we also find ourselves in the throes of an all-important Presidential election. On one hand, we can say that the campaign activities have been polarizing – causing divisions down to the personal family level. On the other hand, many of us who were initially bystanders became invested in the political unfolding. Indeed, this election and even the previous pandemic years leading up to it has been such a political education for Filipinos.  Now, more than ever, the dynamics of patronage or padrino practices clinging for survival with its deployment of distorted historical narratives, is being confronted by what the philosopher Levinas would call “small goodness” from the grassroots.  The fake news army of social media trolls is countered by day-to-day initiatives of community volunteerism and engagements. After all, the outcome of this year’s election will determine not just our reputation in the international arena, but also whether the promised democracy, human rights, and accountable government of EDSA’s people power will still be upheld.

Some may argue that EDSA-I did not usher in any fundamental change in our lives. The years up to the past few days, have indeed shown us how callous the politicians have become since 1986 (whether they are remnants of Marcos loyalists or not), how they act more like “spoiled brats” in their brazen ways of exploiting taxpayers’ money. Any student of politics can see the dictator’s playbook unfolding in the armed forces’ ambitions to ensure their political survival at the expense of countless lives and economic stability. Interestingly, like what happened in 1986, a woman is now aspiring for the highest political office against Ferdinand Marcos’ own boy. Then another female candidate is running for the vice-president position. While this may seem like milestones for women’s political representation, unfortunately, both female candidates started off and continue to be associated with their male family members – Leni with her deceased husband and Sara with her aging father.  Women in politics can be viewed as extensions of the careers of their male relatives.  They are usually perceived more as political “seat warmers” or “term breakers” while the male family member is restricted by law to continue sitting in political office. The woman sits temporarily, especially if being in the position is crucial for the family’s interest, be it escaping past accountability or facilitating other benefits. The party-list system which supposedly lends genuine political voice to the under-represented sectors of women has also become quite problematic, if not downright farcical. More so recently with the active demonizing of GABRIELA Party-list as terrorist-enablers while promoting fake sectoral representations at the same time.

My saying that “the personal is political” slightly veers from the original meaning of its usage to highlight two points: First, that our personal preference for certain politicians can be an expression our own desire to participate in the political discussion, even if we are just ordinary citizens. Therefore, pointing out a Presidentiable’s ill-gotten wealth, for instance, comes off as an actual attack to the intellectual capacity of his political supporter.  It has become personal that way.  This is the kind of patriarchal/padrino politics that proliferate regardless of who you support.  In the current context, the other essence of the phrase “the personal is political” is the ideal one fostered by the notion of “sisterhood”, wherein we combat the divisive culture of padrino system and transcend our personalistic views.  This is what we must foster as we head into the May 9 Elections.

We must remember that the Philippines and its future is far greater than the number of politicians in the government. We must consciously regard our personal biases, actions and choices beyond the political personalities who will never even remember us as individual persons. We have to set our personal goal to one with the larger scale of socio-political and economic consequences, such as gender equality, peace and justice, government transparency and accountability, etc. We must move way beyond our current individual social media frenzy conditioned by fake news and historical distortions. Instead, we should be asking ourselves questions such as: (1) If this candidate wins will s/he steal taxpayers’ money while leaving us, 111.9 million Filipinos with the debt burden?  (We currently have 11.9 trillion pesos debt yet this was not translated to better living conditions and job security, especially during the pandemic); (2) Will our faith in the state forces be restored because of a better justice system working to end impunity? (3) Will our dignity among the ASEAN and the international community be reclaimed? (4) Will we gain back our high rank as one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of gender equity?

Feminists were the ones who have articulated that “the personal is political” — that even our private acts or innermost beliefs, can have political (and moral) consequences. Hence, our personal choice to support whoever politician we like is vital, but it goes beyond the reflection of our self-importance. We need to work for a more critical national community that ensures good governance through transparent and accountable public officials, even if that may mean some personal disadvantage to us. Our country deserves nothing less.