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Epal ka ba? Of papers and elections
by Hanna Lacsamana

What I see through the window screen at home doesn’t really impress much. But through the dust and cobwebs that accumulated due to my years of neglect, I have watched plants change from sayote vines, red bell pepper, and eggplant into a small composting area, or into plain soil arranged in the cemented enclosure, and now again planted with an ornamental-like plant I have never seen before. I can also see bamboo and other trees, and although it’s already outside the property, they serve as backdrop of the mini-backyard, exuding brilliant greens during sunny times and sway and fight the winds during storms.

The way the backyard owner attends to his property – cultivating in spite of space constraints, repairing the support where the vines cling on, fortifying the soil by composting, and simply keeping the small area as neat and productive as possible – made me feel guilty about the dust and webs in my window. Without advertising what he does or trumpeting about his culture of cleanliness and order to his neighbors and tenants, the effect – intended or otherwise – is that people would notice, reflect, assess, and act.

It can also prove that an audience has no need for grandiose, glorifying ways to be impressed. That what an informed and independent community truly needs are actual results, which to us are the best publicities for a deed, minus the words.

Why can’t politicians be like him, working without much fanfare?

This came to mind because our country is again witnessing campaign spectacles, and is about to witness a battle among those who aspire to become our leaders through the upcoming May 13 national elections. Present now on the campaign stages are those who come to woo us to win our votes, promising platforms that will ring true to the ears but almost every word forgotten once government seats are filled.

Some would sacrifice poise by gyrating like Psy, sing like possessed beings, while some would simply nail it by sticking to valid issues and projecting what a leader really should be.

Many also grab voters’ attention by stealing limelight – making much fanfare about accomplishments in massive billboards, shamelessly placing oneself strategically so they look like we owe everything to them, claiming credit when none is due, or inviting themselves to activities where their presence are not necessary.

Epal, ume-epal, or ma-epal, in other words.

Evil, highly unethical

The present-day term for attention grabbers, scene stealers, or people who crave a role in matters that are not necessarily theirs to handle or decide is now used with ease even by the most unlikely quarters or individuals. In her signature bluntness and fighting stance, Sen. Miriam Santiago used the word epal when she filed House Bill 1967 or the Anti-Epal Bill in 2011.

The billl aims to chastise and penalize government officials who will affix or append their names to a signage announcing a proposed or ongoing public works project; install or cause to be installed a signage announcing the maintenance, rehabilitation, and construction of public works crediting individual public officer, or bearing his or her image, for the maintenance, rehabilitation, and construction of such public works.

In the bill’s explanatory note, Santiago consi-ders as evil the prevalent practice among public officials to append their names on public works projects, which were either funded or facilitated through their office.

She said this is unnecessary and highly unethical. Crediting individual public officers, instead of the government, leads to fostering and promoting a culture of political patronage and corruption, and diminishes the importance that the public needs to place on supporting government officials, not because of their popularity, but because of their essential role in policy determination, whether on the local or national level.

Secondly, it diminishes the concept of continuity in good governance in the mind of the public.

“Bawal ang epal dito”

Inspired by the proposed measure, the Department of Social Welfare and Development has launched early this year its own “Makialam, magsumbong. Bawal ang epal dito,” a campaign that anticipates the campaign practices and posturing of candidates in order to garner votes.

Being the implementing arm of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) that targets the vote-rich poor and marginalized population as beneficiaries, the DSWD has been galvanized into action seeing the program is prone to abuse by candidates. Thus they aim to protect both the program and the beneficiaries from being used by the candidates, incumbent or otherwise, in wooing voters.

In the Cordillera, DSWD Assistant Regional Director Isabel Nillas explained the anti-epal drive aims to ensure the program is not politicized and that the 4Ps will not be used by candidates by touting themselves as implementers of the program.

All DSWD regional offices in the country, Nillas said, have been directed by Sec. Corazon Soliman to insulate the 4Ps from politics.

It basically wanted to empower the beneficiaries, so that they will not be easily influenced in their decision-making and to emphasize to them the sanctity of making their own choice in exercising their Constitutionally-vested right to vote.

It also emphasizes that no politician has the right to give the voters the idea that they are responsible for the 4Ps, as DSWD has been vested that job.

“We do not want the beneficiaries to be dicta-ted upon by politicians. So the campaign’s rationale is to make them, who are also voters, choose only the candidates who they really believe should lead the region,” Nillas said.

Chastising epals is a no-brainer

True enough, a three-term barangay official in Baguio City confirms epal candidates, no matter how unethical their practice is, are capable of affecting the perception and decision-making processes of voters.

A keen follower of both national and local events, South Central Aurora Hill Kagawad Reynaldo Mendoza has been one of those who survived many political exercises dating before the Martial Law years, yet is no stranger with epal and what it connotes.

Being a barangay official and an active voter, Mendoza said he is in favor of anti-epal initiatives because he believes if these epal practices are tolerated, they could be effective in making a voter believe what a candidate says and eventually vote for him.

In fact, for him, chastising epals is a no-brainer, considering the ban on announcing new or existing government projects that must be imposed every election season. He said he also heard from the news that President Benigno Aquino ordered the ban be strictly enforced in order not to give incumbent politicians a chance to use these projects to glorify their names to voters.

“Hindi ba may order na ipinagbabawal (ang umepal lalo na sa eleksyon)? Na bawal ilagay na ‘This is my project’? We have the election ban, dapat lang na ipagbawal, lalo na sa mga public works kasi campaign, eh,” Mendoza said.

This is why he believes it is just right that epal politicians be not given that opportunity to use these projects during campaigns.

If tolerated, Mendoza said epals could succeed making voters vote for them under the wrong premise.

“It is because that it (epal moves) is effective. Maniniwala ‘yung mga ignorante eh. Voters will believe them because they are receiving something, but hindi nila alam na hindi galing sa politician na iyon ang mga natatanggap nya, but in fact it came from the government.”

Mendoza however said compared to the practices in other provinces, voters in the Cordillera and Baguio City do not endear to granstanding politicians. In his observation, he said voters here know better than be influenced by big billboards of accomplishments. They are more into voting for candidates who are closer to them by blood or for being a kailiyan.

He added voters prefer finished projects serving their purpose rather than words and pictures left to the imagination of the community, election after election.

Taking into account that still there are those who have their way by being an epal, Mendoza suggests that voters should be educated enough and discerning which candidates are really qualified and deserving to earn votes and win.

Given also that being epal is just one of the factors affecting voters’ decision, voters, he said, should know better in the light of what options are presented to them: candidates speaking empty promises, promising things that are impossible to achieve or left forgotten, or those putting up billboards with their faces bigger than what a project is all about.

Aside from that, Mendoza said voters, not only in Baguio and Cordillera but the nation in general, should have learned their lesson from our history on the implications of supporting vote-buying candidates, or in using a certain amount as gauge on who best to vote, and also choosing a leader based on blood relations, or because he is a kailiyan.

Meantime, I think I will still keep watching from my window, hopefully already clear of the cobwebs soon. For maybe, just maybe, it will show me a glimmer of hope that having once and for all leaders who let tangible projects epalize for them without having to utter a single word is still possible.

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:: Local Politics in the era of automated elections
:: Automated Elections:
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:: Electronic voting part 2: Are there loopholes to be guarded?
:: Is Political dynasty the same as political destiny?
:: Mission: To impress or to depress?
:: Our candidates, the automated polls, and our elders
:: Travails along the campaign trail… And beyond

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