Thursday, October 28, 2010

The 4Ps: A poor strategy against poverty

Is living on government dole-outs the way out of poverty?

This is the underlying message behind the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs initiated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in line with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty by 2015. Mexico started the first CCT program in 1997 and it was copied by other countries. Brazil’s CCT program, called bolsa familia, became known worldwide and every other country is now attempting to replicate it.

The Arroyo government implemented its own CCT program, more popularly known as the 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program). President Benigno Aquino III is extending 4Ps as his administration’s signature program to combat poverty with a much bigger budget of P21-billion and an additional loan of $400 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Soliman presided over former President Arroyo’s 4Ps. She will continue to be at the helm of the CCT program under the Aquino government. Recall that Soliman resigned from her position during the Arroyo administration in the wake of the Hello Garci election cheating scandal. President Aquino picked Soliman as his social welfare secretary after winning the presidential election last June 2010.

Even the megarich city of New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has fallen under the spell of the CCT program. New York City established Opportunity NYC as the first conditional cash transfer initiative in the United States, but unlike other programs already running in other parts of the world, the New York program is totally funded by a number of private partners.

The underlying premise behind a conditional transfer program is that it helps the poor to develop their human capital by breaking the cycle of poverty through monetary incentives that meet certain conditionalities. In essence, cash benefits under the CCT program are supposedly linked to specific behaviour changes that help recipients free themselves from the clutches of poverty.

To qualify for cash grants under the Philippine government’s 4Ps, recipients must meet the following conditions: pregnant women must get pre-natal and post natal health care, attend responsible parenthood sessions, children must receive regular preventative health check-ups, children 3-5 years old must attend day care at least 85 per cent of the time, children 6-14 years old must enrol in elementary or high school and attend classes 85 per cent of the time, and children below 14 years old must avail of de-worming pills every five months.

According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the 4Ps has already provided, as of January 2009, cash grants to 341,374 poorest households from 27 poorest provinces, 12 cities, and 148 municipalities in the country. By the end of 2009, a total of 700,000 households were expected to benefit from the program.

One heavy criticism of the CCT program is the perception that it is meant to "buy" votes of poor people. No doubt, the CCT program will help any incumbent government to secure votes to win an election. Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, after assuming office in January 2003, expanded the country’s CCT program to become a vigorous social safety net program. Lula was re-elected handily largely because of bolsa familia, his government’s flagship poverty alleviation program. Too bad, Gloria Arroyo could not run for re-election after implementing her own version of the CCT program because of term limits, otherwise she could have used the 4Ps as a vote-generating arm.

Political apprehensions aside, do conditional cash transfer programs really and effectively help the poor break away from the cycle of poverty?

Building social safety nets has become the international trend in government policy-making since the 1980s, after the IMF and World Bank started their programs of economic stabilization and structural adjustment. Aimed towards market deregulation and increased competition, these programs were supposed to lead to the dismantling of the State machinery and cutbacks in public spending, especially in the social sectors. But structural adjustments ushered in adverse consequences like massive poverty, rising unemployment, and a host of other social problems.

Anti-poverty solutions became highly unaffordable under conditions of economic austerity. To counter these adverse social and economic effects of structural adjustments, a strategy was developed by using specific instruments such as social funds implemented by a range of institutions including government, civil society, international donors and the poor communities themselves. Thus, selective cash transfer policies became the major response to the problem of large-scale poverty, although they fall way short of the idea of providing universal benefits as a basic right similar to the guaranteed rights of citizens in industrialized nations.

Stories of families in Brazil who have slid back to conditions where they were before receiving stipends from the government under its bolsa familia sound like a warning to those who think the conditional cash transfer program as a panacea.

Evidence shows that bolsa familia is not working as well in cities as in rural areas where rural poverty in Brazil is much greater. Policy experts have said it would be in the large metropolises of developing countries where the problems of poverty are expected to grow in the future.

Brazil’s bolsa família program is not without its critics. One recurrent criticism of the program is that it discourages the search for employment, encouraging laziness among people. Under this premise, many people would give up trying to find a job, content to live on the program, which many Brazilians called the cesta esmola (“alms-basket”). The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, a powerful arm of the Catholic Church, maintains that “the program is addictive,” and leads its beneficiaries to an “accommodation.”

Transposed to a highly urbanized environment like New York City, the city’s ambitious privately-funded conditional cash transfer program that offered rewards to poor families for maintaining good habits—like $25 or $150 for things such as going to the dentist, staying on the job or opening a bank account—turned out to be a dud.

Opportunity NYC produced such mediocre results that Mayor Bloomberg conceded it is likely not the answer to eradicating poverty. The Associated Press headline called it “Money for good habits doesn’t change lives.”

According to the urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay), the 4Ps of the Philippine government is a “deceitful program.” The government even has to borrow $400 million from the ADB to fund the 4Ps. As the government is already burdened with servicing its current debt, incurring additional debts will prove even more harmful to the country in the long run.

Besides failing to address the real causes of poverty, the 4Ps as presently construed is sorely insufficient. Compared with Brazil and Mexico which have one-fourth and one-fifth of their households under their respective CCT programs, the 4Ps covers only a mere one million out of 18 million households. Even if the DSWD achieves its 2.3 million target by 2011, it still represents about 0ne-eight of total households. Its impact, therefore, is very minimal and will not make a dent in poverty.

A 2009 study of the impact of CCT programs in Mexico and El Salvador pointed out that the success of any CCT program will depend on the availability of good-quality and accessible health and education services, together with the existence of a governmental system that provides the beneficiaries with access to other social programs. At present, the Philippines does not have this kind of necessary social infrastructure to make the 4Ps meaningful.

For the 4Ps to help families break free from the cycle of poverty, it must seriously address the real roots of mass poverty.

A government dole-out program will not help eradicate poverty. What is needed is a re-orientation of the Philippine economy to respond to the needs of the majority of the Filipino people, and not those of big foreign and local corporations.

Poverty reduction can only be achieved through vigorous, job creating economic growth with redistributive policies and social investment rather than the simple construction of safety nets like the 4Ps. The government’s current conditional cash transfer program fails to address the real problems of the people. With millions to spend, the program could potentially be the next big venue for corruption.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A ‘hands-off’ Presidency

In his presidential inaugural address, President Benigno Aquino III referred to the Filipino people as “you are my boss,” obviously in reference to the people who elected him to the highest office in the land. After one hundred days in office, the harsh reality of the Aquino government has started to sink in.

The President’s words, however, seem to grow hollow and hollower as his calendar days go by, and as the real meaning of the word “boss” becomes clearer—that it means to embrace only the interests of those in the middle class and upper crust of Philippine society, the same class the new president was born to. If it is any comfort to Noynoy Aquino, it is his own class that he truly represents. And while loyalty to his own class of origin is understandable, it will not be the correct basis of leadership for a president elected by a huge plurality of votes, more than 80 per cent of whom are poor.

Noynoy Aquino promised in his acceptance speech to institute changes that would reverse the anti-worker legacies of his predecessor. Among the most urgent issues that confronted labour in the previous Arroyo government were wage freeze, work contractualization, flexible work arrangements and regional wage-fixing, and trade union repression.

Yet, during the early days of his presidency, Noynoy Aquino looked the other way when the workers’ union of the nation’s flag carrier, the Philippine Airlines (PAL), accused its owner, the Lucio Tan Group, of violating labour standards such as paying flight attendants below minimum wages, not paying for their maternity leave, and not providing equal opportunities for the airline’s employees. To date, PAL employees have been prevented from collective bargaining as PAL management continues to play hardball negotiation. A proposed deregulation of the airline industry through an open-skies policy looms in the horizon as it threatens the dire labour situation at PAL.

Aquino is also quick to point out threats to changes he wanted his government to implement, yet is slow to react to violators of workers’ rights. ABS-CBN, a multi-media conglomerate owned by the powerful Lopez family, terminated more than a hundred long-time employees in violation of their rights but Aquino seemed unperturbed. Like PAL owner Lucio Tan, the Lopezes are perceived as avid supporters and close to President Aquino.

President Aquino’s position in most labour-management standoffs in his early presidency, which by now seems the business-as-usual or standard Aquino official policy, is to take a hands-off approach. The Aquino government calls this a policy of minimal intervention in labour disputes. It gives the appearance of impartiality, that the government is not taking sides. But by using the power of the Secretary of Labour to assume jurisdiction over labour disputes, the President in effect is forcing workers and their trade unions to stop all protest actions and force them to sit down with management to mediate their grievances or contract disputes.

Not that there's anything wrong with mediation and arbitration. While they may appear as harmless mechanisms to settle disputes, the past experiences of labour in the Philippines have taught them that employers are prone to take advantage of their powerful positions and coerce their employees to accept their own view of settling their disputes. It is not enough for President Aquino to tell PAL and other unions, for example, to continue talking and that management should respect their employees and their rights to decent wages and equal opportunities. The history of labour in the country is replete with instances where employers can get away with violating labour standards because the government is on their side.

Whenever labour unions start to flex their muscle by exercising the right to strike in order to press their demands, the government is lightning quick to assume jurisdiction. Trade unions have become disempowered, and once they sit on the negotiation table under the pretext of mediation, they have lost the only bargaining power they have. Employers and the government on their side, as history tells us, will force their way in coercing labour to its knees. The threat of police and military intervention is always present if the unions would attempt to disrupt work or production through other means of protest.

Labour has perceived the Aquino government as 1oo per cent anti-workers. The evidence speaks for itself. At this early stage of his presidency, Noynoy Aquino is on track to follow the anti-labour legacy of the past Arroyo administration.

Just as the Aquino government has already taken an anti-labour stance, President Aquino’s land reform program appears as equally wanting, if not by intelligent design, neglected as a government priority. He never mentioned anything about land reform in his inaugural speech, a program so close to his late mother’s heart. Noynoy Aquino’s decision not to interfere in the settlement of the dispute over Hacienda Luisita, a plantation owned by the President’s family and relatives, reveals the lack of strength and character in his leadership. Taking the cue from its non-interventionist labour policy, the Aquino government has again relied on the farcical and ineffectual process of mediation to settle the age-old Luisita problem, despite the issue having reached the Supreme Court to make a final determination.

By nature, President Aquino seems to possess the habit of evading responsibility. Consider, for example, the Rizal Park hostage taking and how he would not dare accept that key people in his administration were somehow responsible for their inaction or incompetence. The same goes with the involvement of one of his cabinet undersecretaries in the alleged jueteng scandal and the lack of moral culpability of his administration.

Last October 4-5, 2010, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) convened in Brussels, Belgium. The ASEM, which was established in 1996 in Bangkok, is composed of leaders from the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), China, South Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Twice a year, the ASEM holds a forum among its members to discuss economic and social issues that affect them, like trade, foreign debt, workers’ protections and other related matters.

President Aquino was invited by the secretariat of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), the civil society’s counterpart of ASEM, but declined to attend because the forum’s most important leaders would not be present. It was the first time that a Philippine president did not attend the summit.

Whereas in the past, previous Philippine presidents gave importance to the ASEM forum by their attendance, President Aquino decided not to go, and as a result, has missed the chance to push the concerns of Filipino migrant workers in Europe, which hosts hundreds of thousands of overseas Filipino workers. Europe is also one of the biggest sources of development aid for the Philippines, and the ASEM could be an appropriate forum for President Aquino to speak about his campaign promise to solve poverty by eradicating graft and corruption.

The President’s current preoccupation showed its clearest manifestation when he recently visited New York. Thrilled to set foot in the place that evoked nostalgia and reminded him of his teens when the Aquino family was in exile, he said there was nothing that beats being back in his old haunts and eating hotdog on a New York street. With his pliant entourage gathered around him, the President offered his profuse apologies for making reporters wait while he took his lunch—mind you, $54 instead of the $22,000 tab by his predecessor—in the same cavalier way he makes light of the awesome responsibilities bestowed upon an elected leader of the people.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why do we leave?

Migration of humans across continents has occurred since the dawn of human evolution. Most people generally leave for the same reason. Today’s migrants move to look for greener pastures, or for a better job or opportunity to support their families. Like their forebears who moved in search of food, shelter or a more hospitable climate. There are, of course, a few others who move for a different reason rather than purely economic.

Professor Solita Monsod’s premise in her supposedly last lecture in her Economics class at the University of the Philippines (U.P.), videotaped and shown on YouTube (please click picture on the right to view), seems out of touch with the reality of migration. Addressing her students, Prof. Monsod said that leaving the country is like a betrayal. Especially when the country needs their brains in order to join the elite countries of the developed world. In fairness, Prof. Monsod was talking solely to U.P. students whose education is largely subsidized by the government and scholarship grants, compared to those who studied in private universities and paid for their own tuition. Although, she was only emphasizing the obligation of U.P. graduates to give back to their country, her message could apply as well to graduates of other Philippine schools.

Other than the sophomoric exhortation of the former Economic Planning Minister of the Philippines, nothing in her last lecture is obviously of value, either intellectually or for any simple sentimental reason, like keeping the YouTube lecture as a memento or showing it around. The lecture didn’t even relate to the subject matter she taught, and it sounded like a last parting shot, so for that matter she could probably be forgiven.

When my wife told Prof. Monsod we were leaving the country in the mid-eighties, right after the political turbulence of the EDSA Revolution, she asked my wife if there was a job waiting for us in Canada. My wife wrote her speeches at that time when Prof. Monsod was a cabinet secretary. She obliquely reassured her that I had a job, when the reason for our leaving was not economic but something more fundamental than putting food on the table. Prof. Monsod also lived for a while in the United States while her husband worked with the World Bank and she completed her post-graduate studies.

Why do Filipinos continue to leave the country?

The simple answer is that most of them are “pushed” from the country because of its conditions, mostly economic, and are “pulled” to a new country where the quality of life is much better, i.e., where there are jobs which pay more and better opportunities for the children.

In the past, migration used to be from the rural areas to the urban centres within the country. But as population grew in the cities and jobs became more scarce, overseas has become the new destination. Besides, our quality of life has deteriorated, the political situation has turned to worse, economic opportunities monopolized by big and rich corporations, and our culture and intellectual life have become self-indulgent with forms or figures of entertainment that cater to our most decadent desires. In other words, our country’s fabric as a liveable society has broken down.

Young people leave because opportunities for them to grow have run out. No wonder our schools today produce graduates who are prone to be poached upon by the more advanced countries. As an economist, Prof. Monsod knew this was bound to happen. In effect, our country—so poor and broken down—subsidizes the education and training of the workforce of the rich and powerful countries. All these countries have to do is simply to cream our country of the best of its talent pool. Maybe, our government should ask the governments of foreign countries that rob us of valuable manpower to reimburse our government for training expenses for every Filipino going abroad to migrate. This seems totally logical if what overseas Filipino workers and migrants remit back home is not enough to keep the country afloat.

Perhaps, what Prof. Monsod should be more concerned is why Filipinos, after they have left the country and did so well abroad, eventually lost the yearning to go back. So unlike how she felt when she and her husband decided to return and serve back home.

Most refugees from ravaged and war-torn societies return after a series of significant political changes have been achieved and social reconstruction has followed in earnest. The animus to return was also true with a great number of Europeans who have migrated to America before the end of the Second World War or for present-day migrants, when their countries have recovered from economic slowdowns. Many children of Chinese and Korean immigrants have returned to their parents’ homelands to start up their own businesses or apply the education and skills they learned abroad. Sadly, however, this phenomenon of returning is not happening in great numbers in the case of overseas Filipinos. More and more are simply leaving and staying put where they have resettled.

The motivation to return is driven by changes in the home country that attract people to go home and re-establish their lost roots. If nothing much has changed between the time they left and now, people will never go back home, except to visit. Prof. Monsod should not fault those who leave or even those who do not wish to return if her only rationale is to point out their act of betrayal. As if patriotism is static and confined to the ground where one stands.

One can be outside of the country and still be loyal and true to one’s homeland. Look at Marcelo H. del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena and Jose Rizal, the leaders of the propaganda movement during the Spanish colonial period. Today, where citizenship is more elastic, i.e., more than one allegiance is allowed in most countries, patriotism has become borderless. There must be preconditions for returning; in other words, the circumstances on the ground must have changed to attract people to re-acquire their old citizenship or rekindle their interest to go back home.

Why Filipinos leave is easy to understand. But it is not as easy as accepting why so many will not come home again.

We have friends from university who have been dividing their time between Canada and the Philippines every year. Their goal is to resettle eventually. The reason behind their decision to go back: their children who seem to have re-discovered their parents’ native land through the magic of music and film. Perhaps, it is our children, born or raised in a foreign land, who will pursue this miracle of returning, more than us old fogeys who most probably are in our retirement years.

Speaking of retirement, wouldn’t it be the most laudable of all reasons to go back to our homeland and spend the rest of our lives dedicating it to things we have always wanted to do when we were young? It could be as lofty as helping rebuild the nation, or as practical as promoting literacy, or nurturing and caring our natural habitat, even if it’s only a small garden patch. This perhaps will make Prof. Monsod smile and release us from her haunting from the grave.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Healthcare as a matter of right

After a year of refuge in Baguio City from the first shock of martial law imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, our young family decided to leave the mountain retreat and return to the confines of old Manila. Actually, with another child coming, I needed to look for work to support my growing family. Two years later, I would find a job with the Population Centre Foundation, a private organization established to promote and fund family planning programs and research as part of the New Society’s population control initiative. The Foundation was bankrolled by huge grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the USAID.

Here it was one late sultry afternoon when the chairperson of the Foundation, the First Lady of the land, Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, made a surprise visit along with her retinue of friends and foreign visitors, among them Van Cliburn, the celebrated American pianist. She wanted to show the new building and its modern facilities to her guests. For the first time, I got up close and personal with the dictator’s better-half, even shaking her soft and silky hands that exuded a fragrance totally foreign to my native nose buds. Mesmerized for some reason, I didn’t wash my hand that night to keep the bouquet as fresh as possible. My right hand was also a bit swollen, almost crushed, when I shook hands with the famous Van Cliburn, whose fingers were so large they could run the full length of two baby grands.

By that time, the Population Commission, the government office in charge of family planning on a national level, was already distributing free condoms, contraceptives and other birth control devices in health centres throughout the country. Their offices were also housed in the Foundation’s new edifice which was part of the tour that I conducted for the heavily-scented First Lady and her guests. The tour ended in the ultramodern kitchen where someone from the group started asking whether there was any food they could nibble before they left. It was fortunate that the canteen concessionaire had a whole apple pie left and the guests, including the wife of the New Society helmsman, digged at it as if they had not eaten for days. Well, the guests loved the lip-smacking apple pie. My boss, the executive director of the Foundation and Madame Imelda’s gynaecologist, took me aside and whispered if I could ask the concessionaire to send another pie to Malacanang Palace where the First Lady and her husband lived. Mrs. Marcos would really appreciate it, he added. His total obeisance jolted me from my bad dream. I quit my job soon after, promising myself not to kowtow again to the infamous occupants of the Palace by the Pasig River, and never to eat an apple pie when our starving people couldn’t even afford to smell or buy a real apple.

More than 35 years have passed and now the country’s Roman Catholic Church is being threatened by a Reproductive Healthcare bill in Congress. For some, it would have been better without such a law since the Catholic Church never protested against family planning and birth control during the Marcoses’ halcyon days. Was it also because the Church lost its voice during the twenty years of iron rule by the Marcoses? Others rue that Church hierarchy waited it out till after the EDSA People Power Revolution drove the Marcos family out of the country. Yes, from all indications, the hierarchy’s reaction was far and between a little bit too late.

Promiscuity, among the young especially, had become permissive. New social values and sexual norms have sprung up and eroded the modesty and temperance of the old generation. The fact is that the Church had slept and almost by default allowed the forces of progress to march onward along with birth control devices. Except for its unflinching stand against abortion, the Church has lost this fight a long time ago.

Truth is, the proposed reproductive healthcare law is not all about birth control as the Church and other opponents of the bill would like to portray it. It only became a family planning issue after President Benigno Aquino III during a recent visit to the United States said that he would extend assistance to couples planning to limit the number of their children by using artificial contraceptives. According to the Church, contraception is a type of abortion and it is a grave crime and banned by the Constitution.

Arguments over the proposed reproductive health law range from whether population control will actually alleviate poverty or whether the law is moral or immoral. Oftentimes, our leaders and policy makers blame overpopulation as the root cause of poverty. That kind of argument goes far back to the Middle Ages which echoed the plaint raised by an Italian priest and diplomat by the name of Giovanni Botero, who said that population cannot increase beyond its food supply.

There are other countries and cities in the world which are much more crowded than Manila or the entire country, yet they have a higher gross domestic product per capita. Accepting that a manageable population of healthy, educated and productive citizens is key to sustainable human development, population control is not an assurance of genuine development.

Poverty in the Philippines is not caused by overpopulation but by farmers’ problems of landlessness, workers’ lack of jobs and low wages, and government policies that favour big business interests over people’s welfare. An inequitable concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest 10 per cent of the population also reinforces widespread poverty.

Any effective reproductive healthcare law must address issues beyond population control—not just about the use of pills, injectibles, condoms and cycle beads. It must focus on making reproductive healthcare services accessible to all women, particularly indigent and poor women workers who have long been excluded from healthcare. It’s the woman’s health, stupid, to borrow from James Carville’s famous epithet.

The poor, particularly women, have always been at the losing end of this debate about population control. Take abortion on demand, for example. Criminalizing abortion has forced pregnant women who do not want to give birth to seek clandestine options. A recent study made by the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights found that over half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended and one-third of these pregnancies end in abortion. The same report also said that because of various reasons including rape and dire socio-economic consequences, half a million Filipino women are choosing abortion with more than 1,000 women dying and 90,000 being hospitalized for complications from unsafe abortion.

Making abortion illegal does not stop abortion; it only makes it more dangerous for the health and lives of Filipino women. The Philippines, which owes its Roman Catholic faith to Spain, makes abortion criminal by lifting directly from the old Spanish Penal Code of 1870. Because of high rates of death from unsafe abortion due to its illegality, Spain has already reconsidered its restrictive law and, since 1985, has allowed abortion on certain grounds. In February 2010, Spain went even further in liberalizing abortion by allowing the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks and by giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to have abortions without parental consent.

Other predominantly Catholic countries like Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Colombia, Mexico and Portugal have all also allowed abortion on certain grounds.

Whether to allow women to abort is a hot issue that will linger, perhaps even forever. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life in accordance with the teachings of their religion will never be deterred in championing the pro-life cause. Pro-choice activists will do the same. Bridging this great divide will require a rational understanding of social evidence that more and more women today die from unsafe abortions. In the end, the real issue is whether we should deny healthcare as a matter of right to these unfortunate women.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The perils of voting

Prior to coming to Canada, I had never voted in any election, whether national or local. On second thought, I might have had—but in student elections. In fact, I voted for myself in one of those elections for a college student government. And if you’re wondering—yes, I won by a plurality of votes.

The year I became eligible to vote, Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law all over the Philippines and if there had been any elections held that time, they were sham and not free. After the EDSA Revolution, we decided to leave for Canada and entirely missed exercising our right to vote in any of the elections after the Marcos dictatorship. But in retrospect, we might not have voted because we had always entertained the idea of either boycotting the elections or spoiling the ballot. So whichever way it was, it didn’t seem like voting at all.

It’s totally a different story when we came to Canada. Voting could be very frustrating. Most of the time we see only the grief and sadness of defeat in the losing candidates’ faces. But how about voters like us, who never experienced picking a winning candidate. Save for Jack Layton, the NDP opposition leader who is the Member of Parliament for our riding. And David Miller, the left-leaning mayor of Toronto whom we voted for a change. But he decided to step down after two terms and forgo a third stab for re-election. You would know by now the type of candidates or political party we support, so you can understand our anguish if our candidates always lose during elections, save for these two notable faces.

We have quite a number of aspirants for the Toronto mayor’s office. This is a very important elective position. After all, Toronto is the centre of the earth north of the 42nd parallel. Every Toronto native would know who the city mayor is, even though he or she might not know the prime minister of Canada. We’re not Canada’s capital, but so is New York City.

Going back to our mayoralty candidates, the list is long but only four are viable and potential pretenders to His/Her Worship’s throne. All the others are nuisance candidates who have no real or even imagined chances of winning.

When the electoral race started, there were close to ten possible winning candidates but one by one they dropped out like flies until only four were left standing. The thing with city elections is they are the most democratic. Really. Candidates don’t have to run under political parties. Anybody can throw himself or herself in the ring—straights, gays, lesbians, men, women, disabled, old, young, rich, poor and what have you.

The smorgasbord of candidates gives the appearance of choice, which is important to the democratic process. So unlike the U.S. electoral system, our superpower neighbour in the south, where the only choice is between Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

The question that bothers me, however, is when candidates drop out of the race to endorse another candidate. In endorsing someone more winnable, the lucky candidate endorsed looks like he’s getting a bunch of votes, which in reality does not count. Why not simply stay in the race and let the people decide on election day?

Today, running for office in a democratic election seems all about winning. There is no more honour in losing even if running for office enables a candidate to sell a vision of the city he or she wants to lead. All that matters is what the poll survey says. In reality, a majestic vision of the city doesn’t buy votes any more.

Elections used to be an opportunity to choose the candidate that offers the best political platform. Even in an advanced and mature society like Toronto, that seems to be the dilemma. I remember some years ago when Barbara Hall, the mayor of the small fiefdom of Toronto before amalgamation, decided to become the first mayor of the new megacity. She offered to rebuild Toronto as a city with a vibrant cultural community under a new kind of urban leadership. Although she won the majority of the vote in the old Toronto and two boroughs, Hall lost the mayoralty election to a clown who had a strong base of support in the suburbs.

History seems to repeat itself. The frontrunner in the Toronto election, Rob Ford, has always thrived on bombast and controversy in his ten years in city council. Running on the people’s discontent about City Hall (the long garbage strike that made the city stink for over a month and the subway and transit strike which tested the city residents’ limits for patience and tolerance), Ford was able to bring to Toronto the wave of nasty right-wing populism that is now spreading all over North America.

Amid the backdrop of anger and resentment fuelled by the Tea Party movement in the United States against the democratic incumbent in the White House, Ford is enjoying the ride and the momentum of his political crusade against big government.

The other contender is gay, in a same-sex marriage, which is legal in Canada. Equally boisterous and sometimes furious, George Smitherman represents the Toronto mayor the rich and the liberals would prefer to win. However, Smitherman, the frontrunner from the opening of the gates, has stumbled and appears totally blindsided when Ford entered the race.

The NDP candidate, Joe Pantalone, could still overtake Smitherman for second place but the pants of the mayor look too big for him, no pun intended. As usual, the candidate with the best political platform will lose, and there is no consolation in finishing second.

As an aside, there is also a serious lesson for Filipinos to learn from the coming Toronto election. A major Filipino community centre in Toronto that has boasted its non-partisan status in the past has publicly endorsed George Smitherman for mayor. For a non-profit and non-partisan organization that relies on grants from the city for its programs, this kind of endorsement has not been a wise decision, if not a no-brainer. If Smitherman loses, the Filipino centre in effect will be alienated from City Hall, especially from a new mayor who has been known to be against cultural diversity and anti-immigrant (read: he doesn’t want newcomers from non-white countries).

What were the leaders of this Filipino organization thinking? It could have been all right for them to individually vote for whoever they want as mayor, but not to publicly endorse one candidate over the other as if he is the choice of the whole Filipino community. This shows how parochial or what a friend would call “barriotic” the decision-making process of some of our community’s so-called leaders. In the Philippines, a large religious sect would do exactly the same thing every election time, to endorse a candidate as their church’s choice.

Voting has its perils, especially when you put principles at stake. The irony, however, is that the candidate who speaks the loudest most often ends up taking the throne. Never mind if he has offended so many and has had past brushes with the law.

But we must not despair. Rather, we should continue our struggle and hope someday the people will listen to a more serious public debate of ideas and principles. We cannot simply let the democratic process continue to be a constant revolving door for politicians or leaders who do not have the interests of the people at heart