ELECTION PERODS are always of great interest to social observers. The ballot reflects the people’s frame of mind, their values, their hopes and fears, and even their resignation to fate. What candidates do to win votes also tells a lot about the level of our political maturity.
Observing elections in the Philippines is both exciting and frustrating. Exciting because, by and at large, campaigns are run like a circus, but frustrating, too, because we observe how painfully slow we move, if at all, towards clean, honest, credible, and enlightened elections.
Ilocos Norte politics is sizzling hot at this time, what with two Marcoses gunning for the gubernatorial post.
Former 2nd District Representative Imee Marcos, daughter of the late president, is up against her cousin, incumbent governor Michael Marcos Keon (MMK).
The Imee camp is reportedly raising the issue of “Utang na Loob” against MMK, who previously enjoyed the support of the Marcoses, especially in 2007 when he ran for and won the governor’s post previously held by now congressman Bongbong Marcos, who is running for a senate seat.
Roughly translated as ‘reciprocity’ or ‘debt of gratitude,’ “Utang na Loob” is a deeply rooted Filipino value. A person who is “walang utang na loob” is “walang kuwentang tao.” One characteristic of true Utang na Loob is that it can never be fully repaid, not by all gold bars in the world.
As any student of Sociology knows, values are double-edged swords. They can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances by which they are manifested.
Here are some insights worth reflecting on as we delve with the Imee-MMK “Utang na Loob” issue. Thank you to Noel M., a fellow blogger, for his inputs on this.
1.) “Utang na loob” in the context of moral and social traditions in Filipino culture. In general, the concept of “utang na loob” is akin to “karma” because Filipinos value the idea of returning the favor to those who have done good deeds. There is also a saying in Tagalog, “Ang ‘di marunong tumingin sa pinanggalingan ay di makakarating sa paroroonan.” This proverb serves as a kind of reminder that one has to be thankful, grateful, and always remember those people who have helped them reach their goals in life. This is the basic context of “utang na loob”, where one has to have an attitude of gratitude and a commitment to return the favor of being the recipient of good deeds and moral support from his family, relatives, and community.
2) “Utang na loob” in the context of blind loyalty. Used in the context of blind loyalty, “utang na loob” has negative ramifications. This includes blind loyalty to one’s family (“blood is thicker than water”, “my family, right or wrong”), friends (“he is my best friend”, “he is my son’s ninong”), political leaders (“he has done so much for my family”, “he gave us money when we needed it”). Often this blind loyalty is invoked by those who have the power”and material resources to sustain a dependent relationship, and by those who have not been empowered to break from these ties or relationships. Thus, one finds many poor and uneducated people in the Philippines in this kind of dependent relationship, and “utang na loob” is a tie that binds them for a long while.
3) “Utang na loob” in the context of enlightened loyalty. There are Filipinos who are able to look at “utang na loob” as a social concept without having to be blind to the limits of loyalty. They appreciate the meaning of “utang na loob” as a moral concept, but it does not mean that they will give up the higher set of principles that they value for the sake of family, friendships, and community loyalty. For example, there are a number of political and military leaders who, despite their closeness to President Gloria Arroyo, could not ignore the disgust of the nation against her alleged corrupt leadership. Hence, they have withdrawn their support from her for the sake of nation. However, there are those leaders who, despite their economic independence and above average intelligence, choose to turn a blind eye against the abuses and excesses of the current regime. They are apparently beholden to the administration, and it is here where “utang na loob” in the context of blind loyalty applies.
“Utang na loob” may be invoked by some people to demand favors from someone, for the right or wrong reasons. One is free to return the favor or not, but must take the risk of “burning his bridges”. Social conformity in Filipino culture is valued (the term “pakikisama” captures this virtue), and one has to face the possibility of being ostracized for not being loyal. This is the immediate drawback.
In the end, it is a choice between social conformity and one’s valued principles. MMK himself, in explaining the difficult decision of running against Ms. Imee, invoked the preservation of his dignity and self-respect.
In Filipino culture, one way to avoid social conflict is to explain things with sincerity and honesty, without being confrontational. As in other Asian cultures, saving one’s face is very important, and this is also true in the context of fulfilling social obligations, even in the context of “utang na loob”. In our culture, “talu-talo na kapag nagkasubuan na.”
I have always maintained that the scenario of two Marcoses, both well qualified and highly esteemed, offering themselves to the electorate can be beneficial to the people’s struggle for good governance. This will give the candidates a chance to speak, granting that money will not talk louder, more clearly about their platforms and leadership agenda, and not merely to rely on pedigree and familial legacy. The people will have a choice, and choices, dear karikna, is essential in a democracy.
The MMK-Imee political fight, if played fairly and intelligently, may show us how Ilocos politics is moving towards maturity.
But this can only be possible if we acknowledge that any public servant’s “Utang na Loob” is ultimately due, neither to Michael nor Imee, but to you and me, the people, from whom all government power and authority emanate.