Photo by Rappler
A mechanism of mutual aid. The embodiment of bayanihan values. The spirit of volunteerism. These are just three among the various descriptions of appreciation given to the community pantry phenomenon. When Ana Patricia “Patreng” Non established the first community pantry in Maginhawa St., Quezon City, her intentions were simple – to provide a source of food and nourishment for families whose lives and livelihoods were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic along with poor government response (Gozum, 2021). Bearing the slogan “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan”, the community pantry is grounded on the principles of social solidarity and reciprocity – to give what you can and to take what you need. Nevertheless, even with the growing number of volunteers, the long lines of people catered to by the pantry, as well as a show of support from Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, the community pantry and its initiator were attacked by government officials.
Days after the establishment of the community pantry in Maginhawa, Non’s community initiative came under fire from Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. and Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) . Non was subjected to continuous red-tagging and accused of having links to the Communist Party of the Philippines to the point of causing the temporary suspension of the Maginhawa pantry operations (Peralta-Malonzo, 2021). Citizens who have also established a community pantry in their locality reported similar experiences when they were made to disclose personal information – such as their Facebook name, email address, and family background – by the police which was later confirmed by Parlade as a profiling measure for community pantry organizers (Rita, 2021). A few days ago, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. ordered Parlade and Badoy to cease from making further comments about the pantries and their organizers. Yet two questions remain: Why were government officials impelled to act against a small scale humanitarian project? What potential danger did this simple grassroot initiative pose to the current administration?
Retracing the Source of Power
Duterte’s rise to power years ago along with other world leaders such as Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Alexis Tsipras was attributed to ‘a new way of doing politics’ which scholars referred to as populism. While not bound by a common ideology, this wave of state leaders shares a political approach characterized by a preference for direct interaction with ‘the People’, appealing to their hopes and fears while promising changes replacing politics with an action-oriented approach to policy enforcement driven by strong leadership and political will (Putzel, 2018). The resurgence of populism in the context of liberal representative democracy was also seen as a ‘primal political instinct’ exhibited by those who are ruled reacting to their rulers (Taggart, 2002).
Populist candidates gain reognition by differentiating themselves from the ‘dysfunctional establishment’ – usually in the form of liberal representative but elite-led democracies. In the case of the Philippines, Webb and Curato (2019) cite the economic legacy left by former President Benigno Aquino III which, in spite of being one of the fastest growing economies in the world averaging 6% of GDP growth, the country’s poverty rate remained at 24.5% and unemployment rate at 6-7% apart from frustrations brought by heavy traffic, unserviceable trains and public transportation, slow and intermittent internet access, and inefficient services experienced in exchange for paying high taxes. The perceived failure of past administrations to bring into fruition and reality promises of reform and prosperity led to what Webb and Curato refer to as a ‘latent ambivalence’ to the liberal democratic regime developed among broad sections of the public, which later on contributed to Duterte’s successful presidential bid in 2016.
Following electoral victory, populist leaders make use of political communications as a part of their strategy in strengthening the legitimacy and stability of the regime (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007; Kriesi, 2014). Three elements make up the populist narrative used in political communication: (1) the administration representing the interests of ‘the People’; (2) the battle against the elites and the ‘dysfunctional establishment’; and (3) the identification and exclusion of ‘out-groups’ (Aalberg et al., 2017; Jagers & Walgrave, 2007; Kriesi, 2014; Mudde, 2004). The anti-establishment and elite component are usually what immediately differentiate the populist candidates from the others that propel them to victory. However, the central focus of the populist approach and political communication lies with the idea and formation of ‘the People’ in contrast to the identified ‘out-groups’ (Albertazzi & McDonell, 2008; Engesser, Fawzi, & Larsson, 2017).
Power of ‘the People’
‘The People’ refers to a new social identity gradually created through populist rhetoric by consistently claiming to represent its interests thereby uniting ‘the People’ under the narrative of a “we” and “us” (Mazzoleni & Bracciale, 2018). Upon closer inspection, the ambiguity of what ‘the People’ specifically refers to significantly figures into the success of populist messaging. Laclau (2005) explains that the mere notion of ‘the People’ being open for interpretation opens the doors for individuals to unite under a single banner despite differences in beliefs, demands, and values. Populism further provides a venue for belongingness for portions of the population who feel alienated and excluded (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Elchardus & Spruyt, 2015; Leary & Cox, 2007).
The construction of ‘the People’ is further strengthened by the identification and exclusion of ‘out-groups’. Out-groups are actors, organizations, or institutions that populist administrations perceive as threats or those alleged to be responsible for social, economic, or political problems and issues – making them in some cases very convenient scapegoats (Reinemann, et al., 2017). In relation to their anti-establishment argument, populist leaders believe that the general will of the People is naturally apparent which serves as basis for representation and decision-making thereby rendering political institutions and processes irrelevant – which also come to play in dealing with out-groups (Abts & Rummens, 2007; Canovan, 2005).
Hernandez (2020) points to Duterte’s campaign, which was based on “hostility towards the ‘West’, the corrupt political establishments, the independent press, and on dehumanizing (real and alleged) criminals, including drug addicts.” Upon taking office, his staple rhetoric involves around calling on Filipinos to unite towards nation-building and to stand against illegal drugs, criminality, and corruption (Corrales, 2019; Orellana, 2019). However, his positions show a blatant disregard for rules and due process, which are evident in his actions to protect those he favor, such as, orders issued to his closed-in security detail this year to ignore senate probes, even if summoned, on the alleged covert vaccinations implemented in January of this year (CNN Philippines, 2021), on one hand, and his declarations of shoot-to-kill orders issued against alleged drug users (Francisco, 2016), communist rebels (Barcelo, Requejo, & Ramos-Araneta, 2021), and even quarantine violators (Tomacruz, 2020), on the other. The Duterte administration maintains this delicate balance in political communication with constant reports of satisfaction surveys (a reported 91% approval rating as of September 2020), and a solid bloc of supporters who consistently flood social media platforms expressing praise for the Administration initiatives, while banding together to target those who express critical stance against the government, keeping them at bay.
Framing the Pandemic
The onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020 heavily disrupted government operations and presented a unique, unprecedented, and complex challenge in terms of political communication. The rapidly rising cases of COVID-positive patients and fatalities along with hospitals and health workers reaching their maximum capacity overwhelmed the country’s health sector. The health crisis soon turned into a full-blown economic recession with the Philippine economy suffering from a 9.5% GDP contraction in 2020, the worst decline since the first available data dating back 1947. The subsequent nationwide lockdown resulted in business closures, an estimated 3.8 million unemployed Filipinos (October 2020), 7.6 million households experiencing hunger in the past three months (Q3 2020) and an additional 2.7 million people breaching the poverty line from 17.7 million Filipinos in 2018 based on national data. All of these paints a bleak picture in stark contrast with the confidence and complacence of the government on the effects and handling of the pandemic, which contributed to the collective social anxiety and feelings of helplessness in the situation.
Amid calls for accountability against state incompetence in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Duterte administration opted to sustain political support by attempting to reframe the current context highlighting Filipino resilience and downplaying the effects of the pandemic in comparison to other countries and the world average. As the Philippines reached over a million COVID-19 cases, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque attributed the surge to the emergence of new variants but was not a negative reflection of the government’s handling of COVID-19. With the help of supporters, the administration was also able to deflect accountability by weaving the pasaway narrative effectively turning the blame on the citizens for the rising number of cases and by asking “Ano ang ambag mo?” (“What did you contribute?”) in order to silence those who were critical of the government pandemic response. Several reports of red-tagging, intimidations, and arrests were also conducted even in the middle of the pandemic further isolating out-groups and suppressing demands from the public.
A Break from “Reality”
The community pantry has since gone viral, with over 300 pantries set up across the country, in just a couple of weeks initiated by concerned individuals, families, civil society groups, and religious organizations. Widely covered by the media since its inception on April 14, the country witnessed more and more individuals falling in line for provisions. Compared to the government’s one-time PHP5,000-PHP8,000 financial assistance gradually disbursed to its targeted 17 million low income households, the community pantry presents a simpler yet a more reliable source of food and sustenance, which ensures that no families and individuals would go hungry by the day.
Despite being the recognized as the initiator of the Community Pantry, Non clarified that the community pantry was a joint effort with the people who volunteered and helped sustain the pantry operations. She also reiterated the importance of “tiwala sa masa” (“trust in the masses”) and “mula sa masa, tungo sa masa” (“from the masses to the masses”), which emphasize learning about the social conditions by participating in the struggles of ‘the People’ and creating a corresponding plan of action.
Non’s statements pertaining to the masa signifies a break from the reality painted by the current administration. It presents an alternate definition and conditions of ‘the People’ from the ones being claimed to be represented and served by the government. As the community pantry continues to cater to the day-to-day needs of the masa and puts food on their table, claims of state incompetence and neglect become all the more evident. Furthermore, the collective action and volunteerism embodied by the People from the community pantries exhibit a sense of agency with the empowered ‘People’ taking matters into their own hands compared to ‘the People’ construed by the populist administration who are at the mercy of their reigning strongman, otherwise helpless in the whole situation. Whether intentional or not, the Community Pantry issues a challenge to the government to genuinely represent and serve the interests of ‘the People’ by delivering on their promises and providing effective solutions.
The rise to popularity of this idea of self-organizing and coordinated community actions thus caught the attention of government offices. While the concept of establishing the community pantry was built more on values of social solidarity and reciprocity, Non did not deny that one of her reasons for taking action was her frustrations with government inaction. This sentiment, echoing the broader crisis of confidence, later turned into action and quickly spread like wildfire would understandably worry offices, such as the NTF-ELCAC about its future implications.
With its P19.2-billion budget allocation, NTF-ELCAC resorted to smear campaigns, red-tagging, and intimidation in an attempt to isolate community initiators. Contrary to the desired effect, the induced panic was short-lived as the Community Pantry also acquired the support of LGU executives and continued its operations. Support also came pouring in through cash donations from fundraising campaigns, sponsorships, donations from foreign dignitaries, such as the German ambassador to the Philippines, and goods supplied by other well-meaning citizens signifying a high level of trust to the pantry.
If this is a numbers game, rhetoric supported by approval ratings, reports of mass recoveries, and the downplaying of health and economic figures in the middle of a pandemic, can only take an administration so far in maintaining its legitimacy and stability. The real numbers are seen on the ground with the number of people lining up to get provisions because they are hungry, the number of people volunteering and donating because they want to help, the number of pantries showing that poverty and hunger are widespread and could not be resolved by a measly financial assistance, and the number of people who took matters into their own hands because they are left with no other choice but to act.
A populist appeal hinges on its promise to deliver in the interest of ‘the People’. The more the government continues to deny the real conditions and effects brought by the pandemic, the farther it will drive ‘the People’ away from it. And even if the government relies on power by resorting to threats or use of force, but does not deliver, stands on fragile and brittle ground. As long as the government does not address the root of the current problem by providing ‘the People’ effective medical solutions, social amelioration, and protection, the Community Pantry will continue to overtake the narrative – widening the break from the constructed reality that keeps the legitimacy and stability of the incumbent administration.
History has taught us time and again that power is not solely held through guns and gold. Power and legitimacy ultimately reside with the People.
Lara Gianina S. Reyes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños. Her diverse topics of interest in research include political economy, state and society relations, the nature and role of business in society, public and private sector dynamics, stewardship, and sustainability. She obtained her bachelor’s (BA) and master’s (MA) degree in Political Science from UP Diliman.
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