OpinionsGender BenderPrescription for direct democracy

Prescription for direct democracy


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SWITZERLAND — The start of the new year has seen still more changes in the Province’s political leadership, although it remains to be seen how truly effective and beneficial this will be for Negros Oriental.

For one thing, trapo politics has apparently been at work to ensure that certain families retain political power.

Economist and political analyst Winnie Monsod in a column last month urged citizens themselves to get involved in public life, apart from electing public officials every three years, to offset this hold, and to promote direct democracy. The start of a new year is a good time to think about that.

Here I am again for some weeks in the land of direct democracy, good old stable (and a mite dull) Switzerland whose example Monsod cited. The Swiss system famously allows citizens to propose initiatives and referendums on national issues, to hold public assemblies on local issues as in the quaint tradition of the Landsgemeinde that still survives in a few places where voters gather in an outdoor public place and vote by a show of hands.

On the other hand, the Gemeindeversammlung is the assembly of the citizens of a town called at least twice yearly, usually in the town hall, to exercise oversight, and receive reports from the local administration, or to decide on financial matters or other local matters. (And incidentally, political office in this country is not a function of belonging to a particular family.)

Winnie Monsod informed or reminded us that the Philippine political system, too, provides an important venue for direct democracy, namely, the barangay assembly.

She urged us to get out of our comfortable habits and passive modes, and to attend these assemblies where every resident of the barangay has a right to participate.

By law, barangay assemblies have to be held at least twice a year, in April and October, or more frequently as needed. In these assemblies, citizens can propose resolutions, legislation, projects, or funding priorities.

We can question decisions of the barangay council or even move to nullify them. Everyone can speak out. This is important because while the local government code stipulates the independent and non-partisan functioning of the barangay council, it is a reality that local chief executives and even higher officials seek to control or exert their influence in the barangay.

And as in a feudal relationship, barangay officials often accept the dictates of their “betters.”

But as Winnie stresses, the barangay captain or chair is accountable to and must report, not primarily to political leaders, but to the people in the barangay assembly. (Shades of the Gemeindeversammlungin this…) She cites local government expert Manny Valdehuesa who warns that our being passive will allow the perpetuation of “government of politicians, for politicians, and by politicians.”

It is also particularly important to know where and how public money is spent, for Monsod lists barangays’ sources of income: 20 percent of the total IRA, 25 percent of real estate tax revenues, 50 percent of the community tax collected for the LGU, and 100 percent of collections from open markets, cockpits, documentary stamps and the like, in addition to funds barangays can solicit from the province, congressmen/women or other sources.

Thus, it is a good idea and, in fact, a civic duty, to heed Winnie Monsod’s urging to resurrect the barangay assembly by being present and active.

In particular, more women should get involved. It has been noted that in NGOs and so-called people’s organizations (POs) and even in church organizations, it is women who are willing to give time and effort; the barangay assembly, in our immediate area of residence, is the logical venue to raise and address community issues like health or infrastructure needs, garbage, noise, peace and order, or other problems.

Getting involved in the barangay can be a way to begin to change the political culture of political docility and subservience to political leaders, and a means to directly participate in determining the future of our communities.

It seems to work for Switzerland; be there at your next barangay assembly.

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