There is a very interesting debate on the origins of the masa vote taking place in the Inquirer. Randy David (a professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines) set the ball rolling in his column of 8 February [see earlier post on 11 February]. David’s argument was, broadly, that the masa is a recent phenomenon linked closely to the rise of the Tagalog mass media (especially TV). In response, Raul Pertierra (Ateneo de Manila) wrote a letter to the Inquirer arguing that, far from the traditional structures of political organization being replaced by a “masa” influenced primarily by the big screen, “the present political spectrum looks remarkably like the days of the "trapo" [traditional politicians] and political kingpins. While some things have undoubtedly changed, others have remained stubbornly the same.”
In response, David’s column in today’s paper reiterates his belief that television “connected the the masa to the circuits of national life. It broke their dependence on the moral and political elders of their local communities.”
Since “the masa” constitutes 75% of the electorate (David’s estimate) this is a question of fundamental importance to contemporary politics. I suspect that both David and Pertierra are correct in their own ways. One need only look at, say Chavit in Ilocos Sur, the Gordons in Olongapo/Subic, or any of a host of other dynasties all over the country, to see how traditional patterns of political influence endure. On the other hand, the crushing election victory of Erap (who was opposed by the Catholic Church, and the great majority of the business and landowning class) in 1998 shows that concurrently a political process of identification, driven mainly by the television and film screens is in certain very specific instances breaking the dependence of poorer people on "the moral and political elders of their local communities".
This juxtaposition of a system akin to 18th century feudalism and another that derives its strength from 21st century glamour is in fact an accurate reflection of the Philippines today. Traditional ties of deference (to, for example, the church, bosses, white people) co-exist with strong emotional identification with mythic action heroes, resulting in unpredictable political and social outcomes. As David implies in the last sentence of his column today – “I know it will not always be like this” – this is a transitional period leading where, no-one would be so foolish as to predict.