13 May 2007

The litmus test on 2010

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

BARRING any hitches, Mayor Jesse Robredo’s Team Naga is poised to secure another three-year term, the mayor’s sixth and last, owing to the term limit set by law. The Ateneo Social Science and Research Center’s pre-election survey all but confirms this.

Since his election in 1988, the people of Naga gave Robredo and his management team an opportunity which, to my mind and limited knowledge, is unparalled in contemporary Philippine history. By 2010, that would be a 22-year period to pursue what I call an urban democracy project.

For the past six political contests, his political opponents have thrown all arguments, accusations and allegations possible, including the proverbial kitchen sink. But the Naga electorate largely ignored them and continued to give Robredo a solid mandate.

There is no doubt it is because of a confluence of factors, prominent among them Robredo’s unique combination of charisma, competence, and communication skills that make him a highly effective leader. It enabled his administration to consistently attract quality people, both at the political and career levels, with diverse skills and specializations.

In a competitive atmosphere within City Hall that Robredo promotes and fosters, a can-do mindset coupled with the freedom to innovate has yielded handsome dividends in the form of programs and initiatives that have achieved national and even international renown for the city. I am proud to be part of this unique phenomenon -- as an eyewitness to this 19-year and going urban democracy project that, by design, sought to build strong institutions that would ensure its sustainability regardless of whoever takes the helm of the city government.

In all these, particularly the five electoral contests where Robredo personally figured in as standard bearer, he has loomed large, often simplifying the choice for the electorate. With him sidelined by 2010, both by circumstance and by choice, the project, to my mind, will face its more serious litmus test, far more challenging than the 1998 contest that featured a fresh Cho Roco as his chosen successor.

Are the local institutions that the project put in place over the last two decades -- the participatory mechanisms that gave local civil society and ordinary citizens a greater voice in governing the city; the emphasis on transparency, accountability and all other democratic values associated with good governance; a more professional, service-oriented local bureaucracy -- strong enough to withstand what promises to be a more ferocious assault by traditional politics, which leading pundit Manolo Quezon calls the worst of the old Philippines, when the next episode of this necessary inconvenience takes place three years from now?

Based from this soon-to-be concluded electoral exercise, I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I am hopeful that the solid mandate from the Naga electorate, coupled with the constant affirmation from individuals, organized groups and institutions interested in our project, will continue to underscore the fundamental soundness of the city’s chosen development path.

But on the other, I am disappointed with how the confluence of disheartening events and the pervading negativity are negating these gains, chipping furiously at the foundations a more vibrant local democracy. We have seen how the Comelec has sunk to new depths of methodical insanity. We have seen how the Arroyo administration has pushed brazenness and impunity to new limits. And I have seen how people -- by reasons of poverty or plain opportunism -- can be so short-sighted as to trade short-term pleasures for long-term gains.

But it is a litmus test our urban democracy project must necessarily face. Because it is very much like true love, as this Barbra Streisand song goes: "They say if you love someone / Then set them free / If they come back again / Then in the end it was meant to be."