Friday, March 14, 2014

Apathy in Local Politics

The past couple of months had been very disturbing. A flurry of crimes suddenly plagued my peaceful (or should I say, once peaceful) hometown. A mugging turned to murder caught on CCTV, rampant hold-up incidents in busy areas, and just recently, rape and murder of a young girl. People in the city may be accustomed to this type of news, but it's rather unheard of in my neck of the woods, until recently. The last one was especially alarming to my family and our neighbors because this heinous crime happened within our barangay (village).  I sometimes pass by the vacant lot where the body was found when I stroll around with my bike. It pains me immensely to think the idyllic state of our town is turning into an urban nightmare. I grew up in an age where kids play outside, in the streets, and parents had the peace of mind that their children are safe even without a text message to confirm it. Now it seems like those days of tranquility are long gone.

  The horrible crime scene

The townspeople are naturally worried, our safety and security concerns had been a hot topic in a local online community. There's a resounding criticism how the local government and law enforcement seem to lack the commitment to ensure the safety of the community. The sad part is, it has become a blame game. People criticize the lack of police visibility, the relocation of informal settlers from the city, even the negligence of the victim's family. But nobody wanted this to happen, if there are people to blame, it's the perpetrators, and blaming would not really do anything other than ignite our anguish. Some say that this might be the price of progress, once a sleepy town grow into a busy urban hub, things will start to go out of control. In a way that is true, but I refuse to accept that premise. If indeed our town is evolving, then the law enforcement should be upgrading too. It may not be as easy as it sound, supposedly, the police force is understaffed and there's not enough budget to provide state of the art facilities to prevent lawlessness, you start to question, how is that possible when on the national level, the economy has been improving and the tax collection has never been so aggressive. Well, we all know the answer to this question, I won't even go there, that topic is too much for one post.

Here's the thing, we start to form these diverse opinion about how this spate of crimes reflect bad local governance, but my question is, where were we in the process of running our beloved town? We seem to forget the real essence of democracy,  let's define it shall we? Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or indirectly. Sadly for most, the civic duty starts and ends with election. So after the proclamation of mayor, vice-mayor an counselors, how do we follow up on their performance? When do we bother to know the state of the municipality? Sure we have an official website, but mostly, it contains downloadable documents detailing the budget utilization. Somehow it's a good sign of transparency, but who bothers to decode the picture behind numbers and tables? There's a Facebook page that provides updates on town events and happenings, but of course it only gives us positive information. We'd see new establishments pop up one after another, and again we'd think of it as a sign of progress, but do we bother to find out if in anyway they violate any regulation on urban planning? And what about environmental implications? Who bothers to question? We have no independent local press who'd provide us uncompromised reporting on municipal affairs and editorials that would give us a wider perspective. Simply because, there's no demand for it. There's no sizeable need to know the real problems infesting our town, because, what can we do anyway? Did we ever have a town hall meeting? Probably not, who has the time to mind the issues that fall outside work and home? There's very little spirit of volunteerism. Nobody cares, but then something bad happens and suddenly, everybody knew who's to blame. The truth is, we can't just expect our local government to do all the work, of course we pay our taxes to make them do their job, but we have to make sure they're doing it properly, we have our part in this, we have to be involved because the recent series of crimes is not the only problem that would plague us as our town moves towards development. It's just the tip of the ice berg.

There are so many things that sets our ailing nation apart from developed countries, but I'd like to stress Nelson Navarro's observation when he was working as a journalist in a local paper in New Jersey:

"The most important lesson I learned was that Americans take politics most seriously at the local level. They rant and rave about whoever is in the White House or the state capitol, but they zero in most of all on affairs at the township or borough level. They care about how the local elementary school is run, the condition of the streets in their neighborhood, and what houses, buildings or factories are being built in the vicinity. With taxation always came demands for proper representation and service to the people.

I attended many board meetings jampacked by residents who did not hesitate to confront elected or appointed officials about matters they felt aggrieved about. People really bothered to turn out after work or in the middle of a snow storm to have their voices heard. It was democracy in action, sometimes heated and confrontational but always civil, the kind of dynamic interaction between government and citizens that I never saw in the Philippines."

A lot of people think it's unfair and even invalid to compare ourselves with a first world country where everything is advance and the government can afford an almost flawless system. But I refuse to accept that. We may be living in a third world country with heavily corrupted government, but that should not stop us from acting like first world citizens. After all, we are all equal.