Editor's note: The opinions in this piece are the author's.
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Who are you calling a “bobotante”?
In the Philippines, the “bobotante” (a portmanteau of the words “bobo,” or stupid, and “botante,” or voter) is often used to refer to voters who select ‘unqualified’ candidates for office — perhaps a movie star, an absentee congressman, an unapologetic daughter of a dictator.
“Bobotante” is often directed towards the masses, voters who are not us, who are “Other”: others who did not go to elite schools, who clean your condo elevators every morning, who may not understand basic English, who may not even read this article, who wear “Bong Revilla” shirts and sell sampaguita in the streets, who watch primetime telenovelas as they iron your clothes.
In short, “bobotante” is another shot at the masses by the middle- and upper-class who rest comfortably in the privilege afforded to them by a system that excludes the poor but benefits the rich. Elections a bust? Blame the masses; they’re “uneducated” and stupid. Drugs in your community? Blame the tambays in tattered clothes; propose their eradication. Traffic bringing you down? Blame buses, blame desperate commuters, blame jeeps; suggest anything but dignified public transportation. See the pattern there?
Blaming the poor is convenient and lazy, just like how we may dismiss rallies and street protest as lazy. “Lazy is easy,” wrote Marrian Pio Roda Ching in 2017, in a rebuttal against calling people who join mobilizations “lazy.” “Lazy is refusing to take part in the people’s struggle,” she continued, “and choosing to quietly surrender our rights to the ruling class.”
Working with NGOs and talking to strangers on the street taught me this: that the poor are anything but lazy, anything but stupid. They are tired, they are hungry, and they want things to change. They feel this in their bones; they live every day in the hope that someone will help them overcome poverty and injustice, even as they struggle to put food in their children’s mouths, even as they struggle to live another day fighting.
Last February 2019, I met Ka Raul Ramos, a farmer in Sicogon island, Carles, Iloilo, who was able to travel to Metro Manila by way of the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, a local NGO advocating for land reform. Ka Raul, like many Filipino farmers, has almost nothing to his name.
That day I talked to him, Ka Raul was distraught. Along with other Sicogon farmers, he protested how a tourism joint venture by Ayala Land trampled on farmers’ rights in Sicogon island. He sought dialogue with the Department of Agrarian Reform, and wept with his companions before an official, recounting ordeals of violence, ejection from their homes, and usurpation of their land and resources.
Ka Raul knew the facts of their case by heart. I was pleasantly surprised that he knew the exact reference number of the Supreme Court decision that supported the farmers’ claim. He knew the dates and the number of months lapsed in the timeline of the land dispute. He articulated the legal and the moral basis of the land reform struggle.
In our disappointment, it’s easy to blame the manifestation of our failures as a people: the "eyesore," the powerless, the landless, the poor — rather than confront the uncomfortable fact that we have grown far too complicit in a system that not only concentrated power in a few, but also gave us our privilege, which too few of us use to contest those in power.
Another thing that surprised me then: Ka Raul voted for Duterte, who is often tagged as a candidate only “uneducated” voters will vote for, or in the alternative, a president whose endorsed candidates are supported by those who are not “enlightened” still.
Ka Raul wore an ID as a member of a group called “Movers of Rody Duterte,” which rallies support for the president in their municipality. He called for the president to show his concern for farmers. He demanded accountability from Duterte, even as he displayed support for him.
“Nasaan ang malasakit ng presidente? Talaga ba, totoo bang may malasakit siya sa mahihirap na tulad namin?” he asked. “Kung may malasakit siya, disiplinahin niya ‘yang mga tauhan niya, ‘yung mga alter ego niya dito sa Department of Agrarian Reform na hindi naman marunong magtrabaho.”
Ka Raul and other poor farmers taught me about agrarian reform in the Philippines more than any book or journal article ever did. He was not the first farmer I’ve ever talked to, but I only highlight this example to show how inherently flawed and insensitively cruel it is to call someone like Ka Raul an “uneducated” voter. Like many Others, Ka Raul has a voice and agency, the context of which might be difficult (but not impossible) for those in a position of privilege to understand.
Tonyo Cruz wrote in 2018 that politics is not about intelligence, but power. “We may view politicians as too smart or too stupid, but their excess or lack of intelligence is not what matters,” he writes. “What really matters is that they have power, and they misuse and abuse it — often only to benefit themselves and to prolong or expand their power.”
He adds: “We are furious because we as a people have no power.”
In our disappointment, it’s easy to blame the manifestation of our failures as a people: the “eyesore,” the powerless, the landless, the poor — rather than confront the uncomfortable fact that we have grown far too complicit in a system that not only concentrated power in a few, but also gave us our privilege, which too few of us use to contest those in power.
The poor were never the problem; poverty is merely the worst symptom of a social cancer still all too apparent but rendered invisible by our refusal to acknowledge and act on our multilayered crises: the lack of accountability in governance, eroding democratic institutions, a timid press that falls short of its role to educate and question, a repressive environment that fosters violence and intimidation, a broken justice system, the absence of genuine land reform, the continued abuse against Filipino workers, and an inert civil society yet to build a social mass significant enough to challenge authoritarian rule, among others.
We still have a long way to go. But let’s start by redirecting our anger towards what actually ails the country, as we reexamine and ask ourselves, again and again:
Who are you calling a “bobotante”?