Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Team Sarrah G. po.”
Sarrah Guino-o, a 19-year-old candidate for Sangguniang Kabataan chairperson, hands out leaflets to potential voters in Barangay Pasong Camachile II, General Trias, Cavite, at around two o’clock in the afternoon. The heat may be at its peak, but she is accompanied by seven candidates for councilor, dressed in red polo shirts, like her. Their supporters trail behind, one of them holding up a loudspeaker.
Pasong Camachile II (or PasCam Dos, as its inhabitants call it) is one of the component barangays of General Trias, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Manila. Inside the barangay, houses are arranged neatly, like a grid. The main road connects to several alleys, the insides of which Guino-o and her team enter to complete their campaign for the day.
Calling themselves “The Voice of Youth,” her running mates for councilor include Ross Apura, Pong Barrion, John Kester Gloria, AJ Obenita, Em Olvina, Jaycee Saquiton, and Sarge Serafin.
“’Pag sinabing millennial, sasabihin complacent, tamad, ganyan,” says 18-year-old Apura. As a candidate for SK councilor, he wants to change that view. “‘Pag sinabi pong millennial na kabataan, rational thinker po, magbibigay ng hope sa kabataan.”
“‘Di totoo na wala silang paki,” adds Guino-o. “Wala lang silang activities na ma-i-involve sila. Kaya kami aspiring to be SK … kasi gusto namin mag-start ng projects na mabu-boost mo ‘yung kabataan, to bring out the best in them.”
Four days before the elections and it’s the first time that Guino-o and her team are campaigning on their own. Usually, they conduct house-to-house campaigning along with the incumbent barangay captain’s slate, who are also running for office.
But Guino-o is careful to say they do not run under the barangay captain’s party, even though she and her teammates enjoy their informal support. To do so violates election rules and the SK’s newfound independence.
If you don’t recall young candidates knocking on your door in recent memory, it’s because it’s been almost eight years since 2010, the last time SK elections were conducted.
The institution has a colored history. Its predecessor, the Kabataang Barangay (KB), was abolished by the Local Government Code of 1991, but not before it was headed by Imee Marcos, who was installed in position by her father and former president Ferdinand Marcos.
The younger Marcos was KB national chair when student activist Archimedes Trajano questioned her appointment in a university open forum, was dragged out of the venue, and later found tortured and dead. In a suit filed by Trajano’s parents, a U.S. district court ruled in Trajano’s favor.
Even as the SK replaced the KB, there have been calls to abolish the former or alternatively, push for its reform.
In 2007, a nationwide UNICEF study reported that the “SK’s performance of its functions is generally weak,” specifically in terms of “coming up with legislations, submitting reports, and holding consultations with its constituents,” as well as with formulating projects that truly match the needs of the youth.
Allegations of corruption and nepotism in the SK have pushed Congress to postpone the next elections, along with the barangay elections, in 2013 and succeeding years.
In the interim, Congress passed the SK Reform Act of 2015. Under the law, the SK’s mandate includes pushing for a comprehensive youth barangay development plan, approving its annual budget, promulgating resolutions necessary to implement its plan, initiating and implementing programs for youth development, and submitting financial reports and end-of-term accomplishments to the Sangguniang Barangay, among others.
The most notable is the provision prohibiting political dynasties at this level, by requiring candidates to certify that they are not related by the second degree of consanguinity or affinity to any incumbent national, regional, provincial, city, municipal, or barangay elected official in the locality where he or she seeks to be elected.
The elections are finally pushing through on May 14, 2018, with hopes high that existing reforms will highlight its independence and make transparency a priority, and that youth leaders all over the country will take advantage of the eight-year hiatus to push for their own brand of leadership.
On the other side of the metro, the SK candidates under ‘Team Quebal’ — in reference to the incumbent barangay captain in South Fairview, Quezon City — huddle inside the session room of the barangay’s legislative office.
Led by 19-year-old SK chairperson candidate Lorraine Gañas, the team includes seven candidates for SK councilor: Bryan Gonzales, MJ Javonillo, Pipoy Mendoza, Mae Pateño, Love Perante, Kobee Tiongson, and Clet Valdez. They’re a diverse set of candidates, says 22-year-old Gonzales, who each have advocacies to focus on.
“Kami ‘yung leader na hinuhubog pa lang for the future,” says Gañas. “Kami rin ‘yung tatayo para sa susunod na henerasyon. Training ground po namin ito.”
When SK elections were postponed, youth problems in South Fairview piled up. “Patong-patong na po. Eh ‘di naman ma-focus ng barangay officials, iba po kasi ‘yung general ka sa may focus,” Gañas says.
In South Fairview, Gañas’ team cites the rising number of teenage pregnancies, instances of sexual harassment, and drug use as pressing concerns to be addressed in their platform.
What current programs lack is responsiveness to these issues. Existing youth programs, implemented through the Task Force on Youth Development (formed during the postponement of the elections) were not focused on the needs of barangay youth, says Gonzales.
“The barangay cannot address youth issues,” says 21-year-old Valdez, who runs under a platform of gender equality. Only the youth can understand issues affecting them, he adds. His running mate, 19-year-old Pateño, says this opens up the SK as an avenue for the youth to be proactive in dealing with “millennial, youth problems.”
For Gonzales, the best way to encourage youth participation is to reactivate youth organizations through a ‘barkadahan system’ — “magkakaibigan ‘yung mga nasa orgs, kaya nilang manghila ng mga tao sa kani-kanilang lugar.”
“‘Yun po ang trabaho namin talaga, ‘yung bumaba,” he says. “Hindi pwedeng lagi lang kaming nasa barangay. We have to bring the projects to the people, to our constituents.”
As of 2015, Brgy. Bambang in Pasig has a population of around 20,000. Twenty-one-year-old Raven Maraño, an independent candidate, hopes to become its SK chairperson.
“’Yung SK po kasi [sa] amin, hindi nararamdaman,” she says. “Mararamdaman mo lang siya ‘pag may liga. Pero ‘yung liga naman po, parang hindi po ganoon kaayos.”
What she wants for her barangay are youth programs beyond sports, as represented by her running mates for SK councilor, who have each assigned themselves an advocacy for the campaign: Abu Mercado for peace and order, Ian Anota for environmental protection, Flong Marquina for culture and sports, and Kyle Venzon for education.
Marquina, who is 21 years old and coaches a summer clinic in track and field, says it himself: “Hindi naman lahat [sa barangay], nagba-basketball.”
In the heat of the campaign season, they venture into the side streets of Bambang, where people idly sit outside their homes to escape the lingering humidity. Disrupting a basketball game, Maraño and her running mates shake hands, pat backs, or bump fists.
Their campaign jingle even overrides an opposing slate’s sortie at the end of an alley, but it is of little concern: they know these kids well, hug them, take photos with them.
There might be an election, but there is no conflict here. If there is conflict, it’s in how Maraño and her team feel about being affiliated with incumbent officials. Some SK officials have been alleged of being corrupt — but vulnerability to corruption may depend on who advises the would-be SK officer, says Maraño, especially in light of the old law that allowed suggestible 15- to 17-year-olds to run for office.
The new law has raised that age requirement to 18 to 24 years of age, which means candidates and winners are now legally allowed to enter into contracts and — most importantly — incur full liability for their actions, whether criminal, civil, or administrative.
But for Gonzales, whose team enjoys the support of incumbent barangay officials, vulnerability to corruption in the SK is up to the individual, especially since the SK under the reformed law enjoys a level of independence and autonomy.
As election day approaches, the three sets of candidates seem fully aware of what the SK requires of them if they win. Politics and politicking are part of the experience. How young candidates understand and navigate that will reflect on their leadership.
The 2007 UNICEF study highlighted both positive and negative effects of the SK experience on the youth. SK officers learned essential management, leadership, and decision-making skills, and gained knowledge of laws, among others; but also reported becoming “plastic (phoney or fake),” “mataray (snobbish or quick-tempered),” and becoming exposed and involved with corruption and nepotism.
For now, the SK’s potential leaders in three barangays see the value of the experience. “’Pag pumasok ka sa politics, mas marami matutulungan mo, kaya mas advantageous talaga na pumasok sa politics, kung gusto mo talaga na may magbago, may matulungan,” says 21-year-old Anota, Maraño’s running mate in Bambang, Pasig.
But Maraño asks: “Bata pa po kami. Ano ba ang alam namin sa pulitika?”