Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Political First

Today I would like to write about campus politics, if I may. Back in college, I too had my fair share of triumphs and a bunch of disappointments as a budding student leader. As you may well know, I hail from a place where politics is synonymous with money, racial domination, and a little bit of assassination. During my time, school politics was not much of a difference. It has all the necessary ingredients of 'real politik.' Backroom-dealing, double-speaking and yes, horse-trading too were all part of this impish game called "campus politics." No wonder why most of my erstwhile colleagues are now making their respective niches on local politics. I guess, campus politics from the ol' days really helped them a lot in terms of training and experience. As for me, I had a change of heart and landed in another field but that of course, is a different story.

The day I enter school politics was the start of my transformation. Who would have thought that I would shift my interest to academics and school politics? I was a happy-go-lucky guy. I prefer grunge music over political theories. I had no political blood running in my veins. Even my mother could not believe at first that his prodigal son had just hanged his guitar on the wall and finally said goodbye to his teenage dream of becoming a rockstar. Good grief, my political science professor saw something in me. I don’t really know at that time what she meant when she said I had the potential to excel in academics. And so she groomed me as a student leader and persuaded me to run for school senator.

At the outset, joining school politics was a perfectly natural thing for me. Some say I was destined to be a pompous school politician because of my outspoken convictions as a student. That may be true, but I was also a friendly creature according to my kindergarten teacher. But let me add a caveat. (Pardon my legalese tone) I have a monkish lifestyle. Hanging out with few friends comes once in a blue moon. For a guy who values privacy more than anything else, I’m not quite sure if I could bargain it away just like that. Entering campus politics I thought meant “plastikan” with fellow students. Although I had the ample experience of being in front of the “hooting throng,” this time it would be entirely different if not strange. For one, being on stage then was easy provided I had my signature RJ guitar with me. But I mustered enough courage this time since I don’t want to disappoint the faculty teachers of the political science department. I vowed to take the lead if only to inspire others to do the same.

I can still remember the day when the presumptuous presidential candidate invited me to join his political party. He was full of the usual platitudes befitting a traditional politico. All the while he thought I was not privy with his kind of politics. But he was careful enough with his choices of words making it appear less manipulative. I had no choice really but to support his candidacy. Apparently, it was a three-cornered presidential election with two contenders belonging to same department-the education bloc and the other from the political science department. Following the old Roman strategy of “divide et impera” or divide and rule, I thought it wise to run under the latter. And so to solidify our position, I finally said yes. It never occurred to me that our senatorial line-up was a complete mess. Most of my party-mates were better off as clowns and street buffoons. Surely I thought, even with the best decisive political strategy there’s no way we could survive the campus elections. But the Machiavellian in me sensed an opportunity to bolster my image by standing on the shoulders of the clowns, if you know what I mean.

My humble alma mater has three (3) campuses situated in three different municipalities. My decision to join a well entrenched political party was partly because of geographical consideration. Who would want to join a race without a racehorse? In political terms, that would be a sure-fire political hara kiri. And not to mention the racial profiling if you are a Christian candidate. Muslim votes comprise more than half of the voting population in my school. A political party with Muslim candidates would surely help you familiarize and reach out even to the marginalized students in the isolated areas. These factors led me to conclude that I had to blend-in otherwise I would lose the elections big time.

I practically ran for school senator under a principled and idealistic platform. Instead of the usual political blah blah, I envisioned to improve the quality of parliamentary rules in the Student Council. My idea was too remote and peculiar since students could not relate with the kind of reforms I was bound to do if elected. During campaign sorties, I took the pains of introducing parliamentary procedures and its intrinsic function in the inner workings of any legislative body. Sounding almost like a pastor in the pulpit, I explained the dual purpose of my advocacy. First, to improve the quality of deliberation and proceedings in the council, and second, to have well crafted council resolutions which would truly reflect the interests of the students. I saw to it that after my political lecture, students were allowed to ask questions which would enhance student’s participation in the process. Soon I learned the technique on how to encourage even the tamest students to speak their minds and courageously ask serious questions. I made it a point that for every classroom, I would exude the aura of an educated common man whom they could rely and approach any time if elected.

In one of our campaign sorties, I promised the students that the newly constructed building of the Student Council belongs to them-our masters. Touche! Touche! I was already echoing President Magsaysay’s populist platform. In that particular campus, I was surprised by the spontaneous reaction of the students everywhere I went. I was practically mobbed. Most of them kept on chanting my name short of a mantra. And mind you, I was only aiming for the position of school senator not the presidency. Soon I became more and more familiar with the rules of school politics. I learned to smile even with people whom I secretly hated before. I also learned the art of handshake and of course how could I forget, the eye contact. In short, I quickly developed into a traditional politician or trapo.

Finally the big day came. In some designated precincts at the main campus, I was the frontrunner in the senatorial race. Unfortunately, when the votes from the distant campus arrived, I was surprised. I didn’t get any votes! It was a clear miscalculation on my part because I failed to visit that particular campus during the campaign. I simply relied on my political party to represent my advocacy. I learned that like local politics, campus politics too requires a personal touch with the voters. You have to socialize with them, laugh with them, eat with them and help them with their personal needs as students. Advocacy can take its backseat, what matters most is your presence as a candidate. And so from top 3 of the senatorial race, I ended up on the 11th spot much to my dismay.

As predicted, I was the sole survivor of our political party. Our standard bearer, despite his superb experience in political strategy, lost his presidential bid in an unprecedented three-cornered fight. The voters simply dismissed him as someone too ambitious to become student government president. For my part, I suppose my youthful idealism helped. I convince majority of the school population about my sincerity and my desire to introduce honest-to-goodness reforms in the student council.

At the council, I was surprised to learn that I was practically alone in the wilderness. While there were three of us who belonged to the opposition bloc, the two seemed impervious to the numbers game in the council. They were more concerned with their own agenda. This however did not affect my mind-set as a robust school senator. Soon, the distribution for various committees was announced. It was the administration’s first declaration of war against the opposition. The three of us found ourselves in a ditch. I was assigned to head the inutile and nominal body called the Ethics Committee. Obviously, I was under the impression that ethics and politics can be one and the same. Every time I called for a committee hearing no one cared to appear much less attend the meetings. Sensing that I was furious over the behavior of the council members, the council secretary advised me not to take things so seriously. I let it pass hoping that my next move would be a big splash.

My first initiative then as duly elected school Senator was to review the outdated internal rules of the council. I deemed it necessary before we could get down to business seriously. But the obstinate members of the administration party shoot down my proposal by majority vote. Once again, I was completely demolished. Since most of them were already on their second and third terms as school senators, they would invoke “self-invented” internal rules to shut me up. Some even accused me of grandstanding during sessions every time I would raise settled parliamentary tenets. But I was up for the challenge. Having mastered the art of parliamentary rules by heart, I managed to score some points. In one of our council sessions, my finest hour I guess, I stood up and denounce the administration’s well-orchestrated move to discredit me. I lambasted the members of the majority for acting as rubberstamps of the council president. They listened intently and waited for their turns to hit me back but I managed to delay the proceedings until the session adjourned. This tactic went on for days. Soon, they too felt that all their proposals never reached the stage of voting because I would raise various well-grounded objections. The result would always end up in a deadlock. I was bound not to compromise my advocacy as a school senator. At the risk of calling me a “pain in the ass” I stood my ground confidently. Not until the timely intervention of the council president. He was quite influential being the son of a local public official. More than that, he had the unwavering support of no less than the incumbent Congressman at that time who for some reason, was very much concerned with school politics.

Together with his parrot-like executive secretary, the Council president paid me a visit at my residence. After a few beating around the bushes conversation, he made his point almost directly: “I want you to join my administration.” Sounds like the “real thing” Isn’t it? Politely, I laid down my position on the crisis besetting the Council. I expressed my frustrations over the actuations of majority of the members, who were his cohorts in the Council. Initially I said that we could never perform our job as Council members because the majority was more concerned on party affiliations than principles. I made it clear to him that all I really wanted was to elevate the stature of the Student Council as a premiere student organization. But more than this, I expressed my intention to make the Council a highly-competitive student body not only within the province but also all throughout the region. It may sound a far-fetch idea but I sincerely believe that with all the kidnapping and killing incidents reported in the media, all we could do to help our province was through academic ventures. But how could we do this I ask, since the majority refuse to support my ideas in the Council. He agreed and offered his hand as a gesture of unity. Then I proposed a compromise, sort of a win-win solution for the opposing sides. As a council member, I was fully aware of the privileges attached to my position as school senator. I vowed to use it in order to advance my advocacy. In exchange for my conditional support, he promised to approve and provide adequate funds for every school-related regional seminar during his term. For me, it was our opportunity to compete academically with other reputable schools within the region. This would also help boost our morale as true blue Basilenos in the field of academics.

True to his word, Mr. President brought unity within the council. Except for a few parliamentary outbursts, sessions were now more dignified and peaceful. The quality of deliberations too improved because of my persistence to raise the standards of council debates. From then on, the Council became a pro-active student organization. Later, owing to the nature of our position, we were also handpicked to represent our school in various academic seminars within the region. Most of the time, we would go head to head with student leaders from different universities and colleges in Mindanao. Each and every encounter would be intense, exciting and challenging. Because of our legislative training in the Council, I earned the monicker as the “outstanding parliamentarian” in one of the seminars we have attended. These were only some of the Council’s modest achievements in a span of one year but it really meant a lot to me. It was, after all, the reforms I envisioned for my humble alma mater. I just hope that the seeds we have planted fell on fertile grounds and will ultimately bear fruit in the years to come.

Indeed, experience is a great teacher. I learned so much about politics because of this brief yet exciting experience. For one, I am glad that during my journey as a student leader I never compromised my principles and ideals in favor of personal gains. I managed to come out of the snake pit called “politics” unscathed, uncorrupted and morally intact. But of course, that was school politics. I still keep in touch with some of my friends who are now enjoying the real game of fame and power. I must admit though, that some influential quarters in our town encourage me to throw my hat in the political arena for next year’s local elections. I suppose they think, and I agree with them, that youthful idealism will help foster the much needed reforms in the local political landscape.. But I turned them down for personal reasons. After years of contemplation, I still prefer to work in the academe and hopefully join the noblest profession someday. (And earn the much coveted A-T-T-Y before my name!) I have made my choice, and I know it is the right one. Till next time!