Photo: Joseph Smooke.

Along the winding pathways in Payatas, a major urban-poor community on Manila’s outskirts, election signs are plastered to the walls of makeshift homes, electricity wires rest in ruff hanging bundles, weaving down a steep hill, looking out towards the gleaming office towers of downtown Manila.

The thousands of urban poor in Payatas are among the most marginalized in the Philippines, a community constructed on scavenging, metal sheet shacks, one-storey brick homes and junk shops, clinging to a steep hillside, resting just beyond Manila’s main trash site. Thousands of tonnes of garbage are dumped each year in Payatas, creating a trash mountain that has become the engine to the neighbourhood economy, as many locals scavenge and sort garbage, selling recyclables or scrap metals for a few coins.

As an example of life of the 13 million urban poor in the Philippines, the extreme living conditions in Payatas reflect a broader reality in a country where millions of families do not have access to safe drinking water, quality healthcare or education; these millions represent a flipside to sharp figures of economic growth in the Philippines often projected in headlines of business newspapers globally.

“Payatas portrays the extreme inequities of Filipino society today, workers of the informal economy, living in conditions opposite to social justice,” says Roger Soluta from Kinundena ng Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), May 1st movement in the Philippines. “In Payatas some people are also full-time workers, often in the service sector, with wages so low that affording a family house is impossible.”

Although a distant reality from the air-conditioned halls of power in Manila, recent presidential elections in the Philippines vibrantly played out in Payatas, with campaigns running into the final hours, brightly coloured election paraphernalia fluttering in the wind, rusty trucks equipped with loudspeakers blasting music, speeding by local residents adorned with flashy signs for various candidates.

Chaotic political winds in Payatas speak to a palpable excitement in the Philippines for presidential elections that officially ended the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the most unpopular leader in the country since U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Arroyo’s deep unpopularity after almost a decade in power is fuelled by a politically lethal combination of increasing poverty, major corruption charges, and deadly human rights violations, leading to over 1,000 political killings in the past decade, harshly turning popular sentiment across the country against the outgoing administration.

The number of Filipinos living in extreme poverty is on the rise, according to official government statistics, indicating that in the past decade an additional five million have fallen below the poverty line; the poor in the Philippines now makes up over half of the country’s 94 million citizens.

“Economic injustice in the Philippines is widespread, in Payatas you have children scavenging in a mountain of garbage just a few kilometres away from upper-class gated communities where the wealthy drive around in multi-million peso SUVs, often spending more for one meal than what many families in Payatas earn in a month,” says economist Sonny Africa of the IBON Foundation in Manila.

Malacañang Palace in Manila, the seat of political power in the country, is facing growing public anger towards rising inequalities in the Philippines. Street protests calling for radical economic change are more commonplace in recent years; in 2006 the Arroyo government declared a national state of emergency to quell growing public demonstrations, allowing arrests without warrants and detention without charge.

Extending from recent political turmoil and increasing poverty in the Philippines, mainstream candidates in recent elections faced intense media scrutiny concerning corruption, while all front-running candidates publicly distanced themselves from the outgoing Arroyo administration.

“The national campaign — correctly, to our mind — has focused both on the election being a referendum on the present administration’s nine years of brinkmanship and impunity and on the alternatives being proposed to compensate for a decade of lost national opportunities for growth, stability and progress,” says a recent editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper of record in this southeast Asian archipelago.

Grassroots politics in Payatas

In Payatas, election campaigning in recent weeks has strongly focused on bringing change to Filipino society, although citizens living with almost nothing on Manila’s outskirts have seen dreams of social equality fade away after pinning hopes to traditional politicians, election after election.

In recent years, a changing political tone is stirring in urban poor communities, surrounding elections and beyond, as grassroots political movements for social change are taking root in Payatas and in similar communities across the country that cope with extreme economic inequality.

“In Payatas we suffer directly from government policies under Arroyo and many more people in our community are supporting progressive movements in past years,” says Erwin Bal, of Kilos Bayan para sa Kalusugan, an alliance of community health workers in Payatas. “We need real jobs with fair wages and also we need to immediately stop plans to privatize public hospitals because many people in our community suffer from serious illnesses resulting from our difficult living conditions.”

Driving into Payatas on a jeepney, a cheap popular transport in the Philippines, highway walls are adorned with campaign posters for traditional political parties, often driven by family dynasties, but also for parties tied to the thriving social movements in the country that maintain an immediately visible presence.

Posters reading Bayan Muna — Tagalog for “People First” — are present throughout, speaking to a complicated but interwoven relationship between progressive electoral slates and community-driven organizing in urban poor areas.

“Today we support progressive parties like Bayan Muna, because for the first time the issues we are fighting for, like public healthcare, are being addressed in the Philippine Congress,” says Erwin Bal, of Kilos Bayan para sa Kalusugan in Payatas.

Privatized election, political killings and Canada

Although voters in Payatas turned out in large numbers for the recent election, local residents, in conversation, commonly express serious skepticism towards the first automated election in the Philippines, administered by Smartmatic International Corp., a private, foreign-run multinational which was paid multi-millions to set-up the electronic vote.

Critiques directed at Smarmatic’s handling of the election are increasing. Immediately apparent on election morning was a skeletal infrastructure provided by the multinational, commonly providing only one staff member for stations registering tens-of-thousands of votes on election day. Barebones infrastructure for the automated, corporate administered vote relied heavily on underpaid hours of Filipino public school teachers, acting as Board of Election Inspectors, filling-in all the major gaps, dealing with the systematic malfunctions of electronic voting machines across the country.

Also, there are increasing claims by various political forces in the country, on all sides of the political spectrum, that the automated vote was tampered with, given various discrepancies between pre-election opinion polls and projected final vote returns, and has undermined the credibility of the election.

Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino III is projected to win a landslide victory in the presidential vote, although final results have not yet been proclaimed by the Philippines Congress, and government officials from the U.S. and E.U. have strongly backed the electronic vote despite many questions of credibility hanging in the air over Manila.

Beyond critical voices in the Philippines targeting the first fully automated elections in Asia, citizens in urban poor communities like Payatas openly speak of military-driven threats, harassment and political killings forming a deadly backdrop to both the recent election and the outgoing U.S.-backed Arroyo administration. At least 40 people were killed in the four-month run-up to the vote, according to police statistics.

In recent elections, the Bayan Muna political party, composed mainly of workers organizations, exceeded expectations, electing multiple representatives to the Philippine Congress, although grassroots triumph in the political sphere has been met with bullets as government-backed paramilitaries or soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continue to assassinate or abduct key activists from the party throughout the country.

“Military forces occupied the main daycare in Payatas last year for many months, interrogating community activists, gathering information on our community and telling people with loaded guns to not support parties like Bayan Muna,” says Payatas community health worker Ariel Delgado, also with Kilos Bayan para sa Kalusugan.

“Yes, we can vote, but we also live in fear about our voting choices if we are supporting progressive parties, so is this really a ‘free’ election?”

According to Filipino human rights group Karapatan, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, over 140 activists from Bayan Muna have faced extrajudicial assassinations tied to the AFP since 2001, findings backed-up by Amnesty International who recently concluded that “an increased number of killings of political activists, predominately those associated with leftist or left-orientated groups, have caused increasing concern in the Philippines and internationally.”

Throughout the past decade successive Canadian government have backed the Arroyo government through millions in development aid via the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), with the money often going to government administered projects. And beyond aid money from Ottawa, Canada’s Military Training Program (MTAP) has provided army personnel from the Philippines with training in Canada on “support operations, staff training and language” since 1997.

According to the Department of National Defence, military personnel from the Philippines participate in training activities in Canada on an annual basis, despite official Canadian policy guidelines barring the government from offering military support “to countries that are involved in armed conflict or whose governments have a persistent record of human rights violations.”

Leaked government documents drafted under the outgoing Arroyo administration outline “special intelligence operations” to counter the “grassroots clout” of Bayan Muna, a policy executed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) leading to hundreds of activists being disappeared or killed across the country.

Despite the deadly reality facing grassroots activists struggling for social change in the Philippines, social movements are thriving across the country.

Elections in the Philippines illustrate a rare political moment, complex political undercurrents to Filipino society rise to the surface of society. Beyond hopeful possibilities for social change found in the mass social movements in the country, it is also systematic corruption, repression and violence of traditional power politics in the Philippines that plays a major role in shaping each national election.

Stefan Christoff traveled to Manila to participate in the People’s International Observers Mission in the Philippines surrounding the May 2010 election. He is a writer, community organizer and musician based in Montreal who regularly contributes to Stefan can be found here.


Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a musician, community organizer and host of Free City Radio that airs weekly on multiple stations across Canada. X: @spirodon / Instagram: @spirochristoff

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...