Hold a balimbing fruit by the stalk. One side will face you. Because it's shaped like a star, there are several other sides facing different directions. Twist it and the sides switch quickly, like politicians looking for the best election vehicle.
This is the closest political analysts get to explaining why balimbing means party-switching or turncoatism in the Philippines and with the May 2022 national elections barely a year away, it's peak season for candidates who are likened to the sweet-sour fruit that few crave for.
“Some believe that the fruit’s many faces --- it is segmented, giving it a star-shaped cross section --- remind of the fickleness and duplicity of Filipino politicians,” said University of the Philippines political science professor Alicor Panao.
Michael Forman’s Kapampangan Dictionary, published in 1971, also defines balimbing as “a person who backbites and says nice things in your presence but derogates you in your absence.”
Balimbing has been used to refer to turncoats even before the Martial Law era, when Philippine politics was dominated by two parties, said political science professor Maria Ela Atienza, also from UP.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos himself was one as the late strongman moved to the Nacionalista Party from the Liberal Party when incumbent Diosdado Macapagal decided to run for president in 1965, Atienza said.
“Turncoats and balimbings became more rampant after EDSA I in 1986 because we shifted from a dominant two-party system to a multiparty system. So, there are more parties to move around and it is easy for politicians to create new parties,” Atienza said.
Peak balimbing season is here
Politicial alliances switch the fastest in the run-up to national elections. Politicians usually gravitate to the presidential candidate with the highest chances of winning, with the swarm of turncoats growing larger when the victor is declared.
For presidential aspirants, it's the time to look for a party that will serve as the vehicle for their candidacies.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who ranks second among the preferred presidential candidates according to surveys, recently joined and was even elected president of the Aksyon Demokratiko party, leaving behind the National Unity Party where he was a member for at least three years.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who running for president for the second time, allied himself with the revived Partido Reporma after being an independent politician for nearly two decades. He was eventually installed as its chairman.
“It is easy for politicians to move to the party of a popular president if they think that this will benefit their political future,” said Atienza, the political analyst.
“[They also] display so-called independence or shift to another party if they think associating themselves with a lame duck unpopular president or a weak candidate will endanger their political future,” she added.
Lacson said he joined Partido Reporma as its principles align with his advocacies. Moreno, on the other hand, supposedly moved to another party because he doesn’t believe that the presidency is an inherited position. The NUP is seeking an alliance with the party of the President's daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is also reportedly running for president.
Why balimbing politics persists in the Philippines
Balimbings thrive in the Philippines due to the so-called padrino system. It's typical for politicians to switch parties because when they do, their supporters are expected to follow them, said Panao, the political analyst.
Filipinos also put too much premium on the president as a figurehead, Panao said, and this fascination prompts some politicians to go to the political party of the most viable presidential candidate come election season.
“This is why we typically see politicians create or switch parties right before the election, switch again during the midterm election, then switch anew before the next presidential election,” he added.
In 2016, right after President Rodrigo Duterte won, hundreds of politicians transferred to his PDP-Laban party and even formed a “supermajority” in Congress. The party, currently with over 100,000 members, now finds itself divided into two factions that both claim authority.
For Atienza, the lack of formal and informal punishments on political turncoatism allows this practice to flourish.
“We do not have laws punishing turncoats or political parties that do not have strong party programs of government. Political parties in the Philippines themselves do not police their own ranks,” she said.
Political parties are supposed to be the link between citizens and the state, and represent the people’s interests to be translated into policies. But if parties are formed only to allow politicians to win elections, this relationship will all go to nothing, Panao said.
“If they can win elections simply by switching parties, why would there be a need to be responsive to citizens?” he said. “Citizens will only feel more alienated and detached from the policy process.”
Should the law ban the balimbing politician?
Several bills have been introduced to prohibit political turncoatism, but many of them failed to pass the committee level in the House of Representatives.
An anti-turncoatism provision was also included in the proposed constitutional amendments of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Federalism and Constitutional Reform.
While a law banning political turncoatism would promote parties that give people actual choice, enacting one is not as easy as it sounds, Panao said.
“If current clientelistic politics suits Filipino politicians just fine, we cannot expect them to introduce reforms, do we? After all, no rational politician would sign his own death sentence,” he added.
Atienza, for her part, said putting an end to political turncoatism goes beyond just enacting a law prohibiting it.
“We also need to pay attention to reforms in the electoral and party systems as well as focus on voters education to actually promote more programmatic-based political parties and prevent turncoats,” she added.