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#NasaanAngPangulo: Should Politicians be in Ground Zero of Disasters?

Tricky disaster politics, explained.
by Erwin Colcol
Dec 22, 2021
Photo/s: Office of Sen. Bong Go/VP Leni Robredo/Bongbong Marcos/Facebook

In a speech aired before midnight, President Rodrigo Duterte placed areas devastated by Typhoon Odette under a State of Calamity as tens of thousands on the ground pleaded for food and water on their fifth night without power and running water, the situation likely to remain the same until Christmas Day.

Again, #NasaanAngPangulo trended on Twitter as netizens looked for Duterte on the disaster sites after inspecting the typhoon's toll via helicopter over the weekend. His predecessor, the late President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, also experienced such scrutiny during the disasters that beset his administration, both natural and man-made.

Why is it important for some Filipinos to see their politicians in action in the aftermath of calamities? It’s because during these times of crises, people want sympathy and comfort from their leaders more than anything else, analysts said.

People look for decisive leaders who will not only mobilize resources to help people affected by any crisis but also empathize with them,” University of the Philippines political science professor Maria Ela Atienza told reportr.

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“This is something very personal to them, and no matter how good and efficient an official is in management of the crisis, people look to them to understand the situation and offer words of comfort,” she added.

Odette, the strongest storm of 2021 left 375 people killed and displaced 300,000 others, lashing the Visayas and parts of Mindanao with Signal no. 4 (171-220 kph) winds. The State of Calamity will automatically freeze prices of basic goods and allow local officials wider access to relief funds.


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The politics of disaster relief

For many Filipinos, the presence of government officials in communities affected by a natural calamity show that they care for the victims, political analyst Gerardo Eusebio said.

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“Since they are hard-hit, especially that the national government is also having a hard time assisting them, naghahanap sila ng aruga or konting lambing, konting pagtingin,” Eusebio, who teaches political science at the De La Salle University, told reportr.

More than distributing relief goods, politicians who genuinely care for disaster victims offer long-term programs focused on recovery and rebuilding, Atienza said.

“Their contributions cannot easily be seen in tarps, buildings and other physical structures, but their contributions to the recovery and resiliency of people may have a stronger impact in the lives of communities in the long-run,” she added.

While there are politicians who are concerned with the plight of typhoon victims, there are also some who show up in calamity-stricken areas to help and further their political ambitions at the same time, especially during election season, Atienza said.

“They exploit crisis or post-crisis situations in the hope of promoting themselves by going to the areas affected and presenting themselves as ‘saviors’ or people giving away assistance,” she said.

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“In some cases, this can help their visibility especially with media in attendance and further promote patronage by giving away dole-outs,” she added.

People see through opportunist politicians who don't get that warm of a welcome, she said.

“There are some politicians who actually are not comfortable mingling with people but feel obligated to further their prospects in the next elections. But people can sense or feel the lack of genuine desire to help or sympathize with victims,” she added.

However, politicians who help for votes' sake still do it for visibility, she said.

Naging batayan na yun na kung mabilis kang umaksyon, [iisipin ng tao] mas mahal mo kami. Pero kung mabagal ka, parang wala kami sa consciousness mo, hindi ka mindful sa aming napakahirap na sitwasyon,” he said.

Think of Interior Sec. Mar Roxas who, despite leading the relief efforts for Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, did not resonate well with voters enough to win the 2016 presidential race.

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“Probably it was a combination of inefficiency on the part of the personnel of DILG and the tremendous damage that Tacloban had,” Eusebio said.


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Resources matter

Sometimes, no matter how much politicians want to help calamity victims, they do not have enough resources to mount large-scale relief operations, which can be disadvantageous if they are seeking support for their political ambitions, Eusebio, the analyst, said.

May mga kandidato na pareho kayong well-meaning, patriotic, pero pagdating sa resources hindi kayo pantay,” he added.

For instance, candidates currently holding government posts are more likely to have the resources to set up donation drives than their competitors, like Vice President Leni Robredo and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno.

“I'm sure merong mga allotted funds [sa Manila] na pwedeng tumulong sa mga neighboring cities. Mas may lamang nang konti dahil meron nang resources yun,” Eusebio said.

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Lahat ng kandidato dapat mindful sila na ang ating bayan ay very prone to calamities. Dapat mapaghandaan mo yan, dapat may action plan ka sa mga ganyan,” he added.

Will disaster mitigation be an election issue?

As the country is prone to natural disasters, and with Typhoon Odette coming a few months before the 2022 elections, expect disaster preparedness and mitigation to be a key issue in next year’s campaign, Atienza and Eusebio said.

But candidates can do more than just handing out relief goods or wading in floodwaters. Assistance can come in the form of capacity-building or even through legislation, the analysts said.

“It would be good for a politician who wants to win to prepare training programs in calamity-prone areas,” Eusebio said.

For Atienza, reforming existing laws on disaster risk reduction and management should focus on empowering people to protect themselves and their communities instead of looking at them as victims in need of short-term solutions.

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“The goal should not just be to protect people with top-down solutions but to empower people and communities to work with different groups in building their DRRM skills,” she added.

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