Back-to-basics grassroots organizing in the time of Duterte


*Summary of my contributed essay to the worskhop organized by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines-Diliman and the Conflict Research Group of the Ghent University. The workshop’s theme is “Politics and Power in the Philippines: Towards a Contemporary Research Agenda”

Political forces vie for national dominance but it is in the grassroots where the significant battles take place.

The electoral machinery and political base of rival mainstream parties are established at the local level. Revolutionary movements build their influence in working-class communities.

The political party capable of mobilizing the support of the grassroots has the best chance of controlling not just the bureaucracy but also the initiative in setting the national agenda.

The traditional model of building support in the grassroots involves political patronage. In modern Philippine politics, this was notoriously exemplified by the government of Gloria Arroyo. It was during her term when the cash transfer program was introduced; she marshalled vast resources to sustain the loyalty of local politicians across the country; and she exercised to the maximum her presidential powers to coopt the bureaucracy.

This model of governance in the grassroots remains in place. However, two innovations in political organizing have become apparent in recent years.

First is the expanded role of civil society organizations in advancing the politics of the ruling party. It can be interpreted as a critical partnership to guarantee the delivery of goods and services in the grassroots on one hand; but it can also appear to be an unprincipled endorsement of political patronage on the other.

Second is the ubiquitous use of information tools in building a large army of political followers. Maximizing the social media for good governance has become a partisan mechanism to defend party ideology, increase the number of fiercely loyal members, and tilt (or even distort) public opinion against rival political parties and personalities.

Propagating political narratives is now an act of sustaining patronage in modern politics. In the age of Internet, this means rewarding followers who promote unity and greater divide at the same time. It is no longer enough to distribute the political largesse, members of a particular political community must be persuaded too that they are embracing a popular and winnable perspective. The ruling party expands its influence not just through pork projects but also by overwhelming the public with its weapons of mass (dis)information

President Rodrigo Duterte has already demonstrated that he is a cunning warrior in the information warfare. He is not only the chief executive responsible for the welfare of his loyal constituents, he is also the chief propagandist of his online army.

(Photo by D. Ayroso)
(Photo by D. Ayroso)

And while the propaganda war is succeeding in distracting the public, Duterte’s party is aggressively recruiting in the grassroots aimed at building a popular movement supportive of federalism. The state-directed organizing is taking place amid the bloody campaign to rid the country of the drug menace. Communities, however, are hostaged by the terror tactics of state forces.

Organized resistance should be the response against the creeping militarization in society. But the disempowering effect of political patronage, after decades of being the dominant practice in government, is now palpable in the grassroots.

The poor and unorganized were conditioned to cooperate with the bureaucracy even if it meant sacrificing some of their civil liberties like the right to privacy.

The idea of challenging the state is already alien to many who spent years if not decades assisting politicians in refocusing the energies of the people’s movement into a mere passive lobby force in the bureaucracy.

Political patronage has diluted and falsified the concept of grassroots political organizing. It promoted the erroneous idea that political action ceases when some reforms are implemented by the state. It exaggerated the impact of these reforms as if these have to be celebrated as a revolutionary moment. It is obsessed in demonizing activism as a disruptive, destructive, and even undemocratic alternative.

But it is through militant activism and collective action that we can hope to reenergize the fighting capabilities of the grassroots, in order to effectively counter impunity in society. The state is spreading fear through shock and awe extrajudicial actions; this should be challenged by radical acts of resistance by ordinary citizens.

The Left offers a programmatic approach in building this resistance. It features the solid, systematic, and swift organizing of basic sectors who are oppressed in society such as the peasants, workers, and other toiling masses. Sectoral struggles can be linked to place-specific campaigns until a powerful broad mass movement is developed.

The long-term goal is not just to encourage individual acts of courage and defiance but the collective empowerment of the grassroots.

Further, if the state is using the language of reform to justify the adoption of anti-people and anti-poor policies, then the organized grassroots should expose this deception by launching an all-out propaganda war about the justness of upholding the politics of resistance. Information tools should be used in aid of activism like the Facebook-initiated ‘Million People March’ against corruption, and not as a means to foment further fragmentation and hate in society.

A collective challenge to any rising threat to democracy is essential to defend the grassroots. A collective and militant movement, backed up by solid political organizing in the grassroots, has more potential to decisively influence the political program and priorities of any ruling party.

Concretely applied today, it means a strong citizen movement should retake the initiative in the grassroots and compel the government to rethink its political strategy. Duterte, the so-called Leftist, should not just mouth the slogans of the revolution. He should be made aware that revolution requires the constant mobilization of the grassroots to fight injustice, inequality, and other preventable miseries in society.

But grassroots organizers have to do some serious reflection about how they conduct their political work. They have to study the disturbing rise of populism vis-à-vis the uneven growth of progressive forces across the country. They have to ask why an increasing number of the alienated poor are enthusiastic in promoting the narratives of the elite. They have to be self-critical about their tactics and recalibrate the strategy to renew the vigor of the mass movement and make the language of the revolution more relevant than ever. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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