OFW votes could give Marcos a win

Bongbong Marcos

Bongbong Marcos

This column appeared in Arab News on May 15, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

National elections in the Philippines, which took place on May 9, are producing surprising results. In the presidential race Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, and a politician with a mouth like Donald Trump, has won the race with 15,709,136 votes, against the 9,663,869 votes of administration candidate Sen. Mar Roxas.

But it is in the race for the vice presidency where things are tight. With 95 percent of the votes already counted, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was initially leading, but then on the 10th was surprised by the overtaking of Rep. Leni Robredo. At the time of this writing, Robredo leads with 14,012,780 votes against 13,797,137 votes for Marcos, a difference of only 215,643 votes. The more than 400,000 votes of Overseas Filipino Workers are just being tallied now, and Marcos is leading in that part of the poll.

As of Saturday morning, Marcos had garnered 156,123 votes from OFWs, against only 84,144 votes for Robredo. This gives Marcos an edge of 71,979 among the OFW votes. If the trend continues, this would give Marcos a comfortable margin in beating Robredo.
To a casual observer from outside the country, it may seem that the Marcos family is only now returning to power, but in reality this has been going on for many years. Bongbong’s father, Ferdinand, was an intelligent and charismatic lawyer from the north, who was elected congressman in 1949, and then re-elected three times. In 1959 he was elected to the Senate, and in 1965 was elected president of the Philippines. In 1954 he married Imelda Romualdez, a beauty queen and singer from Tacloban, who won Marcos with her beauty and lovely voice. It was she, with her relentless ambition, who encouraged and pushed her husband to steal billions from the country during their 21 years of conjugal dictatorship.

Leni Robredo

Leni Robredo










In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos decreed martial law, suspending the constitution, closing Congress, jailing political enemies and seizing profitable businesses for himself and his cronies. Philippine Airlines, ABS-CBN television network, the Manila Electric Company and the PLDT phone company were all snatched by Marcos and his close friends. To hide this wholesale robbery, Marcos put many of these companies in the name of his allies.

Just as in the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in Brazil, more than 300,000 Filipinos were arrested, tortured and many of them killed for opposing the dictatorship. The People Power Revolution in 1986 ended the dictatorship of the Marcoses, with the whole family fleeing to Hawaii.

But Bongbong was the first in his family to return to the Philippines in 1991 and was elected congressman. He had been deputy governor and governor of Ilocos Norte province during the dictatorship, so his return to politics was relatively easy. His mother, Imelda, soon also returned to the country and was also elected to Congress. Bongbong was elected to the Senate in 2010.

Through the massive corruption of the Marcos couple, it is estimated that a total of $10 billion was looted from the country, and the following democratic governments were able to recover only a small fraction of this stolen wealth. Nevertheless, there has always been a very solid base of Marcos supporters in the electorate. These people believe that the Marcoses did many good things for the country and its people, claiming that they built much of the modern infrastructure that the country has today.

Yet despite these hardcore Marcos supporters, there is a larger portion of the population that was and still is against the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. But they have found the forgetfulness and willingness to forgive easily of many voters as their biggest obstacles to stopping the nation from forgetting the violent excesses committed from 1972 until 1986.

To add to the horror of the critics of the Marcoses has been the new generation of voters, those born after the end of the dictatorship. Most of these voters do not have a negative view of the Marcoses, believing that Ferdinand did much good for the country by leading it with an iron hand. Therefore a group called the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang recently produced a dramatic video in which young voters were filmed talking about what they thought of the dictatorship years in front of people who were tortured and raped by the regime. When these victims reveal what happened to them, the young voters are stunned and amazed, and some even break down and cry, asking for forgiveness for their mistaken ideas.

But should we hold a son responsible for the sins of his parents? The Philippine electorate will have to decide that. But from the votes coming in, it seems they are ready to forget and forgive, placing Bongbong that much closer to the presidency.


Saudi women set to make their mark

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

My interview with Al Jazeera English about Saudi municipal elections

This is the interview I gave to Al Jazeera English on August 30, 2015, about the upcoming Saudi municipal elections: 

Saudi women making their mark

Saudi women register for municipal elections in Riyadh in August 2015. (SPA)

Saudi women register for municipal elections in Riyadh in August 2015. (SPA)









This is my column that was printed in Arab News on August 30, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

This year marks 10 years since the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia restarted in 2005. It also marks 10 years since I voted for the first time in the Kingdom, hopeful that this would herald the beginning of a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day running of our cities.
The reality was far different, with lackadaisical candidates being elected to the councils across the country, and after the initial euphoria of the elections it seemed most people promptly forgot about their local councils.
In Jeddah the municipality embarked on a super-ambitious urban planning scheme of building tunnels, flyovers and bridges to cope with the ever-growing volume of road traffic. After years of annoying and often frustrating construction detours, Jeddawis are enjoying the fruits of such planning, whizzing around the city in greater comfort.
Of course, public transportation options are still very poor but with the planned metro, things should improve immensely. Riyadh on that front is already ahead with construction of its metro well under way.
Perhaps these municipal councils may have seemed rather boring in their obsession with urban planning concerns since these have traditionally been male concerns. And although these councils did have meetings that were open to the public, engagement with the electorate was sparse and not very rewarding.
Until this year Saudi women were not allowed to vote or run as candidates in the elections, but this year they are doing so.
Already foreign commentators have tried to diminish this achievement by saying that the councils don’t really do much to begin with. But we must ignore these usual Kingdom-bashers, who will never be pleased by anything we do.
For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each! What kind of exploitation wage is this?
It is outrageous that anyone, whether Saudi or not, can be paid that in our country and be expected to survive on it. It is impossible. There is a great need to debate a minimum living wage for all workers in our country. By all means allow higher wages for Saudis, but have a decent minimum wage that serves for everyone, with no exceptions.
I remember interviewing a candidate for the Jeddah council in 2005. He was a well-known businessman, had studied in the United States along with his wife, and was religious. When I asked him if he could work alongside women on the council he said “no,” maintaining that a woman’s makeup and perfume would be too distracting. I was surprised by his reaction, but times have changed and these same women are now both running for office and voting too.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs. May the best and most qualified ones win!


The first time for millions of Egyptians

This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 23, 2012, edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

For the first time in 56 years, millions of Egyptians voters will be able to elect their president in democratic elections on May 24 and 25. Until now, Egyptians could only elect a president not through a multi-candidate election, but in a referendum in which they voted yes or no for a single candidate. Thus, Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected with 99.9 percent of the vote in 1956, and Hosni Mubarak elected five times in similar referendums until his overthrow in a popular revolution last year.

With a population of 85 million, and an electorate of nearly 52 million, Egypt has always been a power in the Arab world, especially in the areas of military strength, culture, education, and movies. It is not for nothing that people call Egypt in Arabic  “Umm Al Dunia” or “Mother of the World.” But with the overthrow of the dictator Mubarak and his secular party, the National Democratic Party, the political landscape was opened fully to the religious parties, previously banned for decades.

In recent parliamentary elections, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party for Freedom and Justice, banned until last year, and the Salafist parties, which are even more conservative, won an overwhelming majority, leaving the secularists and Christians afraid of what may come in the future. But it is foolish to believe the scaremongers who say that Egypt will ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages, will not let women wear swimsuits on the beaches and break off relations with Israel if the Islamists win the presidency. Several officials of the Muslim Brotherhood have said that despite not liking the Jewish state, they will not break the peace treaty signed by President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

And it is this pragmatism that the Islamists have which should calm the fears of the secularists and Christians. After all, tourism is a major source of income in the country, rendering Egypt a record $11 billion in 2008, when 12.8 million tourists visited the country. The Islamists must take into account that denying a frosty beer to that European or American tourist, after a long day of visiting the pyramids, would cause more damage to the economy than would be gained in moral points.

Egyptian voters will have a wide range of choices for the post of president, with at least 300 people trying to become candidates. Independent candidates will have to collect at least 30,000 signatures of voters from all provinces, or the support of 30 parliamentarians, so that their names appear on the ballot. But with the deadline for signatures only on April 8, there is still much speculation of who will run or not, and the Brotherhood announced that it would not reveal their choice for candidate until the deadline for the registration of candidates.

Still, we know the names of some candidates, like Amr Moussa, a career diplomat who was minister of foreign affairs (1991-2001) and head of the Arab League (2001-2011). He is well known both in Egypt and abroad, but may suffer from being associated with the Mubarak regime. He leads the polls with 26% of respondents choosing him as the future president of Egypt in a 2011 poll.

In the Islamist wing, the candidate who draws the most attention is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is a doctor by training. He spent, in total, more than six years in prison for opposing the policies of presidents Sadat and Mubarak, and stood out when he led the union of doctors, traditionally a stronghold of the Brotherhood. He is attracting the support of more traditional voters, as well as the support of younger ones, and even feminists and leftists. He has championed the need for complete civilian control of military and upholding civil rights.

And it is the all-powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which many Egyptians are watching with concern, hoping that they let the people decide who will rule them for the next five years. Many fear that the SCAF wants to have the last word on questions of governance, and that it will help politicians linked to the old Mubarak regime to stay in power.

We cannot emphasize enough how important this election will be not only for Egyptians, but also for the entire Arab world. All Arabs are closely monitoring this election as an important test of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. If the Egyptians manage to elect a president representing the majority of the population, and with full powers to govern, including control over the military, then yes, the Arab world will see that their revolts were worth it. They will also feel that they can see the light at the end of a dark tunnel of more than 50 years of living under dictatorships.

Brasilia’s political circus/scandal continues

A view of the windows in the room where Jose Roberto Arruda is being held in at the Federal Police compound in Brasilia. Below, a view of his bunk beds and office desk.

THE political crisis in Brasilia continues with the Federal District Governor Jose Roberto Arruda still being held at the headquarters of the Federal Police, a month after he was accused of trying to obstruct an investigation into massive corruption in his administration.

The threat of federal intervention in the governing of the Federal District has eased for the time being, with the federal Supreme Court loath to intervene in a district that was given political emancipation only in 1988.


Last week the Federal District Assembly voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Arruda. If he does not resign before the process is over, which takes several months, he could see his political rights suspended for up to eight years. Last Saturday, two district representatives tried to serve Arruda with the notice of the impeachment proceedings, but he refused to receive it, later saying in a handwritten letter to the Federal District Assembly that he wanted access to the full report on his impeachment before accepting the notification. The representatives returned last Monday with two witnesses to corroborate that they had informed Arruda of the proceedings against him, and served him with the notice.

Arruda’s lawyers have been trying to get him moved to house arrest, something the Supreme Court justices have not been inclined to allow since this would facilitate his communication with supporters, and thus possibly make it easier for him to interfere in the Federal Police’s ongoing investigation into corruption in his administration.

The governor is currently allowed visits only from his immediate family and his lawyers. His wife Flavia brings him lunch everyday, although she is not allowed to be alone with him in his room. He is being held in a room of approximately 16.8 square meters in the Federal Police headquarters compound in Brasilia. He had previously been held in a room of 40 square meters. He has access to newspapers and magazines, but is not allowed access to television or telephones. His lawyers claimed that he was being held in a “masmorra”, or a subterranean jail, which forced the Attorney General’s office to release pictures last week of his quarters which showed the room had clean white walls, a bunk bed, an office desk, a small refrigerator, a little sofa and a window.

Arruda’s lawyers have also been claiming that the governor is suffering from pains in one of his ankles, which they claim is swollen and is linked to his diabetes. Two visits to a private hospital this week found Arruda in good health, taking away yet another reason his lawyers were trying to use to push for house arrest.

The three-time former governor of the Federal District, Joaquim Roriz, who is now 75 years old, has been running political ads on television showing himself talking casually about the “shame of corruption” that is currently rocking Brasilia. Roriz is expected to run in the October elections for governor again. He has been embroiled in several corruption scandals in the past, which make his criticisms of Arruda extra ironic. Will voters here remember that when they go to the polls in October? One can only hope so.

Hey! Don’t knock Saudi municipal councils

THE surprising announcement on May 18 by the Saudi government that the second round of municipal elections, due to be held in October of this year, were being delayed for two years was disappointing and discouraging.

The timing of the announcement was awful: The day after four women were elected to the Kuwait Parliament for the first time ever. This provided fodder for the usual Saudi bashers, such as Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawey, who likes to whine about how awful the kingdom is, and feels she is an expert on the country because she lived in Jeddah for a few years while growing up and was forced to ride in women’s section at the back of public buses.

In a recent Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Eltahawey wrote that the women winning in Kuwait was what scared the Saudi leadership into postponing the municipal elections for two years.

I’m sorry to burst her bubble, but the Saudi bureaucracy is hardly that organized or quick on its feet to be able to react to such news so fast! In typical Saudi fashion, no regard was given to how such an announcement of the delay in elections would seem to the whole world coming so soon on the heels of the Kuwait outcome.

The official reason given for postponing the elections was so that they could be improved and expanded. The word ‘improved’ does not mean much to me as it can mean many different things. But ‘expanded’ carries many positive possibilities such as making all of the 14 seats on each of the 178 municipal councils up for election (currently only half are elected, the other half appointed by the government), or the inclusion of women on the councils, something that Saudi women have been asking for since 2004.

It has also unfortunately become fashionable to bash the councils for being allegedly useless and a waste of time. “By the accounts of several activists, those local councils are useless,” writes Eltahawey. But when was the last time that she was in Saudi Arabia or spoke to any municipal council member about their work?

From the interviews I have had with the elected head of the Jeddah Municipal Council in the past, I can say that my hometown council has been able to achieve many of its objectives. The major one that I saw with my own eyes just last month is the masterplan to build a ring road around the whole city and the addition of dozens of overpasses and underpasses at all major intersections in order to alleviate bottlenecks and make traffic flow smoother in the whole city. Of course, since the project is around halfway done, there is still major construction going on, which in some cases severely slows down traffic as cars and trucks are squeezed through narrow thoroughfares. But one can clearly see that by the end of next year, Jeddah’s overall traffic flow will be fantastically improved.

I was looking forward to the 2nd round of municipal elections as a way to assess what these councils have done well, and where their performances could be improved. Isn’t that the whole purpose of democracy is to begin with? Those who performed poorly could be voted out of office, and those who did well and wanted to continue their work could be re-elected.

What frustrates me the most is the way the Saudi government is so opaque and seemingly arbitrary in many of its decisions. Why wasn’t a public dialogue started about the performance of the councils? Delaying the new elections for two years without any good explanation just makes it seem like they are afraid of holding them again. The whole point of elections are that they are held regularly without fail and are never postponed for any reason barring a catastrophic event such as a massive earthquake, outbreak of the plague or nuclear war!

And don’t tell me that the elections were postponed because of the religious conservatives. Most of the municipal posts up for grabs were won by Islamists in 2005, so I don’t think they would oppose new elections.

The Jeddah Council regularly holds meetings with the public that any citizen can attend and talk to members of the council. So they really cannot be accused of being out of touch with popular sentiment. Yet even so, many Saudis seem to hold a grudge against the councils for not having introduced sweeping social changes. But this is I suspect a projection of their frustrations at the seemingly glacial pace at which change is taking place.

Blogger Ahmed al-Omran is one of them. In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times today on the occasion of US President Barack Obama’s first visit ever to the kingdom to hold talks with King Abdullah, he wrote: “The masses will not listen to Mr. Obama unless he also addresses the leaders who deny us basic rights. He must signal to them his intention to change the longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of America’s Arab allies. We don’t need any more nice words. Our government likes to talk about reform, but the glacial pace of change leaves young people like myself hopeless and frustrated. My friends and I always talk about leaving the country. We want to live in a place where we can be ourselves.
“I still keep the paper from my first (and so far the last) elections with the word ‘Voted’ stamped in blue ink on it. That ink has started to fade, just like my hopes for change.”

To that I say, don’t give up hope! Municipal councils are supposed to deal with mundane issues such as traffic, giving building permits and regulating local commerce. Their role is not to start a social revolution or to make decisions that can only be made by the king and his council of ministers.

Of course I would love to see women running for municipal councils and elections for at least half of the seats on Shoura Council. All of these are doable and attainable in our lifetimes. We just have to keep pressing for them and never give up. I think much of the seeming opposition to social change in Saudi Arabia comes from inertia and outdated customs. As long as reformers couch their push for change as being within Islamically-acceptable terms, there should not be much the rulers can do to stop change. Sure they can try to delay and attempt to derail it, but if we keep pressing ahead and never stop asking for our rights, then we will eventually see the change that so many of us Saudis hope and yearn for.

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