[NOTE: This article has also been published at the Inquirer’s Eleksyon 2007 blog.]
There are two observations about the elections which at first seem disconnected but are in fact intertwined. And when you bring these two together, it points to a paradox that is disturbing for a young democracy such as ours: People are becoming more capable voters, but less people are voting.
How do we work our way out of that? Let us first go through the twin phenomena informing this paradox.
All that glitters isn’t gold
First, celebrities don’t seem to fare as well as they used to. Montano, Gomez and Pacquiao are all bankable names but apparently people haven’t been as quick to vote for them. Even Singson, who I consider a celebrity more than anything else, hasn’t fared well beyond the Ilocos provinces (the results of which would be telling once we get them). And while we have yet to see how the votes for Visayas and Mindanao shape Montano’s and Gomez’s tallies, the trend in Manila is clear and I called their defeat months ago.
Pacquiao, who took quite a beating here in my blog, is now taking a real beating from Darlene Custodio as well. My interest in that battle was not a matter of politics; I’m not voting in that district after all. My interest has been more of an observer, wanting to analyze why people such as Pacquiao persist and arguing why they shouldn’t. I admit, there is some vindication to be had here but that is meaningless until the people of the 1st district of South Cotabato find they change they seek. It just happens that Pacquiao is not one to give it.
People were wise enough not to trust a boxer who had nothing much besides hard work, discipline and an overly confident “Maybe I can do it” heading into politics. After all, in voting for popular candidates such as these, people invest their trust, a currency that hasn’t proven enough in the past to ensure political change. Look at what happened with Estrada. In closing this point, the following excerpt from an Inquirer report summarizes this aspect of the decline of populism quite well.
Educator Bro. Manny de Leon said the emerging poll results would indicate that popularity alone would not spell victory in an election. He said that Custodio was no match to Pacquiao in popularity but she compensated for that weakness by using her solid machinery.
“The political machinery of the Antoninos is still strong. They had a well-organized campaign down to the purok level and they sustained it up to the finish line,” De Leon said. “I am inclined to believe that people want nothing but real change. But we have no choice. The people are wise enough to vote for (one) who is more competent.”
According to De Leon, another drawback of Pacquiao’s political bid was the perception that he was a yes-man of Malacañang. De Leon’s view was supported by Fr. Angel Buenavides, spokesperson of the Diocese of Marbel.
The second observation to be made is the decline in the voters’ turnout which is pegged at 75%, down from 77% in 2004 and 85% in 2001. This also goes for the overseas absentee voters where there is a drastic drop from 65% in 2004 to a dismal 15% now. A caveat has to be made about the OAV however, since voter mobility (workers moving from one country to another) is one major reason why a lot didn’t get to vote.
Citing some articles now,
In the first issue of “Election Forensics 2007”, Professor Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) said the continuing decrease in the turnout of voters showed that the people are getting more disillusioned.
The cause of disillusionment, according to Tuazon, include reports of missing or misplaced names, missing precincts, unreadable master list, harassment from supporters of candidates, police and the military, and violence.
“With recent surveys showing 70-percent of Filipinos predicting the occurrence of massive fraud in the mid-term elections, there is a high probability of an increasing number of the electorate staying away from the polls. This pessimism and other factors would explain the possible low turnout in the May 14 polls,” Tuazon said.
Only 78,360 out of the 504,110 overseas Filipinos who registered for the May 14 election, or 15.5 percent, actually voted.
But Ambassador Generoso Calonge, vice chair of the Overseas Absentee Voting Secretariat, said the fact that more than half a million overseas Filipinos registered for the poll exercise was already a success.
“The election is composed of two things, registration and actual voting. The fact that 504,110 availed of the privilege to register is a big accomplishment..they may have not chosen to exercise that [voting] right but they signified their intention to vote,” Calonge said.
“The mission of government is to provide the opportunity. Like in a highway, even if there is no car passing, you provide the opportunity for a better environment for driving,” Calonge said.
Colange said the low turnout this year may have been due to the high mobility of overseas Filipinos, particularly workers, who transfer from one employment to another and from one country to another.
(source: Absentee voter turnout only 15.5% — DFA)
I think it is quite counterintuitive to argue that a decreasing voter turnout is good for democracy. Even if the results are more manageable, can one really advocate that less people vote, or worse, that only capable and intelligent voters vote? Do we allow the less determine what is good for the more? This may sound absurd but the strange thing is that there is some merit to this argument — if we were in the 18th and 19th centuries and limited suffrage to certain elites, colors, faiths and genders.
I always say that we are a young and learning democracy, but I couldn’t take myself to say that we must devolve our democracy. After all, the problem with Philippine democracy is not with the people who value it but with the institutions that manage it.
The recent elections have made this clear: Many people really wanted to vote but not many of them could. A lot of people couldn’t find their names or their precincts. And as stated in the CenPEG study, people weren’t too optimistic about how their votes would be handled. People are not pessimistic because they are simply being pessimistic; the system simply did not give them enough reason to believe that their votes mattered.
The right to vote
So people are becoming more capable voters, but less people are voting.
Now, more than ever, the right of suffrage must be guaranteed. By guaranteeing that right, it isn’t enough to “provide the highway” as Ambassador Calonge would say. That highway must have signs to guide drivers to their destinations, and should allow fueling exits and emergency shoulders. It is one thing to put up a highway, it is another to put up a highway that works. Just take the old North Luzon Expressway before and after its rehabilitation; people don’t mind paying the higher toll fees since it works pretty well.
Taking off from this metaphor now, reforming the COMELEC is a foregone conclusion. But as to why we can’t take confident strides into automating our elections is beyond me. The cynics have come to the most reasonable conclusion — that perhaps this will jeopardize many candidates’ monopoly on cheating. This is a political psychology we must simply transcend and we begin that by injecting new blood into the political system. I hope the youth catch my challenge here.
But beyond reforming the COMELEC, another solution can be gleamed from one of the most effective management dogmas: play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses. And the greatest strength of Philippine democracy would be our people. Deep down, we believe in democracy. The ethos of our political culture can be summarized in two words: People Power.
The way forward I propose is something that will take time and effort. What our general public needs is a political education that will enlighten them on various democratic process and principles. After all, half the reason why people give in to vote buying or cheating is because they cannot perceive the wrong they do when the do so. (The other half is that they need to put food on their table, so I’ll let the economy — and its support groups — do its work.)
I volunteer every election for the PPCRV and I really wish that more work be done in teaching the voters how and why they should vote since that is the first thing that comes to mind with the phrase ‘responsible voting’ (RV).
There really is so much we can do to make our elections work. Let us not allow our institutions to be the excuse why our democracy fails. In the end, it’s all about the people. Many are willing to vote, but not many can’t. I don’t know about you, but that’s half the problem solved. The real paradox here is how badly we want our democracy to work but not many are willing to pitch in.
That’s where you come in.