Students ask, “Is voting for ‘abstain’ democratic?”

I’ve been commenting on Pisay’s student council elections as far as I can remember. Two years ago I wrote Political Science High School which detailed my reactions to the Pisay student leadership culture, and last year was Failing Democracy which was my definitive take on all the controversies that happened last year. I assume that all involved parties — including me because of my comments here on the blog — have moved on since then.

I admit that I have very high standards when it comes to student involvement and leadership. I’m also aware that my opinion tends to make waves, and so I’ve taken it upon myself to take the role of the ‘grumpy old pundit’ when it comes to these things. After all, these are student council elections. There is simply no reason for this to matter more to me than it should to the students.

That said, I’d like to reiterate what I’ve already said last year.

Student governments have but one common purpose – to teach students how to run themselves. More important than having a credible slate of candidates is that the students value the process of electing leaders into power. This process includes the actual practice of voting (which must be technically sound) and the act of choosing the leaders (which must be judgmentally sound).

In the next paragraph I added that elections must be free, fair and competitive although I didn’t detail what I meant. This year, I would like to elaborate on what that means. And perhaps by doing so I get to answer one of the most frequently asked questions to me this year, “Sir is it okay to vote abstain?” Answering that question requires us to not just look at the candidates, but at the election itself.

First, elections must be free. Voters must be able to vote free of any form of coercion. In a school setting, I completely disagree that students must be required to attend forums or to vote in the elections. As much as we want our students to participate and “experience democracy”, we simply can’t force them because that won’t be democratic. The contest should be sufficient reason enough for students to join and thus if they don’t want to, then there’s something wrong with any of the following: how the elections are designed, how the campaigns are held, or even who the candidates are.

Second, elections must be fair. In this regard, the current Student Alliance (SA) and the Student Alliance Election Board (SAEB) are incredibly responsible. To say that elections are fair, the SA must lower the ‘barriers to access’ which includes allowing the most number of eligible (meaning reasonable) people to run. Requirements must be neither too high nor too low. One simple measure of fairness would be in the number of petitions begging the SA to allow one candidate to run or not; considering the near-zero petitions we get, I would say our elections are pretty fair.

Moreover, candidates should be allowed to campaign on equal ground. This includes providing for guidelines that would make low-financed parties reach as much voters as high-financed ones. No two political parties are completely equal, and thus the SAEB must ensure that they more or less become equal. Perhaps, a large factor here is that the contest must not be prejudiced to any one side. There must be no judgments or pronouncements made by any person or group influential in the activity that would favor one side or the other. All candidates must feel that they are given a fair shot.

Lastly, elections must be competitive. This point pertains to the candidates themselves. As a rule of thumb, every contest must have at least two political parties. In qualifying elections as competitive, the voters must feel that they have a choice and the candidates must feel that they are viable choices. An election where a candidate feels that he/she stands no chance against another candidate is incredibly uncompetitive. On the other hand, an election where no one can say who will win is incredibly competitive; case in point the contest between Arcie Bernardo and Guio Oblepias last year. That was perhaps the most competitive election I’ve ever seen.

However, I have noticed that the PSHS Main Campus has a tradition of one-party dominance. I’ve seen this in the elections for ’07 (with Egg Aherrera) and then again this year for ’09 (with Quintin Eusebio). What causes this? Often, there is the prevailing notion that this single candidate is unbeatable and so, no one else would bother to run against him/her. This is understandable. The PSHS community is small and people get to know each other quickly. By the time the juniors move into their senior year, they are aware of what their batch mates are capable of.

Nonetheless, I am boggled by this phenomenon whenever it occurs on the Student Alliance level. Voting for those positions is school-wide, meaning freshmen to juniors get to vote. Often, the assessment that one candidate is too powerful to be beat is made more at the batch level and only secondly at a school-wide level. It is definitely conceivable that the fight can still be won by courting the incoming sophomores and juniors.

Moreover, running a one-party contest is even more difficult because, quite simply, your opponent is yourself. In two-party contests, some votes factor in the ‘dislikability factor’ — if the voter doesn’t want one party, they would go for the other. However when it’s you alone, it’s just you and abstain. And abstain is quite the temptress.

This comment is not meant to disparage those who dominate in single-party contests because they are well within their right and capability to do so. On the other hand, this comment is meant to challenge those who know themselves as leaders but don’t find the motivation or the drive to run. When the chances come, make your own opportunities.

That said, I am incredibly excited for the contests for Batch ’10. I am impressed by the line-ups and I think we will have an interesting election. This passes my three criteria — free, fair and competitive — and should raise the standards for future contests and the others that run together with it. Let’s see how it goes and may be best candidates win!

So is voting for ‘abstain’ democratic?

After having qualified what elections are all about, I would say yes. However, I don’t recommend rushing to write that word down. My only advice is that if it comes to making that choice, make sure you know what you are abstaining for. While I think there really is no reason to abstain since we have a relatively good slate, you may see something I don’t. Just bear in mind the three criteria for democratic elections and you decide whether casting that vote will be free, fair and competitive for you.

Good luck to all the candidates and may everyone get the leaders they deserve!


4 thoughts on “Students ask, “Is voting for ‘abstain’ democratic?”

  1. People vote for the candidate, not for the candidate’s ideas. This prejudice can never be removed so I think that no matter how “free, fair, and competitive” an election maybe it all comes down to a popularity contest. Joseph Estrada would be a good example.

  2. Indeed. And as long as that is true, the democracy is immature. We drew the lines between popularity and charisma in class once; the charismatic candidate will have to rely on both his character and the strength of his ideas. We’ve actually been there before. Quezon and Magsaysay are good examples.

  3. Cool Post:D/
    (Some) Many people abstain because it’s the funnest thing to vote on, or they really don’t know the candidate.Nevertheless, it will be a fairly exciting election this year.
    Good Luck to the candidates!

    Vote Wise Lee!

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