THE PHILIPPINES COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS or COMELEC takes more than a month from the date of polling to declare the results of an election. This is because of an anachronistic process, where voters have to write down their choice of candidates on ballot papers - sometimes up to 28 names for the Senate, Congress and the local government. Close to 70 per cent of the registered voters, some 31 million people, participated in the May 14 national elections to 250 seats in the National Congress and to half the seats in the 24-member Senate. At the same time, they voted to elect over 17,000 people — from Provincial Governors, Mayors and Deputy Mayors to Councillors — in local governments.
The counting is even more cumbersome. At every precinct (booth), the ballot papers are read out and the votes for each candidate marked on a huge tally sheet. The tally lists from different precincts are then taken to the local administrative centre, the provincial headquarters and the national capital for checking.
Says Ruben Canlas, an IT specialist, writing for the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism: “When it comes to new consumer trends and communication technology, we Filipinos are always at the cutting edge. Our fashion mimics the latest from the West. We quickly took to texting, blogging and Friendster. The children of our wealthy and middle-class families sport iPods and PSPs [PlayStation Portable], while the rest of us use hi-tech mobile phones to vote on Philippine Idol and play SMS contests. Ironically, while we have toppled government leaders by texting, we cannot seem to use technology to vote them in place. Our electoral system scores very low in the evolutionary ladder, second only to the plastic ballot boxes I recently saw being used in Africa, and voting by a show of hands.”
This messy, complicated process of counting the ballots, a process prone to fraud and misuse, is ironically termed ‘canvassing’. In most countries, ‘canvassing’ is used to describe campaigning. This peculiar inversion of terminology inadvertently refers to the possibilities of ‘fixing’ the count after the vote is cast and what the Filipinos refer to as ‘dagdag bawas’ or vote padding and deducting. It is ironic that people in a country which has seen a long-drawn-out and successful struggle against the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos should two decades later use a process conceived to allow ‘electoral victory’ to him and his cronies.
In the post-Marcos era, the electoral process has been steadily subverted and sapped of its vitality, mainly by the elite who knows that any strengthening of democracy will threaten its political and economic space. All this takes its toll on the social and economic development of the country, giving it a permanent place as the poor cousin among the South-East Asian economies and further undermining the democratic credentials of its institutions.
All elections, whether free and fair or fraudulent and violent, are still votes of confidence on ruling dispensations. The counting of the ballots for the May 14 elections is almost over, and the results are an indictment of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She is slated to have control of Congress (the lower house), but candidates opposed to Arroyo have won 10 of the 12 Senate seats. Two of them were imprisoned for plotting coups d’etat. The first is a former navy lieutenant in his thirties, Antonio Trillanes, considered one of the leaders of the Oakwood Mutiny in July 2003. He contested the election from prison. The other is Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, a legendary military officer who played a crucial role in the overthrow of Marcos; he is out on bail. He was also the leader of several coup attempts against former President Corazon Aquino.
Even Ed Angara and Joker Arroyo, the two candidates in President Arroyo’s list known as TU for Team Unity, are not her sympathisers. Joker Arroyo (no relative of the President) is her former spokesman and Ed Angara, a former president of the University of the Philippines.
In the eyes of her opponents, Arroyo had already lost the confidence of the people in the 2004 presidential election, which she won allegedly through fraudulent means. Consequently, the 2007 elections were only a means of getting the requisite number of seats in Congress, about 82 or so, to start the process of her impeachment in the Senate. This may sound strange, even bizarre, to outside observers. The fact is that the obsession with impeachment of Presidents has bedevilled the Philippines. A section of the opposition in the recent elections was called Genuine Opposition (GO), supported by former President and movie actor Joseph Estrada, who is in detention awaiting a verdict after impeachment. The opposition camp neither was united nor had any common platform, but worked on the single agenda of making the elections a referendum on Arroyo’s administration and, if the gamble worked, of starting her impeachment.
In the Philippines, personalities matter more than issues or platforms in elections. These personalities could move from one camp to the other, once the results are announced and the legislative business begins. This is because of a ‘pork-barrel’ system of privileges and lucrative positions on Congressional and Senate committees for elected representatives. Among those supporting Arroyo, including the political entities KAMPI and LAKAS controlled by her, was the popular boxer Manny Pacquiao. Also contesting were movie stars and two of Arroyo’s sons and a brother-in-law. Pacquiao lost and so too did many showbiz personalities who were administration-supported candidates.
The political governance system shaped in the post-Marcos era and during the time of Corazon Aquino has not encouraged a robust political party system to end the personality-entrenched politics. Neither do traditional politicians, otherwise referred to as ‘trapos’ (doormat in Filipino), want to encourage a party system.
Candidates and political parties in the Philippines are essentially part of oligarchic, clientelistic family groups. Says Joel Rocamora, Research Fellow and former Executive Director of the Institute for Popular Democracy: “Success in Philippine politics is relative, it depends on who your relatives are.” Close to half the elected members of Congress in 2004 came from political families.
A study by Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism says, “In 1962, only 27 per cent of representatives were classified as upper class. In 1992, it was 44 per cent. Over time, the assets of legislators have grown. In 1992, the average net worth of Congressmen was Peso 8 million. By 2001, it was Peso 22 million. In the Senate, the average net worth increased from Peso 33 million in 1998 to Peso 59 million in 2001. A quarter of all Senators (in 2004) have a net worth of above Peso 100 million.”
In another study on the Philippines electoral system by the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines, Edna Co and her team say, “The demographic profiles of the electors and the elected could not be more mismatched... The typical Filipino, meanwhile, is likely to be below 35 years old with a few years of high school education, [and] an annual income of about Peso 150,000.”
Says the study: “These glaring contradictions illustrate the fact that electoral politics further reinforces the marginalisation of the lower classes. If electoral contests are predominantly competitive struggles between elites, this will affect the quality of democracy in the country and the extent to which the legislature is responsive to and reflective of the needs and concerns of the electorate.”
Families, and not political parties, thus become the essential feature of elections. Sheila Coronel says the most enduring political families are the best evidence of this. “The Aquinos and Cojuangcos of Tarlac, the Osmenas of Cebu, the Romualdezes of Leyte, and the Marcoses of Ilocos Norte, among others, have been in the Philippines legislatures for four generations.”
A post-Marcos Constitution in 1987 tried to put restrictions on the number of terms a person can hold elected office but political families rotate the seats within the family through a network of clans and patron-client arrangements. They hold their sway in national politics and, through that, the economic policies of a feudal agricultural country. They can do this, for instance, by blocking the implementation of legislation such as land reforms.
The Philippines is a classic case study of the connection between democracy, equity and economic efficiency in an Asian country. The ills of its democracy are linked to a systemic bias against equity, which in turn produces a sick economy living off its poorest members, including migrant workers who contribute to a major share of the foreign exchange earnings. India has lessons to learn from the Philippines as to why deep-rooted social instability and spiralling violence result when a democracy blocks equity to favour its elites.
Political families both at the national and local levels have their economic interests. Among those who represent top political families in the Philippines is Eduardo Danding Cojuangco, (a cousin of former President Cory Aquino) who was known as the “coconut king” during the time of Marcos and fled with him to exile in Hawaii. He is widely suspected to have been part of the Marcos conspiracy to murder Benigno Aquino, the husband of Cory Aquino.
Cojuangco owns thousands of acres in the provinces and the islands, and manages business empires in faraway places such as Australia. During the reign of Marcos, using coconut levies from small farmers, he bought up shares of the San Miguel Corporation, the maker of the famous San Miguel beer, of which he is now the chairman. The Philippines courts have for long tried to get the assets back to the small farmers but he has fought it while at the same time trying to gain political power. He unsuccessfully ran for President against Fidel Ramos in 1992. Even local clans have their own economic interests — private bus companies, rural banks, fishing fleets and licences for quarrying. These clans also control the local media and, by their control of Congress, pack the civil service with their appointees. The lower levels of the bureaucracy are ill paid and corruption is built into it.
The 1987 Constitution tried to introduce some measure of local development in a highly centralised form of governance. The local governments have little or no revenue base and are dependent on support from the Central government for which the elected Congressman becomes the broker. If one is against the administration in Manila, one cannot get money.
Based on intense campaigns by civil society organisations, the 1987 Constitution provided for what is called a Party List system. This was anchored on principled politics apart from providing space to marginalised groups. By this, every 2 per cent of the votes cast nationally would earn political parties or groups one seat in the House, up to a maximum of three seats. But in the process, the Party List system formally marginalised the parties and groups and thus indirectly blocked them from emerging as part of a more vibrant political system. This has further entrenched political dynasties in the system; legislation to prevent this exists but is not implemented.
At the local level, the entry of wives, children and relatives increases clan rivalry and violence, especially during elections. The situation was worsened by the decision to hold local and national elections simultaneously. All this in a country where underground groups such as the New People’s Army and its breakaway factions and private security guards tote guns freely. It is in this background that constitutional mechanisms such as COMELEC function. Its task is to create an atmosphere for free and fair elections, and provide a favourable climate for the poor and the marginalised to cast their votes. This can hardly happen in much of the countryside, where powerful candidates on whose lands the poor live threaten them with, ‘Vote or Gabut’, meaning Vote or Get Out.
Simply said, serious structural reforms are urgently needed and every delay only brings more disaffection. A sense of resignation has increased among ordinary people and their only hope is in a regime change through a military coup. All discussions on the future of democracy in the Philippines end up discussing the chances of a military coup. In these yearnings for coups that will cleanse the political and economic system lie a sad reflection of Asia’s oldest democracy and a country abundant with natural and human resources.