(An international election monitoring organization asked for a writing sample on the topic of Philippine elections. This was it.)
The good news is that, unlike many of its Asian neighbors, the Philippines has long transcended most of the traditional challenges faced by prospective voters that many international treaties and agreements have set to eradicate. With the exception of several areas in Mindanao and the mountain regions where religious and tribal gaps remain strong, the country, at least most of it, has almost no problem as to the participation of every gender, age, and economic class during elections.
However, the bad news is that, though the Philippines has long embraced modern/Western views and methods regarding citizen participation in nation-building, the country seems to have devolved into a cautionary tale of a democracy gone haywire. The country has long been criticized by some of its neighbors (particularly Singapore) for having a democracy that is too freewheeling and rambunctious. This is difficult to accept but they may have a point. Most of us Filipinos are very outspoken and are very much aware of our rights as citizens, but many people think that we sometimes go overboard in upholding them. For example, while the world hailed the first EDSA revolt of 1986 as oppressed citizens fighting back, the same people frowned upon the second EDSA revolt of 2001 as “mob rule,” a “bad habit.”
Throughout our history, Filipinos have withstood foreign invasions, slavery, natural calamities, man-made disasters, even our own governments. Because of this, Filipinos have developed a strong outer shell, a resilient attitude towards difficult challenges. This is good because we feel positive that we can take anything thrown our way.
However, the evil twin of this resilience is an attitude of many Filipinos that rules are there to be gotten around or to be broken. Many people do not trust the government (they cannot be blamed) and have accepted the idea that the system is corrupt, and that rules and regulations are there to con them, so let's buck the system and give it to the one in power! In government agencies, many rank and file employees have no qualms committing petty graft and corruption in the belief that their higher-ups are doing the same – with much more money (plus the knowledge that they can't get fired from their jobs). Sadly, this cavalier attitude towards rules and laws has led to the debasement of political processes in the country, not excluding those pertaining to elections. Laws, rules and their technicalities are being used and twisted by lawmakers to basically get what they want, for their personal ends. Right now, the biggest issue in the country is the possibility that no elections will happen in 2010, because lawmakers allied with the President ganged to railroad a bill making possible the changing of the Constitution, which could enable them to extend their terms of office.
The people’s acceptance that the system is corrupt has also led to apathy. Many Filipinos have become willing players to political shenanigans during election time. There is a pervasive attitude that “whoever wins, the government is going to remain corrupt, so let’s just cash in.” Poverty remains a key player during elections, and of course, many politicians are really not too keen on eradicating it, when during campaign season, a hundred pesos or a bag of rice can easily secure votes, especially in the slums.
Poverty also breeds ignorance. Celebrities with dubious administrative potential routinely win elections in the Philippines. Entertain the masses, shake their hands, and they’ll vote for you. The poor and ignorant are easily sweet-talked by politicians, that they’ll vote for the first person who promises them uplift from poverty and misery, however hollow the promise rings.
So can these all be fixed? It will be an extremely difficult and long process, but I still believe it can be done. As may be obvious by now, simple election observation or even performance monitoring (though they would help) are not enough. It will be a huge undertaking that should include improving the laws of the land, the educational system, but most importantly, the way people think of themselves and their country. The government should lead this effort, but first we need a truly good leader; not just somebody with sterling credentials and potential but with a strong political will to change the country for the better. That’s probably the easy part. The most difficult part is for the people to change themselves and how they see themselves as citizens of the country. Follow simple rules. Think for the common good. Volunteer. It is difficult to break bad habits and to remove the burdens of history. The process will take decades at least, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.