Thursday, November 29, 2012

Elections not measure of real change

In his recent column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Conrado de Quiros talked about the wisdom behind universal suffrage. According to de Quiros, had the right to vote been limited to those who have education, we would not have reforms or change, in government or in society at large. “Wealth and power would have remained with the landowners, the slave-owners, the gun-owners, the caciques, the compradors, the owners of fabricas and companias, with no end in sight,” de Quiros wrote.
Election festival in the Philippines. Click link to view "Politics as Entertainment:
Covering the 2010 Philippine elections," a project of the University of the Philippines
Open University, 
That’s putting too much unnecessary weight on elections being the most predominant feature of Western democracy. We have often heard American politicians pontificate that the United States should spread the concept of free elections in countries where democracy has not yet gained its foothold. As if elections were the only thing that matters in a democracy.
Before elections became fashionable, political reforms or social change, as history would tell us, was only achievable through the barrel of a gun, not by the ballot box. The revolutions in France and America and the U.S. civil war brought about radical changes that have become the bedrock of their democracies, and models for the rest of the world to adopt. New independent republics were born through people’s armed uprisings against their colonizers or despotic rulers. Wealth and power, in the political and economic sense turned to be more easily redistributable once revolutions changed societies and restructured the ordering of social relations.
But of course, as nations became more civilized, the rule of law has been established as the foundation of governance, for the majority of countries that have opted for the democratic system. So we have elections to select our leaders and representatives, and this process constitutes the hallmark of our democratic government.
Whether modern-day elections continue to serve the purpose of achieving great political and social reforms remain questionable, however, or at least dependent on how the process is put into practice. The gruesome Maguindanao massacre on November 23, 2009, that was perpetrated by the Ampatuan clan is a grim reminder of how political warlords could subvert the electoral process by means of their private armies, wealth and power. That this kind of aberration in a democracy had actually happened and its recurrence still threaten the so-called free electoral process in the Philippines only shows that elections are a double-edged knife, that it could be both a good or bad thing depending on how it is used.

The massacre of 34 journalists in Maguindanao in November 2009 shocked the
world. What really happened that day; why has so little light been shed on the
killings? Click link to view
"Turning a Blind Eye -- Philippines."

It was in this context that Senator Miriam Santiago made her sardonic commentary on Filipino voters in a talk before a Manila university which then became the subject of Mr. de Quiros’s column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Senator Santiago did not mince her words when she said that majority of Filipinos are “not educated for voting.” That majority of candidates are “not educated for serving” too, she added. The lady senator gave the example of movie stars getting elected in Congress because of the “ignorance of the Filipino electorate.”
Senator Santiago, however, was wrong to ridicule the Filipino masses for being not educated (or schooled, perhaps) for voting, which Mr. de Quiros rightfully debunked. But if Senator Santiago was referring to a level of education (completion of college education perhaps) which she thought every Filipino voter must have achieved before being allowed to exercise the right to vote, then, she could probably be right. With the pervasive level of poverty in the Philippines, way more than a majority of the population have not reached tertiary education or have completed at least a secondary education. But criticizing them for not knowing how to vote only reveals how ignorant even a highly-educated senator like Miriam Santiago could be in appreciating the limits of the electoral process.
The right to choose leaders or representatives in government is not predicated on one’s possession of higher education. If the right to vote is inherent in a democracy, it should be given to all those who have earned that right, regardless of whether a voter is a moron or an intellectual. Every citizen of voting age is a member of a democratic society and should be given the right to exercise the right to choose his or her leaders or representatives in Congress. Attainment of legal age and residence should be enough to qualify a citizen to the right to a democratic vote, all other factors are irrelevant.
This talk about Filipinos not being educated enough to vote is akin to the concept of voter suppression, or disenfranchisement. It has happened during the recent U.S. presidential elections. In Florida, the Republican-dominated state legislature tried to reduce the number of days for early voting, prohibit Sunday voting, and impose a 48-hour time limit on third-party voter groups to register new voters. It was criticized as making voting more difficult, a decision meant to disenfranchise African-Americans and Latinos who were leaning to vote for the Democratic Party. The decision backfired against the GOPs on Election Day as thousands and thousands of voters lined up to vote and had to be accommodated until the following day while the rest of the votes from the other states had already been counted. When the final vote was counted, Florida ended up voting for Obama instead of Romney, but the Florida vote didn’t matter anymore because the election had already been decided by the other states.
In Pennsylvania, the state legislature passed a law requiring voter-identification, which was criticized by some civil rights groups as having the effect of suppressing mostly poor or minority voters—a demographic more inclined to vote Democrat. Photo ID requirements have been opposed by minority, handicapped and elderly voters who don’t normally maintain driver’s licenses.
Senator Santiago is barking at the wrong tree. Instead of putting down the electorate with her condescending remarks, she should sponsor a law in Congress that would tighten the qualifications of candidates for public office, prohibit political dynasty as envisioned in the Constitution, impose stricter and effective term limits, and limit campaign financing to level the playing field. Every candidate for public office must not only be beyond reproach, but must be able to represent or mirror the needs and issues of his or her constituency. If we must have a functioning representative democracy, the leaders and representatives we elect must stand and speak for the interests of their constituencies, not for their own selfish reasons or for the wishes of the special interests that help them get elected.
We have a dysfunctional electoral system that could easily be manipulated by special interests and professional politicians or “trapos.” The level of apathy or a disengaged electorate is a result of the ability of the elite and special interests to control the elections; it’s never the by-product of an uninformed or uninvolved electorate because it is not well-educated enough to vote.
In The Idea of Justice, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote: “… in understanding the roots of democracy in the world, we have to take interest in the history of people’s participation and public reasoning in different parts of the world. We have to look beyond thinking of democracy only in terms of European and American evolution. We would fail to understand the pervasive demands for participatory living, on which Aristotle spoke with far-reaching insight, if we take democracy to be a kind of a specialized product of the West.”
The old Athenian democracy, where balloting emerged in a particular form, used a process called sortition where nearly all government offices are filled by lottery of full citizens rather than by election. Women, slaves and aliens had no say. Candidates were almost always male, Greek, educated citizens holding a minimum of wealth and status. Yet, even Plato attacked this system which he criticized as putting the state into the hands of ignoramuses unable to distinguish between right from wrong.
How is this different from the system we have now?
We have a senator who plagiarizes and unabashedly maintains his innocence, senators who are children elected on account of their father’s “splendid” legislative record, a congresswoman who was wife to a former dictator and mother to a sitting senator, or movie stars who continue to “act” in their roles as representatives of the people, or a “know-nothing” or “can-do-all” president (depending on which side of the aisle you stand on) elevated to the highest office in the land on the political legacy of his parents. Is this circus the desire and hope of the people who elected them?
“Democracy’s capacity to shock has been its own demise,” wrote A. C. Grayling. We could only wish, for heaven’s sake, the kind of revenge our democracy will bring upon us next time. Perhaps not through the electoral process, and we could just imagine how those who abuse or shamelessly make a mockery of their democratic responsibilities will enjoy being out of power or less in control than they used to be.

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