Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Saving democracy without elections

Under American colonial rule, the Philippines had its first taste of what elections were really about on July 30, 1907. This was made possible by the Philippine Bill of 1902, also known as the Cooper Act, which allowed Filipinos to elect delegates to the Philippine Assembly two years after peace and order had been established in the country. The Americans had already defeated the Philippine insurrection, and in 1906, US President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that the country was now ripe to hold its first elections.
It was an issue-driven election unlike any other. One of the major parties, the Nacionalista Party, wanted immediate independence from the United States while the other party, the Progresista Party, campaigned for eventual independence. The Nacionalista Party won overwhelmingly, taking fifty-nine out of the total 80 seats of the National Assembly. Thus, the people, by voting for the candidates of the Nacionalista Party, chose to have independence now, and not later. Of course, it would take several years more before this aspiration of independence could be realized: the first Commonwealth was inaugurated in 1935 as a transition government preparatory to independence, then the three-year Japanese war interrupted the Philippine democratic experience under American tutelage, and on July 4, 1946, independence was finally granted by the United States.

50th Commemorative Stamp celebration of the Anniversary of the 1907 Philippine
 Assembly featuring a vignette of Sergio Osmena, the first speaker (right) and
members of the Assembly. Click link to view The History of Elections in the
Philippines, Part 1,, by the
Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
We were a small country then, with 7.5 million people based on the first-ever conducted 1903 census under Governor William Howard Taft. Today, the Philippines has a population of more than 100 million. Imagine how crude and rudimentary our electoral process was in 1907 compared to the automated elections we have now.
Before, our people voted to resolve political issues such as national independence. Today, people march to the polls under duress, threats or the influence of bribe and corruption. Now, voting seems to be just a meaningless ceremonial rite of suffrage. People today don’t vote on issues, or don’t care about issues. Similarly, the candidates don’t run on a comprehensible political party platform; there are no ideologically distinct political parties, but only coalitions around fleeting and non-perennial causes. Name recognition, association with prominent families, and entertainment or movie credentials, these are the things that matter now.
In this coming May 2013 elections, more than 33 senatorial aspirants and 133 party-list candidates are on the official ballot. Only 12 senators and 58 or 60 party-list representatives will be elected, along with provincial, city and municipal officials throughout the country. Amid all the displeasure and criticism of the election technology chosen by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), it appears that the aforesaid technology is inadequate to allay fears of massive cheating and a potential unfair election outcome.
The Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines that will be used in the coming May 2013 synchronized national and local elections are under fire from the Automated Election System (AES) Watch which has questioned the readiness of the automated polls system.
Based on the experience with the same technology adopted by Comelec during the last 2010 elections, AES pointed out that many problems and issues remain unresolved such as ballot rejections, transmission failures, inaccuracy of the vote count, election returns and certificates of canvass not digitally signed as required by law, among others. Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr., however, is undeterred and confident that the automated system will work. Boasting that the PCOS machines cannot be manipulated, Brillantes is even offering a reward to anyone who can hack into the PCOS machines that will be used in the May elections.
As established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the will of the people expressed through periodic and genuine elections shall be the basis of government authority. Elections are at the heart of the democratic process. But to realize the democratic potential of elections, they must be honest and fair, genuinely transparent, and on a level playing field. The irony, however, is that most election events are conceived and held outside their broader political context. Instead of being the democratic solution, oftentimes, elections are as much a part of the political problem.
Philippine elections are a case in point. After the campaign for independence from American colonial rule, elections were simply occasions to change political leaders through some revolving door, as in the case of the presidency. Ferdinand Marcos was the first president to be re-elected, breaking convention and tradition, although by all accounts, his re-election only happened because he manipulated the election results. When he declared martial law, elections became a farce, and like any other despot, Marcos used elections as a veneer of democratic legitimacy. With the downfall of Marcos in 1986, Corazon Aquino restored the old convention of electing presidents for one single term, even if Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to circumvent the historical practice but failed.
The only genuine political issue that was presented upon the Filipino electorate was immediate independence from the United States as soon as the colonial rulers decided it was time to experiment with democracy in the Philippines. But after the establishment of the first Commonwealth, the only option left for Filipinos was to vote for their president based on persona, not the ideology or party platform. Manuel Quezon was elected first president because he was able to project himself as the one responsible for getting the independence the Filipinos wanted. Sergio Osmena succeeded to the presidency when Quezon died while Manuel Roxas was elected president in 1946 when independence was finally granted by the U.S. Congress because Osmena at that time was too old and sickly to hold on to the presidency. The rest of the next presidential successors were elected not on the strength of a political platform but merely on how well the candidate framed accusations of graft and corruption against the incumbent or his political opponents. Henceforth, every presidential candidate would be running on the mantra of eliminating graft and corruption, with President Noynoy Aquino’s “matuwid na daan” being the most recent version of this national fixation against government corruption.
The election of senators and members of Congress is largely a popularity contest. People really don’t care except who ends up number one in the senatorial contest. Since senators are elected nationally, name recognition and fame are important. An offspring or descendant of a prominent family, particularly from a political dynasty, virtually has clinched a spot in the elections. Fame from acting in movies or in sports makes the candidates appear bigger than life, so the lack of political experience is not a liability for as long as one is a marquee candidate or married to a famous movie celebrity.
Thus, all this talk about Comelec’s election technology being inadequate to count the people’s votes is nothing but a convenient diversion from the genuine issues that really matter. An honest public discussion of the real political issues is sorely lacking, such as widespread poverty despite the government’s claim of growing economic prosperity, dependency on export of cheap labour, continuing violations of human rights, disappearances and extra-judicial executions, or the entrenchment of political dynasties in power.
Yet, the Comelec and its critics keep on missing the point: does modern technology in counting the votes make us a better nation than in 1907? Or are we really that fully independent from the United States considering that their powerful navy and special military forces can go in and out of our territories as if our waters and lands still belong to them? Or why would Filipino expatriates in the US easily jump into the South China Sea dispute to rally behind the current government’s claim over Spratlys, but remain silent on the Sultan of Sulu’s historical claim for ownership of Sabah? Aren’t these also relevant issues the people would like to hear from the candidates?
We often blame our political system for the personalities that run it. But this is both unfair and misleading since politicians are morally little different from anyone else. Perhaps, we should not lay too much blame on the individuals, but on the system in which they operate.
The self-evident truth is that our political salvation lies not in more elections or in modernizing the technology of counting the votes. Elections are necessary to establish democratic governance and the legitimacy of government, but we don’t need sham elections as frequent as we do just to elect clowns in government and in Congress. If elections have limitations, then what is the alternative?
There must be some viable alternatives for the people to assure that we have a flourishing participatory democracy. As a matter of fact, the present Constitution of the Philippines allows actual rule of the people, instead of simply relying on elected representatives. The 1987 Constitution allows the holding of a people’s initiative to enact legislative reforms by referendum or plebiscite. In 1989, Congress has passed Republic Act No. 6735, “The Initiative and Referendum Act,” which empowers the people to directly propose amendments to the Constitution, and to enact laws, ordinances or resolutions, through a system of initiative and referendum.
The system of initiative and referendum has been a popular tool in advanced democracies in enabling the people to directly enact legislation, especially on issues that are quite urgent but unpopular and controversial, or issues some may find radical in nature. Several states in the United States, for example, have passed, through their respective referenda, laws allowing same-sex marriage and the use of marijuana. Plebiscites are another form of alternative political method of expressing the voters’ will on matters that are vital to them and to the nation. So far, the Comelec has held plebiscites only for the purpose of ratifying the creation of new barangays and conversion of municipalities into cities.
Voter turnout during national elections in the Philippines from 1946 onwards.
Photo by wikipedia. Click link to view The History of Elections in the
 Philippines, Part 2,
by the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
The democratic provisions of the Philippine Constitution will remain nominal and aspirational at best if the Filipino people do not dare challenge Congress and the Comelec to enforce them. This is the only way we can save our democracy without resorting to unnecessary elections, to allow the people to exercise their constitutional right to directly enact legislative reforms rather than wait for their elected representatives to act.

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