Impressions on the Philippine Elections

Community News & Features Feb 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm
Press conference gives Comelec an F in preparedness.

Press conference gives Comelec an F in preparedness.

MANILA–The first major impression I got of the upcoming Philippine National Elections in May is when I was told it will be “a turning point” in Philippine history and politics. The person who said this, maintained there are many qualified candidates and the voting youth are interested in these elections at a level unseen in their lives. He and his wife gave me the impression there is a real chance at genuine change for the better.

I was instantly intrigued. Politics is my thing and I’m a Balikbayan journalist writing for The Philippine Reporter on vacation in my homeland. And after all, the people I was speaking to are educated, young professionals, a Filipino version of the Huxtables, if you will, a doctor and a lawyer. I was so intrigued by their comments, that they pretty much tipped the scale in favor of converting my vacation into an opportunity to be a journalist in the Philippines, living here until the elections. I would observe history as it unfolds and would put myself as close as I could to the centre of it all.

Well, as they say, first impressions last, and so has my determination to stay. In retrospect, maybe the couple wasn’t necessarily talking about the Presidential race, maybe the other levels of government. It would seem almost everyone else I have talked to since has a contrary opinion. When it comes to the potential Presidents of the Philippines in Eleksyon 2010, it seems there is no Philippine Obama amongst the candidates. No one who can muster up abundant confidence from the public that s/he will be the harbinger and bringer of change.

Although everybody would agree, anyone will be better than their predecessor, the current President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But, nobody among the 10 official candidates can be called ideal and could clearly deliver benefits to the masses from the top down. Certainly neither of the two who will probably win, the leading Presidential candidates, Sen. Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III and Sen. Manuel (Manny) Villar, can be labeled as squeaky clean and corruption free.

Though my continuing impressions have given me little evidence to support a level of optimism like that couple, there is certainly enough going on to keep me amused. For one thing, it’s easy to poke fun at Noynoy and Manny.

First impressions of them? Well I’ll start with their hair, or should I say lack thereof. Noynoy has a very obvious comb-over, poorly concealing his alopecia, while Manny has a very obvious toupee, much too dark, thick, and well, fake-looking for a man of his age to have on his head. Noynoy’s comb-over works with his overall ‘geek chic’ look, and is somewhat endearing, reminding me somehow of Ernie from Sesame Street. I think Villar would be better off personifying a Lolo. If he took off his toupee, he could let his age and implied wisdom show. But that’s just on-the-surface, fluff.

More impressions of Noynoy, well let’s address the giant yellow elephant in the room. He’s the son of former President Corazon (Cory) Aquino and the martyred Ninoy Aquino. Since Cory’s passing last Aug. 2009, ‘yellow fever’ has spread throughout the country and it is highly passé to criticize her administration. There are special edition Blackberries and other items made in yellow being sold and advertised throughout Metro Manila.

Although results of a recent survey by StratPOLLS claims being a “scion of a former President” is the least of participants’ concerns when voting for a candidate, it would be hard to deny that his family ties give Noynoy’s candidacy a big boost. After watching the movie starring the Philippines’ hottest young male lead, Piolo Pascual, who played Ninoy in the film, I was left wondering if Noynoy’s people had a hand in airing the movie during this election season. Here was little Noynoy, son of a genuine Philippine hero and martyr (Ninoy), raised by a strong-willed mother (Cory) that became President. No it’s not just a movie plot, it’s real!

If you get down to the issues, there are also big, glaring negatives that mar Aquino and Villar’s candidacies, especially when it comes to the number one issue on everyone’s list: corruption. For Noynoy, it would seem he truly is following in his mother’s footsteps. I have heard many say, there are few negatives to point out, just because there is little that he’s accomplished as a politician. Everybody agrees he seems to be a nice enough guy, but qualified to be President with the same notorious puppets backing him? For some people I have talked to, that’s a dangerous proposition.

Then there’s Hacienda Luisita. Uncles and aunts of Noynoy’s, the Cojuangcos, are majority holders of the estate’s stock shares. This is land that by law should be given to the farmers that toil, I mean, till the land, so that the farmers may profit from it as individuals. This was also the site of an uprising in 2004 that resulted in seven protesters killed and 200 wounded. I heard the official position is that the protestors shot at themselves.

Close family friends of mine happen to be neighbors and acquaintances of Aquino, and like many of the Filipino bourgeoisie, they are supporting him this election (“Siempre!). They admit they see Hacienda Luisita as a big negative. They had considered requesting a prerequisite for their support, that is, Aquino should do something for the farmers. But that didn’t pan out. They know the Aquinos will not give up that land.

Presumably to counter the Hacienda Luisita scandals associated with his family, Aquino and Sen. Mar Roxas, his running-mate, have accused Villar of illegally converting irrigated land set aside for agriculture under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Roxas is by far the leading candidate for Vice-President and unlike in American politics, he needs to be elected to the post separate from the President. Roxas is so far ahead in his race, that he is pretty much guaranteed to be the next VP.

They claim Villar’s housing companies illegally obtained land in Oton, Iloilo to build subdivisions in the protected area. As well, he allegedly used government funds to build a road to the new residences. Villar’s lawyers claim he got the necessary permits, and it was therefore not illegal. Aquino claims this represents a “pattern” of Villar’s conduct. For me, the following image comes to mind. The pattern Aquino speaks of is a pattern found on a tea cozy of a kettle, a kettle symbolizing Villar. Aquino is symbolized by a pot, a pot calling the kettle black.

Another scandal associated with Villar is his spending on commercials. Big money spending is a normal and legally sanctioned practice in American politics, reaching new heights in the Bush/Gore and Obama/Clinton campaigns. Villar states he needs to spend that much money to counter the star power that Noynoy has in his corner, especially considering his friends due to his sister Kris’s celebrity. Critics of this spending question how he can justify spending so much on his own self-promotion. I question, despite probably using much of his own immense personal wealth, who will Villar owe for flipping these bills if he gets elected?

Another unfolding election drama, should TV hosts and other celebrities be allowed to endorse candidates, whether paid or unpaid? Apparently the authorities think celebrity influence over the masses is too great. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) came out with a resolution requiring movie stars and media personalities to stop work, that is, go on leave or resign, if they are endorsing a candidate. This was later amended, allowing celebrities to stay at their jobs, as long as they don’t show their support for the candidates on air. Good thing journalists are exempt from such a rule.

In related news, here’s notable instance of mud-slinging I heard on the radio. There’s a rumour that Villar has agreed to make current president Arroyo Speaker of the House of Representatives if he gets elected. I hate to repeat a rumour, but I have to say, it sends a chill down my spine to think that the part concerning Arroyo may hold some weight.

Pres. Arroyo vying to be the next Speaker of the House certainly explains why she plans to take a ‘lower’ position as a member of Congress in the upcoming May elections. I imagine it’s the same here, but in America, the Speaker is one of the most powerful people in Washington. The House while in session is at his/her beck and call. The Speaker decides, among other things, who speaks and for how long during debates, the members of powerful committees, and which committees will consider a bill. While out of session, everyone vies for the Speaker’s favor so that they may get their bills passed smoothly.

With Arroyo in this position, it is possible for her to single-handedly halt meaningful bills that are not to her liking, while pushing through others. Not only that, she’s stacked the Supreme Court with her own appointees, so judicial oversight wouldn’t stop her, especially if she succeeds in appointing also the Chief Justice before leaving office.

Another highly alarming concern this election for me is the new undertaking of the automated voting system. For the first time, votes and results will be counted and called in by computers, not by hand. Voters will have to fill out long Scantron type sheets (voting for all levels of government up for re-election) that will be processed by all new computers. The electronically tabulated results will be transmitted via internet. I don’t know whose bright idea this is considering the obvious logistical nightmare such an undertaking involves, especially in the rural provinces of the Philippines, but it’s supposedly good for anti-corruption.

I myself have found it very difficult to use the Internet here, and I live in the political capital of the Philippines, Quezon City. Even in the financial capital of Makati City, there is not a Wi-Fi signal to be found most of the time, free or pay-as-you-go.

I attended a Press-Conference on Jan. 18, 2010 hosted by many organizations representing academics, IT personnel, politicians and the judiciary who got together to give a collective score card of the preparedness of Comelec (the governing body responsible for the elections) to carry through with the new system. Citing major setbacks in initial plans, like the actual delivery of all the computers to the Philippines and the corresponding training, testing, and programming transparency dependent on the computers’ timely and already late set-up, they were all very concerned. Especially, with the Comelec’s apparent lack of contingency plans.

In an editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Feb. 3, 2010, I read that the Comelec admits that as many as “30 percent of the precincts might experience problems with automation (affecting, by one estimate, up to 14.4 million voters).” The appalling affront to democracy in these staggering figures is made more apparent when the writer points out that those who have the power to ‘vote pad’ or ‘vote-shave’ (i.e. rig election results) are probably licking their lips at this extremely tight Presidential race.

On behalf of The Philippine Reporter, I asked the panel at the Jan. 18 conference, what system was more prone to election fraud, the previous system or the new system. They seemed amused and refreshed by the question, especially as it came from a foreign, journalist Balikbayan. All of the panelists who answered my question responded similarly. It was not so much the medium that is of concern when it comes to vote tampering, electronic or manual, it’s the people you have to worry about.

At this point, the elections may be a two horse race, but there are other Presidential candidates that are certainly just as visible as Aquino and Villar. Former Pres. Joseph “Erap” Estrada, is in the fray and in many commercials. Believe it or not, he’s currently third in the polls. Thankfully, he is much too far behind to be considered a serious contender (about 12 percent of people in current polls favor him). My first impression of Estrada, he looks like a Filipino Elvis impersonator. Only children laugh when I say this. The adults remember his failed administration as President and can’t believe he has the gall to run again “as if he did nothing wrong.”

Speaking of which, fourth in the polls, is former Defense Secretary under Arroyo, Gilbert (Gibo) Teodoro. Most of Noynoy’s and Manny’s commercials are like music videos with all the singing and dancing and fuzzy, dreamlike visual effects. Some of their ads seem as long as real music videos. Gibo’s commercials, on the other hand, show him stepping into the pilot’s seat of a 747. Hmmm. Interestingly enough, he’s all by himself with no co-pilot or other staff visible. Metaphor for fascism?

That’s such a genius campaign, Gibo. There’s an image the masses can relate to! If he can fly a huge plane, navigating through a country’s problems as the President, should be a natural fit! That’s sarcasm. Actually, I take that back, considering all of the Filipino overseas foreign workers in the world, maybe the masses can relate to Gibo flying them out of here.

Gibo, by the way, has publicly dodged whether he will support prosecuting his former boss (Arroyo) for the many crimes she is responsible for as President, such as extrajudicial killings among other grave offenses. He basically inferred his answer is no. Come to think of it, no wonder Arroyo stacked the Supreme Court almost completely in her favor. No one ever says the devil is stupid.

Let me end with a disclaimer. I certainly do not claim to be an expert in the practices or regulations involved in Philippine elections. This is not serious journalism here, just the musings of a Balikbayan interested in politics, which is mostly based on conversations with some voting public and articles I have read in mainstream newspapers. Thankfully, this will be published in a country where press freedom is taken seriously. Don’t worry Mom. I’ll stay out of the violence-ridden rural provinces where people are often killed for saying or writing something others disagree with. In the city, they say it’s okay. Let’s hope so because, all jokes aside, I didn’t exactly hold anything back here.

Author enjoys a jeepney ride.

Author enjoys a jeepney ride.