The 2016 Philippine elections: Democratic? Hope for change?

Notebook Apr 22, 2016 at 5:03 pm

HG_Notebook_color-picThe Philippine presidential and local elections are set for May 9, less than three weeks from now. Already the race for the top executive position of a country of more than 100 million people has heated way up beyond those reached in previous similar elections.

With the supposed survey lead of the unbelievably trash-and-tough-talking Rodrigo Duterte, the fairy tale-like story of a high-rating Grace Poe, the initially-leading corruption issue-tainted VP Jejomar Binay, and the frontrunning VP candidate, the late dictator Marcos’s offspring-cum-reincarnation Bongbong Marcos, the brew in the elections pot is surely building up to a political storm never before seen in the country.

Unfortunately, the excitement has put aside the real and hard issues that should concern the voting population and the whole nation, which boils down to: Why should it always be a question of choosing the lesser evil? Why is there practically no genuine choice for a leader who has no vested interests to serve and has his or her integrity intact? (See the story on page 5 about the big backers of these candidates in the 2010 elections.) Roxas and Binay received and spent tens and hundreds of millions in their campaigns and these were only the official figures and most likely understated. In this coming election, the top candidates will probably spend hundreds of millions if not billions from their bank rollers’ and their own pockets.

That the choices for President and Vice President are limited to the elite’s choices, due to massive funds needed for an effective campaign, only shows that real democracy does not exist, that the election is essentially a farce. Candidates with a shoestring budget have no real hope of winning the presidency or the vice presidency.

Decades back, it used to be “guns, goons and gold” that were needed to win elections. Now the real danger is not just violence, massive cheating and vote buying but the manipulation of the automated election system. Either the election process will be controlled completely by the administration candidates or those who control the automated election machines and software will be bought by other candidates. Besides, how can it be acceptable that the software that will run the automated voting machines was written and code controlled by a foreign company? There is no lack of issues raised against the Comelec for favoring this company as a choice for services, and no lack of questions in the conduct of the 2010 and 2013 automated elections. Yet it continues to gain the trust of the Comelec and high public officials.

So the assumption that it is a democratic election, given that only the elite’s choices are the only existing choices, is essentially false.

The second wrong assumption is that the only hope for meaningful change that will eliminate or significantly reduce mass poverty lies only or mainly on who will be the next President. Therefore, the life of the country, its demise or redemption lies in the hands of one man.

This subconscious belief partly explains the Duterte phenomenon. Filipinos in their millions have gone so desperate for change that they would pin their hopes to a strongman, no matter how trash in language and how disrespectful of others, how closely associated with extrajudicial killings and sexist behavior, to save a nation mired in poverty, crime, corruption and violence. They strongly believe one tough guy at the helm can swiftly solve all these problems.

Though the President has enormous powers, the fate of the country does not always depend on who he or she is and what he/she does. Ultimately, the interests the President represents, the election bankrollers, the economic and business interests behind him or her, both native and foreign, and the classes they represent, will determine the major policies and direction of the government.

But at the crucial turning points in history, the fate of a country depends on what the united people, opposed to these vested interests, decide to do. History is replete with examples of ruling autocrats or elites toppled from power by the masses of people who had decided that enough is enough. The EDSA I and EDSA II are only recent examples. The 1898 Philippine Revolution, though practically frustrated by the U.S. invading forces, is the more significant example.

The success of the movement for change does not depend on who ends up winning the presidency. Even if a really progressive president is elected, which is a remote possibility as long as the ruling elites control the conduct of the elections, he or she would still ultimately need the support of the overwhelming majority of the people.

The presidential election is a major political battle but so far since presidential elections started to be held in the country in the time of the 1946 Philippine Republic, it’s always been a contest between or among factions of the elite. Not between the elite and the masses, although the candidates have to mouth slogans and offer platforms that seemingly serve the interests of the people.

What will give real democratic meaning to the elections are strong and massive groups and campaigns at the grassroots level, people in their millions putting up their own national and local candidates and being vigilant to see to it that the results are not manipulated, votes are not bought and the election process is not compromised.

There is also a need for strong pro-people movements in other sectors and issues that impact on the lives of the overwhelming majority of the population. Issues like land for the tillers, just wages and rights for the workers, employment, human rights, affordable health and medical services, national sovereignty, real protection of OFWs, and building of an economy that serves the country and its people, not one controlled by foreign interests, and not dependent on remittance dollars brought in by exported labor.

The mass struggles to achieve these objectives will gradually build a strong and real democracy that is based on the strength of people at the grassroots level. Not one based on a political party system fed and maintained by political favors and horse trading.

When elections bring real leaders from the ranks of the people to national and local positions in significant numbers, that is the only time they can be described as democratic. Democracy, to be real and meaningful, has to be the rule of the overwhelming majority, not by the few who have the millions or billions to buy votes and the election process and control the mainstream media and who have the guns and the goons to coerce the population.

The candidate who will win the presidency has to be the best at doing the following: 1. Promote an image of a leader who can achieve change for the poor and the middle class; 2. Use massive funds, their own and their bankrollers’, to buy votes and run a well-oiled and effective campaign machine; 3. Buy the election process and the men who run the automated election machines; 4. Win over and/or buy local leaders and dynasties and local private armies who will bring the local votes; and 5. Enlist the support of big foreign interests, particularly the U.S.

The elite owns this election, not the people.