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I am an Election Watcher

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For the longest time now, I am an election watcher. No, not that one who volunteers to ensure that there is free, clean, and honest elections in the country.  I am an election watcher – and I watch elections come and go from the sidelines.

My friends say that I am a sour contradiction and a bad example for the young.  As one of the believers that change is necessary in this world so that people can have better lives, I should also be one of those who believe that elections are opportunities of turning the tables upside down.  As one of those who believe that governance is important in achieving political, economic, and social gains, I should at least be interested in ensuring that people elect the kind of leaders that we need.  And as one of those who think that almost all things are political, I should have been engaged in a political exercise characteristic of modern-day democracies.  But here I am, watching elections come and go, but not really participating in it – maybe because I no longer believe that elections can turn tables upside down, or that leaders matter, or that elections are concrete manifestations of democracy.

My failure to vote and participate meaningfully in elections was first circumstancial before it became a conscious rational choice.  Back in 1996 when the time came for me to qualify as a voter, I was in Manila with hardly a cent to spare to go home to register.  Then for the many times that registration was done, I was somewhere else working, studying, or doing something else, that to be at the place where I could qualify for registration was virtually impossible.  But something happened along the way, I did a study on local elections that made me realize that elections, at least in our country, and in the local context, need not necessarily embody the ideals of democracy.

Manin, Przeworski and Stokes (1999) wrote that “The claim connecting democracy and representation is that under democracy, governments are representative because they are elected: if elections are freely contested, if participation is widespread, and if citizens enjoy political liberties, then governments will act in the best interest of the people”.  The elements they mention here, however, is absent in our current local political system – elections are the contests of the privileged, participation while widespread is conditioned by votes sold, and our political liberties are constrained by our own helplessness.  The recent elections, and the ones before them, are just mere reiterations of the same situation, sometimes even getting worse. My frustration with elections is essentially not so much about politicians than it is about voters.  It is not so much about individual actions, but on how systemically dirty, irrationally corrupt, and utterly hopeless the exercise has become.  Let me tell you of concrete reasons.

Reason 1:  Education does not have a bearing on how voters behave during elections.  Soledad Fuertes (not her real name), a teacher in a municipality for more than 40 years, opined that the voters never lacked awareness, especially in identifying who among the candidates in the local elections are most qualified to run the local government. However, while people may be educated, it does not necessarily follow that their education will have a bearing on the choice of local candidates to vote for in the elections, and whether or not they will be swayed by the lure of money come election time.

Tomas (not his real name), a church leader in a parish said there were persons he knew, his immediate family members who are teachers in the barangay elementary school whose votes were determined by the highest bidder.  In a survey of voters in 2004 in one municipality in Bohol, voters who had completed college, were asked whether or not the money they received from the candidate for mayor influenced their vote during the election in 2004. Thirty three percent (33%) of them said “yes”.

Reason 2:  It is not true that only the poor gets bought on election day.  In Tagbilaran City, 72%  of the population of working age are considered economically active (employed or either engaged in business).  Correspondingly, approximately 12% of the people are earning more than Php30,000 a month.  Senda, a vegetable seller at the public market said that vote buying during election time only sells well with poor people like her, and not with those who belong to the middle or upper class.  She believed that rich people would take it an insult if they received ballots stapled with crisp bills during election day since they will not need it anyway. 

I conducted a quick survey with twenty of my friends in May 2013, right after elections, all of them earning more than Php30,000 a month. The questions I asked were very simple – (1) Did they receive money from candidates?; (2) What did they do with it?;  and (3) Did it affect their votes during elections.  The informal survey revealed interesting results. First, all of them received money.  Second, all of them kept it.  Third, only 40% of them said that it affected their choices, while the remaining 60% had some other answers that are not at all inspiring.  Of the 60%, some said that the money they received did not influence them as they were going to vote for the candidate anyway (60%), others said that they did not remember (20%), while the remaining 20% said that it influenced them a bit.  Much more depressing is, all of them were educated in good schools and are holding positions of influence in the places where they work.

Reason 3: We cannot count on the young to change the way this political system looks like.  In 2011, in the height of the debates whether to keep or abolish the Sangguniang Kabataan, I conducted a classroom opinionnaire among my 100+ students, aged 18-19, at Holy Name University to know if for them, votebuying during the SK elections was alright.  To my horror, I found out 36% of them said that it is alright, as it was customary while 42% said that while not necessarily correct, one cannot really do away with it.  It does seem, that the older generation have taught the younger the wrong lesson well.  There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence to this, like say, for example, how mayors spend for vacations of SK barangay chairpersons so that they can ensure that they vote for their preferred candidate during SK municipal federation elections. 

If you have read this far, then you will now be asking me whether my choice to be an “election watcher” is something I can be proud of, and whether I will argue that it is the most rational choice.  Of course, I am not proud of my decision. Of course, it is also irrational.  My growing cynicism is accentuated by the fact that I have also become powerless in this context.  I used to believe that one voice, though how small, starts a revolution.  Every time I listen to Barry Manilow sing....

“Just One Voice,
Singing in the darkness,
All it takes is One Voice,
Singing so they hear what's on your mind,
And when you look around you'll find
There's more than
One Voice,

Singing in the darkness,
Joining with your One Voice,
Each and every note another octave,
Hands are joined and fears unlocked,
If only
One Voice
Would start it on its own
We need just One Voice
Facing the unknown,
And that One Voice
Would never be alone
It takes that One Voice.”

 ....sadness overwhelms me as it brings up the question - "where is that idealist of long ago who believed that better things will come?"

But then, I must say, I am just an “election watcher”, but I do not remain to be a “watcher” for eternity.  I participate in local governance activities. I help people engage in local governance better. I research on topics to improve local governance processes.  I advocate for participatory planning and budgeting, I advocate for public disclosure of government data.  I do all these sorts of things because I believe that elections are just one part of this democracy. We may not be able to change the way we elect our leaders, because movie stars and boxing champs can still become president, but we can possibly influence the way we are governed.   

However, at the end of the day, I still wished that schools and universities do more than just token voters' education.  I still pray that the Catholic Church spend more on social action activities than build expensive convents. I still envision a future where local politics is characterized by issues and platforms than favours and threats. I still dream of the time and day that votes are not sold on a daily basis and on election day. I hope, in the next few days, my aspirations will bring back my optimism again.   


Anonymous said…
IMHO you only have to be one of two things in order to have the right to air out grievances towards those in the government and those who govern - you have to be a regular taxpayer or a regular voter during elections. So in my book you are more than qualified to raise your voice and demand for change, for better service, for better governance. Go Sir Miko!
- xma

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