Elections, information, and governance

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IT’S that time again, the filing of certificates of candidacy that’s the prelude to the months-long extravaganza cum freak show that we call elections.

Thanks to the media focus on who’s running for such national offices as the Presidency, the Vice Presidency and the Senate, an observer unfamiliar with the Philippine system can’t be blamed if he or she were to conclude that Philippine elections have nothing to do with community issues.

The reality is that the Philippines has the distinction among its neighbors—all of which have parliamentary systems of government—of holding national elections every six years and local elections every three. In 2016 as in 2010, both national and local elections will be held, which imposes on the electorate the immense burden of having to choose from among tens of thousands of aspirants—from President of the Republic to municipal councilor—the people who will govern in their name.

Few will argue that the voters always, or even often, choose wisely. The evidence is not only in the huge mistakes they’ve made in electing clowns, scoundrels, thieves, morons and even killers to office. It’s also evident in the unmitigated gall with which the unqualified, the corrupt and the simply clueless presume that they stand a chance of being elected to even the highest office in the land. (How else explain Manny Pacquiao’s decision to run for Senator despite his putrid attendance record in the House of Representatives, or former actress Alma Moreno’s decision to seek the same post in the same chamber in which Recto, Laurel and Tanada distinguished themselves except the assumption that the voters will elect anyone to office?)

I do not necessarily mean the so-called “nuisance candidates,” some of whom have been and will be so declared because, according to the Commission on Elections, they can’t wage “a credible nationwide campaign” (meaning they don’t have the billions needed to compete with the hierarchs of the political dynasties that have monopolized political power in this country for decades).

With the exception of those who are certifiably insane, it is certainly possible that even those who have been so declared have sound ideas. I am instead referring to the clueless, but who not only have the means and the political machinery to campaign throughout the length and breadth of this archipelago, but also the billions needed to keep themselves in the public eye through the media between now and May, 2016.

No matter how hard the Comelec may proclaim the sanctity and seriousness of Philippine elections, the results are nevertheless almost always disappointing, primarily because the money-driven process is itself flawed, and would even be laughable if its consequences weren’t so tragic.

And yet elections are the only means through which an allegedly free people can delegate their sovereign powers of governance to leaders they can trust to enforce their will. The results suggest, however, that while most Filipinos whine about corruption, joblessness, lack of social services, etc., etc., the kind of people they themselves elect suggests that they’re not really serious about solving those problems. Of course it has happened that to correct their mistakes, the electorate—or at least some of them—have removed the officials that they themselves elected.

Electing the right officials isn’t the same as removing the wrong ones, whom they can oust through direct action, recall through a petition, or impeach through Congress. The first has twice happened in the Philippines, the first time in 1986 when a civilian-military mutiny overthrew Ferdinand Marcos (who had been twice elected to the Presidency), and the second in 2001 when Joseph Estrada, despite his having amassed an avalanche of votes in 1998, was ousted in the aftermath of the failure of the attempt to remove him through impeachment. Only local officials have been recalled and by-elections subsequently held in some communities in the Philippines since 1986.

But none of the above options to correct electorate error would be necessary if voters chose their leaders carefully. The Philippine experience with EDSAs 1 and 2 may be a positive indication of the extent to which Filipinos are prepared to correct their mistakes at the polls. But it also does show how flawed their judgment has often been.

Other than through fraud, violence, intimidation and bribery, the bad choices the Filipino voter too often makes have been attributed to the insufficient, distorted, or outright absence of accurate and meaningful information. It’s a deficiency that leads citizens into voting on the basis of name recall, or such entertainment rather than political values as the ability to sing and dance, and even how pretty a candidate is.

While the persistence of political dynasties and all its consequences limit electorate choices to candidates with whose names they’re already familiar, awareness of the merits of other candidates and the social, economic and other issues that need to be addressed and the policy options available can theoretically help correct that, and the press is the only institution that can provide the necessary information quickly and on a wide scale.

Although the coverage of Philippine elections is far from perfect, in the last two Philippine elections (2010 and 2013) the major players in Philippine media seem to have recognized the inadequacy of their past, mostly reactive reporting by interviewing lesser known candidates, providing readers, viewers and listeners the track records of candidates, and/ or pressing them to commit to the adoption of clear policies on current issues.

But that’s only at the level of the so-called national media. An executive of a major broadcast network once declared—apparently as something she had just discovered—that most of the voters in local communities are not familiar with the issues, but saw no connection between that fact and media performance. Indeed little has changed at the community level, with voters being besieged by candidates who publish newspapers for the duration of the campaign, who buy radio stations outright, pay off local journalists for favorable coverage, finance block-timers, or are block-timers themselves.

The affiliates of local networks are in default, because they’re unable or unwilling to provide the information that could temper the influence of bought and paid-for reporting and comment. The coverage of elections at the local level therefore remains mostly incomplete, distorted and biased—the exact opposite of the informative and fair reporting that’s most needed.

The consequences are not limited to bad choices at the local level, in the offices of which warlords, members of political dynasties, the corrupt and even the criminal proliferate. The consequences also include voting for candidates for national office on the basis not only of the “command votes” local political kingpins control, but also of assumptions drawn from the same absence of reliable information in many communities.

And yet the challenge to the media is most urgent at the local level, where the most relevant information is needed– but where the news media are failing to provide the information the voters need. The crisis of information during elections inevitably leads to a crisis of governance, whether at the national or local levels through its inevitable consequence: the election of incompetent and corrupt leaders.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the Official Gazette)

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