Philippine elections: the national is local

Voters in Region 8 exercise their most sacred right to vote for candidates of their choice. (PIA-8 photo by Vino Cuayzon)
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“PHILIPPINE ELECTIONS,” says the British publication The Economist, “are always local and thuggish.” 

The “thuggish”  part every Filipino is, or should be,  familiar with. That’s the “guns and goons” in the “guns, goons, and gold” equation that too often decides the outcome of elections in those places where the police are either too weak to prevent voters from being intimidated, or are themselves among the thugs  in the pay of the local warlord.  These are the hoods responsible for the violence that characterizes most Philippine elections (but which the police always describe as “orderly and peaceful”). At least vote-buying, or the “gold” part that comes in both cash and kind, helps redistribute, rather than death and injury, the wealth that’s been stolen from the people.

The “local” part isn’t limited to the local politico’s or his family’s control over local votes.  It also includes the crucial role local political bosses play in national elections. The “political machine” such candidates for national office as Jejomar Binay and Manuel Roxas have been saying will assure their victory on May 9 consists precisely of those local satraps’ capacity to either to deliver votes in their respective constituencies at the municipal, district and provincial levels, through whatever means, whether through persuasion or coercion. 

Contrary to the sanguine claims of the Commission on Elections, automation can’t put a stop to these affronts to the democratic principle of free choice, which is what elections are fundamentally all about. But what’s even worse is that in many places in the Philippines, even with  the unlikely elimination of intimidation and vote buying, the voters don’t  have a choice this coming Monday except to vote for candidates who’re already sure winners even before the votes are cast because they’re running unopposed.

Over 800 candidates for local posts, says a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (“Sure Winners, Wardens of Votes: 802 Unopposed Local Bets in Areas with 6.8-M Voters”), are running unopposed for such local posts as governor, vice governor, provincial board member, mayor, vice mayor, municipal councilor and even congressman/woman.

That these candidates are sure of  occupying the posts they’re running for quite simply because no one is running against them makes a mockery of elections as exercises in free choice. But what’s even more disturbing is that their running unopposed could be the result of negotiated agreements among the formations that call themselves political parties—agreements in which one candidate is practically anointed by local dynasties for these elections while another is assured of running in the next, which not only saves them the high costs of campaigning in a contested election, but also  prevents the bloodletting that would otherwise accompany a fierce competition for a local post.  For the more cynical, it could also be an indication of a growing sense in the communities and provinces, and even in metro Manila (where, reports PCIJ,  some candidates for Congress are also running unopposed),  that one can’t fight the ruling dynasties. 

In fact nearly all the candidates running unopposed are from established parties. Only a  handful are independents.

“Interestingly,” says PCIJ,  “364 or 45 percent of the 802 names on the Comelec’s list of unopposed candidates are affiliated with the administration Liberal Party (LP), based on their Certificates of Candidacy (COC).

“Another 101 of the unchallenged candidates, meanwhile, are from the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), 92 from the National Unity Party (NUP), 70 from the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), 68 from the Nacionalista Party, 62 are independent, and 45 from other parties.”

PCIJ speculates that while the unopposed candidates have the potential to deliver millions of votes to the national candidates of their respective parties, that “may be dependent on the ability of the parties to grant what the unopposed politicos want in return.  As Center for Local and Regional Governance (CLRG) Director Erwin Alampay points out, it is ‘not automatic’ that unopposed local bets will actually deliver votes for their party’s national candidates.”

These local candidates running unopposed, Alampay told PCIJ,  “might want to ask for machinery support or campaign donations so that they can conduct proper local campaigns for [national candidates] and their local slates.” 

But PCIJ  suggests that “The number of registered voters where unopposed local candidates hold sway …may convince national candidates and their parties to do whatever they can to please the local bosses. As it is, the 215 cities and towns where the mayoralty race has just one candidate have a total of 5,915,756 registered voters. That’s more than 10 percent of the total number nationwide.”

Since the LP has the most candidates running unopposed, is this its not-so-secret weapon that can win Monday’s elections for its candidates for President, Vice President and Senators, despite what the surveys say?

In any event, what all this suggests is that not only are Philippine elections for municipal, district and provincial office local; the national elections are paradoxically also local elections. Even more significantly, the 10 percent of total votes that  theoretically can be delivered by unopposed candidates could swing closely contested national elections (such as the Presidential and Vice Presidential races) through the intercession of local  politicos who, either through persuasion or coercion, have practical control over enough votes to make them influential power brokers not only in their localities but also all the way to the Senate and Malacanang for the next three years and even beyond. 

Of equal relevance is that this dynamic helps explain such phenomena as all administrations’  tolerating and at times even encouraging the dominance of such political clans as the Ampatuans in their respective spheres of influence.  That level of tolerance may not be as much for the sake of counter-insurgency (local dynasties with private armies are said to be bulwarks against rebellion ) as simply for the sake of the command votes these clans control that are crucial to remaining in power.  As the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists demonstrated, the interdependence of local and national power centers is far from being conducive to either the expression of popular will or democracy. It was after all the support of succeeding administrations, in exchange for the votes they command, that made the Ampatuans a dominant force in Maguindanao.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the Philippine Information Agency)

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