Together with the brazenness with which the results of the May elections are being manipulated, the ease with which too many Filipinos are being pacified despite Commission on Elections duplicity, police and military partisanship, vote buying and violence must rank among the most telling indicators of why the country is in its present state.

I’m referring to the self-congratulatory mode evident in the gloating and the ohhs and ahhs (“it’s a miracle!”) that have greeted the poll victory that was nearly a defeat of priest-on-leave “Among” Panlilio in Pampanga, the defeat of several clueless celebrities and former military candidates, and the trouncing some Arroyo regime candidates are seemingly getting in the senatorial elections. Our Spanish masters had a word for it: consuelo de bobo: the consolation of fools.

For one, the middle class–always eager to grasp at straws in its steadfast trust in a political order it gripes about but dares not disturb–sees these islands of hope in the black lagoon of Philippine politics as signs that all is still well; it doesn’t have to take to the streets a la EDSA, or (God and the Church forbid) storm the citadels of power.

The Comelec may have been so blatantly biased that it deliberately confused the electorate by declaring Joselito Cayetano a nuisance candidate on the eve of the elections but kept him in the roster of candidates anyway–and then caused its allies in the Department of Education to make teachers count “Cayetano” votes as stray votes.

The same allegedly impartial body may have been so deliberately incompetent thousands in opposition areas were once again disenfranchised. To the same body we also owe the demolition job on the party list system, which now allows relatives of government officials and even the officials themselves to run as representatives of the marginalized.

The police and the military may have posted themselves in polling precincts to intimidate those likely to vote for militant party list groups in a blatant display of lawless partisanship. The military may have coerced communities into voting for its favored party list groups, and the chain of command may have provided Arroyo regime candidates the benefit of soldiers’ command votes.

Over a hundred people may have died, and some killings may still be going on post-elections. Accounts of ballot box snatching and stuffing as well as vote-buying may be trickling in, even as the Palace continues to predict victory in the senatorial and party-list elections to telegraph its intentions for a repeat of 2004.

No matter. The Panlilio win, for one, shows that the system still works.

On the contrary. That a priest has had to run himself because no one else would, so convinced were they that they would lose in a system that’s run by money and violence, says exactly the opposite. (On the other hand, that despite 300 years of conjugal Church and State rule the electorate should still put its trust in the same union today, 2007, says something else about the mass failure to learn from history.) And if people’s triumph the Panlilio win indeed was, we’re talking of one province out of 81 grouped into 16 regions. (There’s Grace Padaca’s win in Isabela, but that’s still to be declared by the Commission on Elections.)

The eagerness with which they’re grasping at straws is a charmingly naïve sign of how much Filipinos have internalized the promise of elections as the ticket to change and progress, no matter how flawed they have been since the country allegedly regained its independence in 1946. This faith, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has created a country that while periodically exercising what’s supposed to be the primary expression of democratic choice has managed to become the exception to the emerging rule of prosperity in Southeast Asia.

The relationship between the country’s state of penury and its elections is evident not only in the fact that fraud has always been such a major factor in the outcome of elections in this country that it usually ends up with the same legion of incompetent and crooked officials or their relatives. But that relationship has also persisted because being content with crumbs rather than the whole table is so much a part of Philippine culture that in the matter of elections any triumph of honesty or competence no matter how small is consolation enough to make up for the victory of the crooked and inept.

The standards for getting into office have been as low as the standards for fair and honest elections that the country ends up with officials skilled only at enriching themselves and running the country into the ground. The Philippines now holds world-record levels of corruption, mismanagement, lawlessness and violence. It’s understandable, since anyone’s not being a jueteng lord or drug lord is qualification enough for office, in the same way that being an actor was once thought to be.

But even these basic lessons’ being learned–don’t elect criminals, and look beyond popularity when choosing your officials–has been long in coming. There is no doubt that the electorate is learning. But it is learning the basics so glacially the country could be under water due to global warming long before it learns enough to put in office those who have a clear vision of where the country should go and how it will get there.

Ten thousand years are too long. But the way things are going, that’s how much time this country needs for any significant change to happen through the elections most Filipinos love so much. Like Browning’s Last Duchess, Filipinos are too easily pleased–and that’s among the reasons why this country is the way it is.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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