"We shape the government we deserve and live with."
It has begun.
When the dust finally settled at the Commission on Elections office last week, a total of 152 individuals had signified their intention to vie for the 12 Senate seats up for grabs in the upcoming 2019 midterm elections. Thousands more filed certificates of candidacy for congressional and local positions all over the country.
As with all electoral contests in recent memory, battling corruption will no doubt figure in all of the candidates spiels, platforms, and promises. If you remember old campaign quotables like Joseph Estrada’s “Walang kaibigan, walang kumpare, walang kamag-anak—” inaugural speech, a creative version has been and will be adopted by every candidate. More than anything, this attests to the enduring nature of the problem as a perennial ill that had bedeviled government service since time immemorial.
Indeed, despite such repeated promises and a number of presidencies built on anti-corruption campaigns, corruption remains pervasive and systemic. In the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, the Philippines ranked 111th out of 180 countries, more than 20 notches down from a high of 85th in 2014. The explosion of anomalous Priority Development Assistance Fund transactions, or the pork barrel scandal, only served to underscore a continuous decline for the country since then.
More than 30 years after the end of Martial Law, the rule of “guns, goons, and gold” still rings true during election season, perhaps symptomatic of the systemic quality of the problem and the overall ineffectiveness of any government intervention to bring a stop to it. In fact, the electoral process itself can be rife with its own versions of corruption: vote buying, misuse of public funds, and even electoral violence.
Even so, the institutionalization of automated elections—which has become increasingly efficient, quick, and reliable over the last few iterations—still provides an opportunity to challenge the status quo and enable the citizenry to do their part in battling corruption in government. The ballot allows the channeling and consolidation of popular frustration toward potentially meaningful reform, especially in the context of built-in checks and balances being hijacked by corruption.
Because when the political elite routinely take advantage of their resources to manipulate democratic institutions, only increased popular participation can hinder them from achieving their goals of staying in power.
What the political elites fear the most is a citizenry with a united position against electoral corruption—in many ways the mother of all corruption—and which advocates a program-based policy-intensive political discourse, not the superficial, personality-driven campaign that many candidates take advantage of and which allows incompetent individuals to be elected.
Well into the 21st century, what makes taking this stand so easy is the wealth of information available a click away (although this also makes the propagation of disinformation just as conducive). This way, the decision on whom to vote for come May 2019 will rest on the electorate’s good judgment of solid facts about candidates, their opinions and qualifications and advocacies, not on stage gimmicks such as gyrating onstage to the latest dance craze. All in all, this can improve the level and health of discourse during election season.
A sly kind of corruption, if one thinks about it, is the proliferation of political dynasties. Those who defend political clans—especially members of it—say people should have the choice to vote for their favored candidate regardless of whether or not they come from the same family. This rationale cunningly masks the entrenched advantage that political families develop after decades of dominating the local or national political landscape, foremost a machinery built on deeply-rooted connections and a secreted war chest of resources.
If a democracy is in spirit about a level playing field and popular choice, an election routinely dominated by scions of political families becomes a sham because the catalog of choice is already unduly restricted from the very beginning, practically barring new points of view and fresh voices from joining the political landscape.
This is the context in which an anti-dynasty law becomes crucial: it will prevent the undue accumulation of political influence in one single family in one locality, which in many cases spills over to economic influence, as well, leading to issues of corruption and influence peddling in that locality’s affairs. After all, many family fortunes are built on politics, which for many is the biggest, most efficient laundromat for dirty money.
On the flip side, it will reinvigorate the playing field by allowing more Filipinos with more competence, experience, and commitment to participate in governance, ushering in a new revolution of developmental politics.
This paradigm shift could only happen if the tools that come our way during election time are harnessed effectively. It is time to end the era of “guns, goons, and gold,” of electoral contests that patriarchs, matriarchs, and children of political families routinely turn into games of musical chairs, of a culture of corruption that always manifests in the conduct of the elections.
A good place to begin is to not vote for plunderers, gambling barons, drug dealers, murderers, smugglers, and other crooks and hoodlums who have used their position to enable these crimes. Their names and faces—sometimes in police mugshots—should be a sobering reminder that instead of resorting to choosing the lesser evil, Filipinos should instead elevate their standards and pick only the brightest of the land.
How we, as a people, exercise our right to vote in every election will shape the government we deserve and will have to live with.