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Enabling Democracy

"Only more participation—not less—can send a strong message that the people will not take such attacks on democracy sitting down."

Philippine elections has been recording one of the highest voter turnout in the world, a sign of a vibrant populace raring to exercise their right as citizens of a democratic republic. However, our election season is often marred by gruesome electoral violence, symptomatic of a backward political culture in which “guns, goons, and gold” still reign supreme.

 With half a year to go before the 2019 midterm polls, it is perhaps opportune to revisit the idea of the elections in the context of such energetic, and some say the “freest,” style of democracy. It is a system that some critics say is “too free” and has weakened some of the basic democratic institutions in the country with corruption. All corrupt governance are, in fact, ultimately rooted in the electoral system, the moldering mother, if you will, of all forms of government corruption. 

This is perhaps truer now more than ever, some three decades after the People Power Revolution and the restoration of democracy. Not only will the 2019 polls be seen as a referendum for the polarizing administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, it will also serve as a critical juncture in the Philippines’ continuing struggle toward genuine and progressive democracy.

On paper, political contestation is one of the major hallmarks of a participatory democracy: every so often the balance of power tilts in favor of the people as they are given the chance to evaluate the position of incumbent and outgoing leaders of government at various levels and decide to whom to give their mandate. This regular exercise also represents a test of institutions, in particular on whether they can serve to facilitate or impede democracy.

But power for the most part rests on the people, who, in the act of choosing candidates, get to actualize a significant part of their political rights. As part of a broader exercise, the vote can be seen as an investment: their participation signifies their stake in the future of their communities and the country at large. And if the consistently high voter turnout were any indication, this basic premise of the elections is fully and passionately realized in the Philippines by Filipinos.

Still on paper, the elections also serve as a regular opportunity to either maintain or challenge the status quo. By choosing candidates with character, platforms, and policy stands that reflect their own, voters in a way forward their own interests and participate in a debate of ideas. Broadly speaking, opinion polls can also sway the prevailing discussions during campaigns to issues that mean most to voters. 

For instance, recent surveys reveal that high inflation, stagnant wages, and job creation, among others, are still the issues that most people deem important. An astute and truly service-oriented candidate listens to such a pulse and may proactively aim to make such important issues center to a campaign.

 While these are promising in theory, the reality on the ground is much less chipper. The arrival of election season in the Philippines is notoriously compared to a circus-like political charade; the supposed political and social benefits of such an exercise rendered doubtful at best. Three key practices dilute the potentially radical spirit of the elections in the Philippine context.

Firstly, the rule of “guns, goons, and gold” has, since time immemorial, been an unchallenged reality that routinely characterizes the arrival of the election season. Political rivalry is resolved and exacerbated by violence, including harassment and assassinations. Dirty money is used to buy votes, taking advantage of vulnerable voters who are probably too hungry to resist the temptation of a quick fix—even if it means bartering their future.

Secondly, political dynasties have received much attention lately precisely because the cases have been far too glaring and too numerous to ignore. But the prevalence of political clans is only symptomatic of how the very electoral contest has long been susceptible to the manipulation of the elite. 

Not only is there a constitutional prohibition on dynasties, its proliferation is a disservice to the people as they allow the concentration of power to a few—the antithesis to democracy—and in the process limits the playing field because of the sheer political advantage of such clans. These clans have become dependent on political power and thus must do all to perpetuate their power.

Finally, corruption also mars the elections—from violence and vote buying to the misuse of public funds. This is crucial in this juncture because the incumbent administration had won on a supposedly grassroots campaign against corruption in government, a promise that has yet to materialize.

All in all, these practices undermine the potential value of elections. They alert us to the reality that while on paper a vibrant election season signals a healthy democracy, there are many factors that prevent such vibrancy from translating into progress.

But is the alternative to an often messy democracy worth considering? Despite the seeming rise of a clamor for or openness to an authoritarian leadership, a recent Social Weather Station survey revealed that 84 percent of Filipinos remain satisfied with the way democracy works in the country, with only 20 percent conceding that “under some circumstances” an authoritarian one can be more desirable.

As a society then, the elections is a time for assessment, analysis and action. It is a cyclical opportunity to correct the mistakes and vote for a the leaders who have the integrity, the right qualifications and competence to run our country. The fact that corrupt practices amplify during this season only serves to underscore how some quarters are committed to protecting the corrupt status quo. In this light, only more participation—not less—can send a strong message that the people will not take such attacks on democracy sitting down.

Topics: Orlando Oxales , Enabling Democracy , Philippine elections , 2019 midterm polls
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