"Filipinos want their legislators to empathize—or at least appear to empathize—with their plight."
Because it is a midterm election, the 12 senatorial posts up for grabs in May are the most contested and most in the spotlight. Three years after the political winds shifted from the Aquino administration to the populist Duterte presidency, the upcoming contest provides ample opportunity to examine the rationale behind the Filipino voting public’s decisions.
In a political briefing for the diplomatic community conducted by the Stratbase ADR Institute, perspectives on the dynamics and players of the upcoming elections was the main theme of the event.
The findings from surveys conducted by Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations (SWS) provide us with initial hints.
Asked what “qualities of a leader” they look for or deem important, 56 percent of Filipino voters answered “pro-poor,” according to the Pulse Asia poll. This is followed by: knowledgeable in the management of government (48 percent) and fighting anomalies in government (46 percent), able to enforce the law equally on all Filipinos (37 percent), having a deep understanding of economic issues (29 percent) and a clean record as a government official (24 percent).
Other traits include having done many things for the country and one’s constituents (21 percent), being hardworking (20 percent), and, finally, being trusted by most citizens and having a vision for the country (both 9 percent).
These are more or less confirmed by the SWS survey, which asked more specifically what traits Filipino voters looked for in senatorial candidates. Also topping the list was “pro-poor,” answered by a total of 42 percent of the respondents. Out of this, 22 percent said they prefer those who help the poor while 20 percent said they want those who help people who are in need. While cited in the survey as separate qualities, they referred to more or less similar characteristic: a compassionate, caring attitude toward the needy or marginalized.
This was followed by not corrupt (25 percent), with good personal characteristics, including generous, responsible, and fair, (21 percent), trustworthy (21 percent), and able to fulfill campaign promises (14 percent).
Disturbing, and again as in the Pulse Asia survey, only 3 percent of the respondents wanted candidates who are bright or intelligent, and only 2 percent preferred those with plans for growth or vision for the country. Taken at face value, this is frustrating as they indicate a Filipino voting public that chooses to vote with their hearts and senses instead of through a sensible appraisal of platforms vis-a-vis pressing social issues. It confirms what has been happening in all our elections: Philippine elections remain personality-driven because most voters want their legislators to empathize—or at least appear to empathize—with their plight.
Never mind that senators are supposed to intelligently debate on key issues toward crafting impactful laws. Voters are more concerned with character or personality: do they have a heart for the poor? Are they honest and trustworthy? Can they fulfill their campaign promises? Never mind their stance on federalism or same-sex marriage, the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility or rice tariffication. Never mind if their educational or professional background, if any, have absolutely nothing to do with the law or public service.
It is little wonder than that campaign sorties today are still largely dominated by fanfare, often with celebrities and a lot of dancing and singing, instead of a substantive discussion of issues and candidates’ platforms. Visibility, name recall, and catchphrases are paramount, which explains why our landscapes are littered with posters bearing nothing but names in bold letters and smiling faces, why billions of pesos are spent on TV and radio commercials, why our social media feeds are inundated with gimmicky campaigns and black propaganda.
Buoyed by the win of President Duterte, more and more candidates had been keen to follow the populist playbook. This sets aside a platform-based campaign in favor of one that is personality-oriented, with a focus on tugging at emotions, at offering radical-sounding, utopian solutions to otherwise complex problems that need real expertise, especially those that lie perennially close to people’s hearts: food, health, education, peace and order, and the like. A perceived affinity with the still-popular President, for instance, seems to be more effective than experience, credibility, and vision combined.
All fanfare and charisma, no substance. There is little incentive, it seems, for candidates to flesh out their platforms of government or thoroughly explain their stance on various issues. These things are perceived as not only unnecessary but boring. Easy-to-digest storylines and punchy, memorable slogans are more effective. Debates, which should be logically par for the course because the Senate floor is a site of discourse, are seen as optional, and for some candidates even a liability so many will skip them altogether but are still rewarded with victories.
The knee-jerk reaction is to put the blame solely on the majority of the Filipino electorate, who is seen as immature, if not lazy or easily starstruck. But this isolates the problem and does not take into account, for instance, that a discerning mind is a function of a broader education, which in this country is more often than not a privilege that many people don’t enjoy. This translates into a vicious cycle: people elect so-called bad leaders who do nothing to reform the electoral system, which in turn helps recreates the same problem and keeps them in power.
But as with any cycle, the first step in disrupting the cycle is to recognize its entrenched, circular quality. The electorate should carefully consider the consequences of their vote with the same seriousness of big personal decisions that will directly affect one’s family.
The elections offer a unique opportunity of changing the status quo. There is a concrete link, for instance, between corruption in government and why our hospitals and schools are underfunded, why our transport system is dysfunctional, why the quality of our roads has deteriorated. Changing all these begins with that crucial day in May when for one day, the people hold power over the country’s political destiny.
Stratbase ADRi President Dindo Manhit said, “The electorate should be keener and more cautious in choosing the right candidate because they may fall into the trap of sloganeering strategies of many of our populist candidates. Continuous voters’ education and participation are essential to democratizing our electoral contests and reforming our political system. Exercising our power to vote entails political maturity and critical discernment for the voters to choose the right candidates that truly embody the leadership qualities that they aspire for.”