There’s the Rub

Bane

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What a difference an election makes. Three years ago, the one thing that occupied our minds was the extent to which Arroyo’s government would cheat. It was the first time votes would be counted electronically, which caused widespread anxiety and fear. The possibilities for cheating had just been jacked up a hundredfold, computerized canvassing threatening to make “Hello Garci” look like child’s play.

Gus Lagman warned so, Jun Lozada warned so, I warned so. Sure Noynoy Aquino was up there in all the surveys, but the question was, would his votes be counted?

But lo and behold, none of these fears materialized. Before election day was out, the presidential results were already known: Aquino was leading far beyond the capabilities of his rivals to catch up with, much less overtake. The swiftness and relative cleanliness of it stunned pretty much everyone—including me—who had thought cheating would never be abolished in our lifetimes.

I still don’t know if it has been so, or would be so. But meanwhile, something has changed, and that is the public expectation of cheating. Few now seriously consider we’d be back in Arroyo’s time when it could be expected as a matter of course. Though concerns have been raised about the source code, some clamoring for it to be made public, they have not been of the scale or stridence they were three years ago. And unless there are glaring or eye-popping gaps between expectation and result, the elections will generally be taken, like the previous one, as reasonably clean.

Other banes or scourges remain however, if indeed this one has entirely gone. Two come to mind, the first one easily, being a patent boon or scourge, the other not so easily, being both a boon and bane.

The first is “command votes,” which is just a fanciful term for bloc voting. Chief of those blocs being the religious groups, or cults, or churches, and chief of them being the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). Gringo Honasan points it out. The ones who are languishing at the bottom of the ladder in the senatorial race—such as he—would now be making a beeline for the INC, commander in chief of the command votes. Equally so would be those candidates locked in a dogfight with their rivals. Chief of them Asiong Salonga and Dirty Harry, pitted in the Battle for Manila. Though Erap still holds a lead, Lim has stormed mightily back, and both are now looking at the INC to tilt the balance in their favor.

I can’t imagine a worse scourge. We do our best to discourage the practice in the Muslim South of one village-one vote, or of chieftains getting their clans or tribes to vote as one. Yet we do nothing to discourage the religious groups, or churches, from doing exactly the same thing, or worse. In the case of the INC, it’s not just one small constituency, it’s one whole congregation. That’s anti-democratic in the extreme, the vote being the most basic expression of democracy. It’s also, not quite incidentally, anti-constitutional, openly flouting the separation of Church and State.

The bane of it is obvious. You win with that kind of help, to whom will you be beholden afterward—your constituents or your benefactor? What exactly the INC’s help means, you see in its efforts to keep Magtanggol Gatdula, a pillar of the church, as NBI chief despite P-Noy firing him for extortion. Thankfully, P-Noy never solicited it and never felt beholden to it.

Frankly, I don’t know why we don’t ban it. Beyond legal sanctions, I don’t know why we don’t make this practice an object of scorn and opprobrium. It’s worse than epal or dynastic politics. Hell, it’s even worse than vote-buying. I don’t know why we don’t hang a symbolic sign around the candidates who do this, saying, “Huwag tularan:  Mambebenta ng kaluluwa.”

The second thing is surveys, which are both boon and bane to elections. The boon is that it has helped curb cheating. That was so in particular in the last elections. There are many reasons why the expected massive cheating did not take place, but I suspect that one of them was the surveys which showed P-Noy, despite some bumps along the way, to be miles ahead of the pack. Given the explosive outpouring of grief and goodwill, commiseration and celebration, that accompanied Cory’s death, massive cheating would have been an engraved invitation to revolt. Election day showed so: It was an Edsa masquerading as an election.

How would we have known there was massive cheating? Pretty much only through the surveys. They had established an expectation, or indeed a sense of inevitability, of a P-Noy victory.

That expectation, or sense of inevitability, is also what makes it a bane in elections. Throughout the years, I’ve been against surveys in elections for that reason. As the threat of cheating diminishes, the threat of conditioning increases. It’s inversely proportional to it. In other countries, surveys creating a bandwagon effect are not that much of a problem because elections rest on something more substantial than the popularity of the candidates. Debates matter, policies matter, what the candidates would be expected to do if they win matters. We saw that in the United States where Barack Obama’s ratings plummeted after he lost the first debate.

Here, where the candidates do not really represent anything, surveys can be crippling. Indeed, here, where going along with the crowd is reckoned the wise thing to do—you’d be a fool to vote for the Ang Kapatiran candidates or Teddy Casiño, they’re way down there—surveys can be baneful. They help push back thought and discernment. Additionally, they supply a moral justification, or excuse, for selling votes: “He’s going to win anyway, might as well sell my vote to him. Where’s the harm in that?”

Ah, but we’ve got a long way to go yet in the daang maayos.

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