On the surface at least, the current election campaign appears to be a slight improvement over past ones. The Commission on Elections’ strict enforcement of its rules on poster size and common poster areas, for instance, has drastically reduced the blizzard of banners and posters that used to choke every available space in the country come election time. Airtime limits have also generally held despite the late-breaking status quo ante order by the Supreme Court, sparing the public of airwaves clogged day and night with political ads.
These are laudable incremental changes. Once the dust settles after May 13, however, it’s a safe bet that this exercise will still be seen as a rehash of the tired, dysfunctional politics of old.
Consider the critical issues that should have occupied front and center in this election: Even as the country’s economy has received consistently glowing marks from international observers, the rates of poverty and unemployment remain staggeringly high. The boom times, in fact, only seem to be reinforcing the obscene social inequality that has been the hallmark of Philippine society throughout its history.
Law and order, too, is quite a joke—if only the joke weren’t on us. The victims and survivors of the Maguindanao massacre are still awaiting justice; same with numerous victims of human rights abuses. The Philippines continues to rank as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. And, as Cezar Mancao’s recent no-sweat escape from official custody shows, the influential, powerful and high-profile in this country have the option of going on the lam without any serious risk of pursuit or recapture by a lackadaisical government.
Social injustice, economic inequality, the breakdown in public safety and security, not to mention the blackouts in Mindanao, the long-festering insurgency, the environmental blight everywhere—yet what, so far, have been the most talked-about topics this election season? Chiz Escudero’s show-biz romance, for one. Jack Enrile’s shady background, for another. Loren Legarda’s undeclared property in New York, Nancy Binay’s aversion to debates, Migz Zubiri’s and Koko Pimentel’s volleys at each other, the sordid Erap-Lim mudfest.
The politicians and their dirty-tricks departments are not entirely to blame for this. Media play a part in the disproportionate share of shallow, sensationalistic stories in the news. Much of the public, too, as dispatches from the campaign frontlines attest, end up basically tuning out in the face of issues-based rhetoric from the candidates, preferring instead the usual populist bombast spiced with singing-dancing divertissements.
One institution could have made a difference by swinging the debate back to the substantive issues. The Catholic Church could have used its powerful voice and widespread reach to demand that candidates vying for public office measure up to the task by steeping themselves in the problems of the country and offering pertinent, viable solutions for them. The Church could have raised the flag for social justice, better governance, the war on poverty and corruption, this government’s seeming inability to consistently walk the talk on its “daang matuwid” mantra, etc.
Sadly, in quite a disservice to its voting flock, the Church has chosen to see this election as a one-issue exercise—sort of a referendum on its bete noire, the reproductive health bill. In the wake of its defeat in the campaign to junk the bill, the worst tendencies of the Church has been on display this season, from reducing the debate to the candidates’ RH bill affiliations irrespective of their other (perhaps more telling) qualities, to the actual demonizing of pro-RH names via the “Team Buhay/Team Patay” posters adopted by some dioceses.
If only the good bishops could apply the same zeal and energy they’ve expended going after pro-RH candidates to the fight for social justice that even Pope Francis himself has made the early centerpiece of his young papacy. But, given the tunnel-vision moral guidance emanating from the local Church these days, conscientious Catholics will have to go beyond simplistic “pro-life/pro-death” labels and to be extra-discerning about their choices at the polls next week.
“As she stepped out of a Manila church after Sunday Mass,” reported the Agence France Presse recently, “retired civil servant Minnie Nicholas, 62, told AFP she considered herself a devout Catholic and an active parishioner.
“But when asked if the birth control issue would influence her voting, she laughed and asked: ‘How is that related to running a country?’”