Deanna Ongpin-Recto of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines (MFP) first approached me several weeks ago about a series of talks her organization was planning, all about elections. She asked if I could be the first speaker. I was reluctant because of my schedules but Deanna was unrelenting and finally, somewhere in India and shortly after meditating under the Bo tree where Gautama Buddha got his enlightenment, I e-mailed her, ?I?m not sure I?m any more enlightened about a topic for the talk but here?s a shot: ?going beyond the 4Gs of elections.??
The 4Gs are guns, goons, gold and glitter, which supposedly characterize elections in the Philippines (and many other countries). I thought that maybe we complain too much about the 4Gs and fail to understand why the 4Gs are there. We might also be overlooking the many strengths of our electoral system, as well as the potentials.
I?m going to share a modified version of my talk, and will divide it into two columns. Today I will deal more with the history of suffrage to emphasize there?s a social and historical context to elections, and this varies from one country to another. Next Wednesday I will be more specific in linking that social context to specific electoral reforms.
Suffrage or the right to vote is a fairly recent development, and a very radical one at that. Through most of human history, we had rulers, rather than leaders. Even in cases where they assumed leadership through some kind of group consensus, rulers wielded absolute power, which they would pass on to their children, until someone else could seize power.
I?m of course over-simplifying matters?many very powerful rulers knew that physical force alone could not maintain empires. Many combined benevolence with the iron fist. Most fabricated the idea of divine right, that they ruled because of a heavenly mandate.
There were many attempts at democracy. The Athenian model, dating back about 500 years before Christ, is well known, where citizens voted directly on laws. It worked for a while?Athens was after all just a city-state?but fell by the wayside. The Greek philosopher Plato was not too enthusiastic about citizens voting for leaders, mainly because he did not trust people to make wise choices. It was a fear that was to resonate throughout history, into our times, and in the Philippines.
Fast forward to the Enlightenment in Europe, and the rise of liberalism. As feudalism declined and capitalism emerged, liberalism took shape with its concepts of individual freedoms and rights. The French and American revolutions were based on liberal principles.
Our history books are full of descriptions of the noble aspirations of these revolutions and the democracies they produced. Much less is said of the growing-up pains, even regressions into authoritarian systems, in these models of democracy.
We forget that in the United States, the right to vote was initially limited only to white men. Slaves and women had to struggle to get the right to vote. Women?s suffrage was, in fact, not assured until the 19th amendment to the US constitution, which was ratified only in 1920.
?Democracy? then is not monolithic, developing with particular characteristics based on particular historical and social contexts. American attitudes toward slaves and women spilled over into politics and the interpretation of rights.
And so throughout history, and across countries, you find variations on the elections. In parliamentary systems, citizens get to elect a local representative to a legislative body whose members are the ones who elect a prime minister. In national elections in the United States, each citizen gets to vote but the final tally is based on another layer of voting: the state-based electoral colleges.
In many countries, too, there may be several rounds of elections. The first round will have many candidates, and subsequent rounds will just involve the top two candidates. The system then ensures that whoever is finally elected does get a stronger popular mandate. (Yale political scientist Robert Dal suggests America?s Founding Fathers instituted this system because they didn?t quite trust the common man to make wise decisions.)
Suffrage in the Philippines is fairly recent. The revolutionary Biak-na-Bato Constitution of 1897 mentions universal suffrage, and apparently the Katipuneros did have elections for their leaders. The Malolos Constitution of 1898 mentions a legislative assembly that had to be constituted, presumably from voting, and the assembly members would then elect a president.
When the Americans occupied the Philippines, they spelled out the qualifications for those who could vote. You had to be male, own real estate worth at least P500, pay taxes amounting to at least P30 a year, be at least 23 years old, and speak, read and write English or Spanish. You also had to swear allegiance to the United States. These qualifications were used for local elections.
In 1916, the Philippine Autonomy Act was passed in preparation for national elections. There were a few modifications to the earlier requirements for voters. Property ownership and tax payments remained the same, but the minimum age was lowered to 21, and literacy included any ?native language.? Curiously, allegiance to the United States was no longer mentioned.
Suffrage became a constitutional right only in 1935, when it was mentioned in the Commonwealth Constitution. Women in the Philippines gained suffrage only in 1937.
Today, voting is not mandatory, and you only need to be 18 to be able to vote. There are also no requirements in terms of literacy or ownership of property.
We see then that suffrage evolves, shaped by social norms and mores (for example, a recognition that the young can think for themselves). I?ve concentrated on the requirements for voters but there?s much more variation, from the method of voting, to eligibility requirements for candidates. (In the United States, there was a paradoxical situation where women could run for office even before they could vote.)
Next Wednesday, I?ll move on to the ways we?ve tried to strengthen the electoral systems.
* * *
Earthlings: Tomorrow the Philippine Animal Welfare Society or PAWS is sponsoring Earthlings, a multi-awarded movie about the treatment of animals, at Trinoma mall in Quezon City, at 9:30 a.m. Tickets are P100. This was originally scheduled in September, but was postponed because of storm ?Ondoy.? Tickets with the September date will still be honored. Do be warned that because the movie has graphic scenes of how animals are maltreated, it is not suitable for minors. You can visit earthlings.com for more information about the film.
* * *