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Pinoy Kasi
Rights to vote

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:26:00 11/17/2009

Filed Under: Elections, Eleksyon 2010

LAST FRIDAY, I described the long road to suffrage, both globally and locally. In that column, I emphasized how the right to vote had to be fought for, in many different contexts.

In the Philippines, this right to vote had to evolve, from the time of the Katipunan and the First Filipino Republic, aborted by the American occupation when the right was ?granted? provided you were male, at least 23, owned property, paid taxes, spoke and wrote English or Spanish and swore allegiance to the United States. I didn?t mention that during the Marcos era, voting was an obligation?you could be prosecuted for not voting. Today, as long as you?re at least 18 and more or less of sound mind, you can vote.

Reflecting on our own situation, I realize that it has become more important to talk about the rights, rather than the right, to vote. I?m referring to the many social, economic and political rights that need to be ensured if the right to vote is to be meaningful.

Last week I mentioned that there has always been ambivalence about suffrage. I mentioned Plato, who did not trust ordinary citizens to decide on who should lead. Winston Churchill, a firm believer in democracy, also observed, ?The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.?

Certainly, if you look even at so-called developed democracies like the United States, you wonder about the wisdom of suffrage with their share of political dynasties (Bush the Father and Bush the Son being the most recent) and celebrity presidents and governors.

In the Philippines, the upper classes endlessly complain about our elections being marred by guns, goons, gold and glitter, and tend to blame this situation on the poor, who are characterized as timid, corrupt, gullible. But that kind of analysis is not only condescending, it also fails to recognize a social and historical context to our current situation.

The right to vote is shaped by society and culture, with all its baggage from the past. For many years after the United States was founded, slaves and women could not vote. When the Americans took over the Philippines and extended suffrage to its new colony, they were still carrying their elitist (and sexist) notions about voting, as I described at the beginning of this article. By setting all those conditions on voting, the Americans actually strengthened feudalism in the Philippines because it was mainly the cacique, the landlord class, that could vote.

The guns, goons and gold are part of that feudalism. There are still many parts of the country where people have no choice but to vote for the most powerful landlord-turned-warlord in town. To dare to defy that landlord is to court the wrath of that landlord family. Working in development, I have seen entire barangays neglected?no school supplies, no roads, no midwives or medicines for the health center?for three, six or nine years simply because they didn?t vote for the mayor (or the mayor?s relatives) during the last election.

Fortunately, that kind of perverse control is diminishing, albeit all too slowly. We should, however, be concerned about how the feudal imprint takes other forms of distortions in our elections. Foremost, we continue to look at elections not as an occasion to select leaders but to choose patrons. I am using the Spanish form of patron with a stronger emphasis on ?patronizing? relationships, i.e., a person who may seem benevolent but actually controls you, and keeps you in a dependency relationship.

It?s a very feudal concept, exactly like the relationship between a tenant and the landlord except that in politics, it has many expanded functions. To be known as a ?bata? of the governor, mayor or even barangay captain (notice how a person is reduced to the status of a child) means special access for your needs. Elections then become a way for a potential bata to prove his mettle as, and I apologize to dog-lovers, an obedient lapdog, from running the campaign trail to delivering the votes by hook or by crook.

Fiestas, transactions

It is also this feudal background that transforms our elections into grand fiestas. It is a time for entertainment, courtesy of the politicians. (We forget, of course, that the expenses are actually drawn from taxpayers? money, or for candidates who haven?t won yet, money that they will eventually collect from us if they win.)

The politicians don?t just bring in celebrities to perform but will themselves go through the song-and-dance routines. The bombastic speeches, the mud-slinging, are all often more for show, generating more heat than light. It reduces elections to personalities, with awards for best performers (or at least with best performing celebrity guests).

Again , I must warn against attributing all this to gullibility or naivete on the part of our voters (read ?the poor?). Precisely because we are so feudal, the poor and the usually powerless have had to learn to navigate around our structures. Elections actually open windows of opportunity for negotiations. A book published several years ago, ?De Scribing Elections? (the title is intentional, to highlight the way it de-scribes elections) showed how voters learn to time their demands around elections, to ask for roads, social services (and I?ve found out, even basketball courts).

Unfortunately, much of this negotiation can reinforce the feudal aspect of elections, or what?s sometimes referred to as transactional politics. Worse, it might actually allow the more deceptive politicians to thrive, the ones who know how to time their benevolence around elections, throwing crumbs to the masses but making sure there?s adequate coverage by the press, and putting out announcements and posters with their photographs (get the picture?).

When I talked about Philippine elections last week with the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, I actually ended by saying I was still optimistic. I do worry though that our attempts to reform the system, with its emphasis on educating the poor, actually draws from our feudal mind-set, the idea that we the ilustrado (the enlightened) must convince the poor not to sell their votes or to guard their votes. If we are serious about the right to vote, then we all have to work harder at ensuring that other rights are in place so Filipinos can vote without fear, without having to think of trade-offs and pay-offs.

At the Museum Foundation talk, I went into the need to evolve a system that holds politicians accountable, not for rhetorical promises but for programs and principles, from the day they are sworn into office. As we move into election season, I will write more about how we might build this system.

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