Plebiscite for the blind
If you review the turnout in plebiscites, whether on whole constitutions or amendments, turnout has been, historically, low. The exception was in 1987 where more turned out to vote in the plebiscite than had been officially recorded as having cast their vote in the 1986 snap elections (a little over 20 million in 1986, a little over 22 million in 1987). But that was perceived by many, if not most, as a referendum on the Edsa Revolution and the legitimacy of our newly restored democracy.
While the administration will do its best to frame a constitutional plebiscite as a referendum on the current dispensation, the well-established, widespread ignorance of the public on the constitution and related issues, suggests the electorate could revert to type: a small minority might be passionate about the subject but most will find it an academic debate. This explains, among other things, why Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has launched a trial balloon proposing a plebiscite to coincide with the barangay elections. As an exercise that traditionally features a lower turnout than in national elections, political machinery has an advantage in successfully dictating the results.
This is particularly true since the ill-fated agenda to push a revolutionary government was saddled with a threat to incumbent barangay officials: Anecdotally, some proponents dangled pro-revolutionary government rallies as a kind of go-see or audition, for aspiring new barangay officials whose presence would ensure their being at the front of the line to replace
The power of the incumbents — in such cases, to deny a big turnout in their localities — proved itself, while rally organizers discovered support for the president didn’t guarantee a large turnout in rallies. The Speaker’s proposal for the political class is a win-win: It dangles a fair exchange, incumbent barangay officials have a vested interest to ensure a turnout adequate enough to reelect them, while holding the constitutional plebiscite in the same election means barangay machines can also be mobilized to deliver the outcome the administration desires. Armed with a fresh mandate, barangay officials will enjoy job security going into a new constitution, which they helped make possible in the first place by getting out the vote.
If a plebiscite-as-machine vote is far removed from the discerning vote a plebiscite on constitutional proposals is supposed to be, the wider public as a whole is far less equipped to undertake a discerning vote than at any previous time since we held our first plebiscite on a constitution in 1935. The reason for this is due to media, or, to be precise, the gradual extinction of public affairs programming on a mass scale.
Sometime after the 1990s, public affairs programming retreated from the mainstream and was confined to the ghetto of cable television. At the same time, television news became a kind of Russian roulette game driven by minute-by-minute ratings, making for a randomized experience focused mainly on crime.
What these two developments suggest is that there is a dividing line between those who reached adulthood in the 1990s and those who have become adults since. We can call those who matured from the end of the 20th century to the present as the post-current affairs generation.
At the heart of the media consumption of the public affairs generation was the idea of a national community engaged in the public square, forming a vast audience which weighed and judged both sides in any debate on matters of public interest. Public affairs programming provided multiple venues for this debate.
They are the ones who engage in lengthy discussions in message boards,
E-groups, in Viber and other chats, and who still write letters to the editor and call in and tweet to react to the news.
Young or old, all are generally ignorant when it comes to constitutionally-related matters. Older people still expect to debate the topic, but venues for doing so are very fragmented as to eliminate the possibility of consensus. Younger people do not take it as given that such subjects ought to be debated. And young or old, in a nonpresidential election year, more are inclined to stay home on election day.
There is an old Spanish saying that describes our current situation best. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
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