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No Free Lunch

Reversing voter education

My family is awaiting a new helper from Mindanao who had agreed weeks ago to work for us, but specifically asked to defer coming until after the elections. It was not because of a sense of patriotic duty to exercise her solemn right to vote. Rather, she candidly admitted that she didn’t want to miss out on receiving money being handed out by vote-buying candidates in their locality.

My own hometown of Los Baños figured in the news before the elections for rampant vote-buying. Our town is not unique, of course, as it’s a sad fact that many voters all over the country can indeed be bought, and candidates routinely outdo one another in massive vote-buying to win. It has become so common that there’s hardly any sense of wrongdoing associated with it anymore, be it on the part of the vote-buyer or seller. Even the President appears to endorse it.

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We’ve heard it said, and will keep hearing it said again for time to come, that wide masses of Filipino voters are “tanga” or “bobo” for voting for the kind of leaders that we elect into office. The familiar refrain is back, as we see yet another crop of election winners that include, beyond vote-buyers, persons with reputations for thievery, plunder or immorality; public celebrities or show business personalities with no known qualifications for governance; and even returning officials with known records of incompetence and nonperformance. A spurious quote attributed to former Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew is making the rounds in social media, supposedly calling Filipinos stupid for perennially voting bad leaders into office.

The common inference, then, is that there is a need to “educate the ‘tangang masa’ who vote the wrong kind of candidates into office.” But such calls for massive “voter education” give me (and many others, I’m sure) some discomfort, with the seeming arrogance and insensitivity such sentiment implies. Perhaps it’s those very people calling for voter education that first need to be “educated,” to understand at a more fundamental level why “lesser mortals” vote the way they do. Many have expressed the need for the economic and intellectual elite to listen to and engage more with the masa whom they have failed and neglected, and whose votes simply reflect their long simmering dissatisfaction with the existing order.

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As one writer recently put it: “What we see during elections is an accumulation of the collective resentment, frustration, and even anger of many Filipinos from past years or even decades.” It stems from the failure of society’s political and economic elite to uplift the lives of the wide majority left further behind as they did their own. After decades of seeing little improvement in their lives, it’s natural for the common people to embrace leaders who break out of the familiar mold—as with a number of the new victorious candidates for the Senate and local positions.

The election to the presidency years ago of Joseph Estrada, the erstwhile movie actor turned politician, sparked much of those same sentiments we are hearing now. An idealistic group I belong to going by the tag “[email protected]” embarked on a series of multisectoral dialogues we called “National Initiative on Philippine Leadership” (with a naughty acronym suggestive of a part of the female anatomy).

Seeing wide calls for voter education, we believed that the need was not to preach to and “educate” the people, but rather, to listen to and be educated by them, particularly on common Filipinos’ idea of responsive leadership. Only with such clearer understanding can those who believe our politics to be dysfunctional figure out how we can all work collectively toward achieving widely satisfactory electoral outcomes, hence better leadership.

NIPL ran animated dialogues in various parts of the country for a year, until lack of resources prevented it from reaching many more. But it demonstrated a good, albeit gradual, way to nurture our politics toward eventual maturity—on the conviction that Filipinos, leaders and followers alike, should learn from one another as we collectively shape a widely agreed image of what the leaders of this nation should be like.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Elections, Filipinos, leaders, NIPL, No Free Lunch, vote buying, voter education
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