The sacrament of election
“Soul is to body as elections are to democracy.”
Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista made this fitting observation during the Supreme Court oral arguments on the issue of printing voters’ receipts for the 2016 polls. Cynics may dismiss this, but it may be argued that democracy has somehow evolved into a universally accepted, secular state religion to which even dictatorships and juntas pay lip service.
But this “religion” is unique: Its central tenet is that messianic beings are required to seek the people’s blessing to rule. Revered icons of democracy and dangerous demagogues alike must throw themselves into the gladiatorial arena and press the flesh or smile before the unmerciful camera, with the goal of gaining the most amount of ink blotted near their names etched on paper provided by the National Printing Office (with added security features). The names of the victors are uttered almost as in a benediction, and with that, the liturgical calendar of democratic life is renewed for another few years, barring such incidents as revolutions or coups.
Democracy’s virtues and excesses are undoubtedly more pronounced in this country, complete with intense passion and sometimes near-blind faith of participants in the street-clogging and self-flagellating procession that is Philippine politics. With the goal of somehow changing the current order of existence, devotees will soon queue in communion-like fashion for their turn to invoke the names of their champions on their ballots, and to feed the same into the vote-counting machines along with their prayers.
Consecrated wafers will come in the form of receipts, ordered to be printed by the gods of Padre Faura, which are meant to reassure devotees that the names of their political gamecocks will not have been shaded in vain (there’s no need to post an “Ask for a receipt” sign; the machines print them automatically). Also, thanks in advance are due to all public servants who will be on duty assisting voters on Election Day (blessed are the public school teachers serving as election inspectors, for they are democracy’s lay ministers).
This state religion has its priesthood/Curia —i.e., the Comelec—ordained by the Constitution to administer the sacrament of election to all of democracy’s adherents registered to vote. Like any other priesthood, it has a flawed and complicated history littered with scandals and abuses, yet it continues on its mission to remind candidates and political operators of the eternally damning consequences of naughty behavior, and to whip and cast them away from democracy’s temple if they remain unrepentant.
The Comelec is supposedly granted sweeping powers over the country during election periods, as if the law knew that the national spirit gets easily overwhelmed (it had to give the Comelec metaphorical Homerian beeswax earplugs to drown out cheap campaign jingles and during the country’s odyssey into the uncharted waters of democratic transition, though actual earplugs may just be what the doctor ordered).
Election Day is by no means the only day of obligation for devotees: The national campaign period is a 90-day novena filled with the chaos of organized religion. Diehard fanatics proclaim their candidates’ great deeds and credentials in order to sway nonbelievers and galvanize bailiwicks, though thankfully without the divisive elements of a full-on Trump rally so far. Polling firms, the methodical augurs of democracy’s future, tally the current sentiments of their surveys’ participants, though online polls have been cast into doubt due to false prophets in the form of multiple fake Facebook accounts that champion their candidate’s cause with digital fervor. Idolatrous campaign paraphernalia clutter every street to pay homage to their living and breathing patrons as if it were their feast days, though the concerned government agencies are thankfully enforcing the Fair Elections Act with more vigor this year.
In some areas, local elections are notoriously violent “Game of Thrones” affairs, with noble families and zealous banner-men maneuvering so their dynastic scions will be recognized as the successors to the leadership of the faithful. And like any other religion, democracy has its eccentric practitioners on the fringes, such as those believing that they were divinely anointed to save the Philippines (an “Archangel Lucifer” actually filed a certificate of candidacy for president, and must have been mad as hell for being declared a “nuisance candidate”—a legal term unique to the Philippines).
But with all the demons of democracy’s dark side, such as vote-buying, intimidation, election-related violence, possible system glitches, and even the debate over the rules of the #PiliPinasDebates2016, it’s amazing to see Filipinos keeping the faith in the ballot. Something in our collective gut simply wants this year’s elections to work. No matter who wins, people seek to validate that democracy as an institutional mechanism for meaningful change actually functions. To them, the voting experience is not just about seeing the receipts they can’t keep in the end, but also about the new and all-encompassing order of existence resulting from their ink blots.
By sincere faith and through arduous passion, the country renews itself and its hope for a better future. And this is what the sacrament of election is all about.
Paolo Celeridad, a staff lawyer at the Commission on Elections, graduated from the UP College of Law in 2014, winning the Salvador T. Carlota Best Paper in Administrative Law. He was vice chair of the Philippine Law Journal in 2013.
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