Our Messy Democracy

As I finish writing this column, people continue to line up at their clustered precincts to vote. Personally and through the EMOs (Election Monitoring Operatives) of the Ateneo School of Government, I have followed the reports of problems in the elections. Voters have complained of long lines, not finding their precincts or of broken PCOS machines. There are also some reports of election related violence. The counting of votes will probably be delayed but it will start late in the evening or early this morning. Whether the results are credible, untainted by cheating, remain to be seen. In any case, some are saying this is the “worst elections ever”.

Before making such a sweeping conclusion, we might want to be more circumspect and rigorous. After all, every Election Day I remember has always been this chaotic and I go back to when I was six years old in 1965 when I sat down with my maternal grandfather to listen to the radio giving accounts of Ferdinand Marcos winning the presidency. So far, this election does not seem to be any different than previous ones except the type of the problems we are seeing.

The historical record, as dug up by my son Eman, an AB History graduate, confirms a pattern of problematic elections. At the advent of Spanish rule, the colonizers had to take back direct voting for local officials because those election exercises were tainted with fraud and violence. In the Legal History course I teach at the UP College of Law, I explain to my students how Spain got sovereignty over the Philippines by faking a referendum where the inhabitants of our islands supposedly consented to pay tribute to the King of Spain. Centuries later, we repeated this experience in the 1972 citizens’ assemblies that were used to justify continued martial rule and the ratification of the 1973 Constitution.

In 1907, the United States introduced its form of democracy to the Philippines when it allowed elections for the Philippine Assembly. But there were so many restrictions, including property and gender qualifications, on the right to vote that most inhabitants were effectively disenfranchised.  It was also during the American era, in the form of the Quezon-Osmeña rivalry, that politics of personality, rather than of platforms, became prevalent in our political culture.

The post-colonial period was also problematic. In 1946, to ensure the passage of the parity rights amendment, the will of the people expressed in the elections was effectively thwarted by the expulsion of the members of the Democratic Alliance from Congress.  The 1949, 1961, 1965, and 1971 elections saw many reports of fraud and violence. The 1949 Presidential Elections, pitting Jose Laurel against the winner Elpidio Quirino, was particularly infamous and became known as the “”dirtiest election” in Philippine history. The 1971 senatorial election is notorious for the Plaza Miranda Bombing which killed several people and injured many politicians.

The elections during the Martial Law years were actually more peaceful but, to many, they were not exactly clean and credible. The 1978 parliamentary elections saw the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) sweep almost all seats except in Central Visayas and Northern Mindanao. This KBL dominance was again repeated in 1984 although more opposition candidates won. The 1986 Presidential elections saw President Marcos proclaimed winner over Cory Aquino amidst accusations of systematic fraud. More recently, in the 1992 and 2004 Presidential elections, the losers have been quick to file election cases against the winners charging fraud.

So with such a history, what is new in this election that makes people so scared that this could be the worst ever for the Philippines?

The obvious answer is the adoption of a new technology – the Automated Election System. There was universal desire and a political consensus to do this precisely to prevent the uncreative repetition of our flawed election history. But the specifics of the technology and how to roll it out were hotly debated. Unfortunately, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) did not succeed in forging agreement on contentious issues. Down to Election Day, it has been criticized and second-guessed on its decisions.

Change management in itself is already difficult but it becomes even more challenging in an atmosphere of extreme distrust. In my view, the problems of this election are more about the former (change management) rather than a widespread conspiracy to steal the elections. For example, the long lines could have been anticipated, even avoided (as suggested by a study the Ateneo School of Government conducted). Of course, there is a political economy of incompetence: bad implementation, even if unintentional, allows evil people to manipulate processes towards their favored ends. This is why we have to be both patient and vigilant.

What many of us forget is that the front liners in our elections are the public school teachers who constitute the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs). If anything, with what they have to put up with in their schools, our teachers are diligent, innovative, resilient and courageous. I saw these qualities today when we voted. I will not blame our teachers if things go wrong, but if we pull this off, they should be given a standing ovation.

Three weeks ago, I was in Athens and visited The Phynx, the hill by the Acropolis where the Athenians debated and decided issues. I shared with my sons Eman and Rico, both first time voters, how democracy was born in that place and ended with this lesson from the great Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and especially Aristotle:  politics is noble and essential for a good and happy society. We imagined how messy democracy must have been for the Athenians with everyone trying to have a say. A number of them, as some Filipinos might now want, would have given up on the idea.

As for me, I will also choose democracy no matter how imperfect. The enduring image for me in this election is seeing senior citizens side by side with 18 year olds laboring over their choices, making sure they do not make a mistake. We tried authoritarian rule and it did not work for us. Filipinos are so schizophrenic: we like to praise ourselves and say how good we are but in the same breath we badmouth fellow Filipinos and our institutions as if they were the worst in the world. They are not. I have traveled everywhere and worked with governments in many countries. We have serious problems but there are a lot of things we should be grateful for. Our messy democracy is one of those.

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