Our democracy is still messy

This is a revised version of a column I wrote on Election Day in 2010. That was entitled “Our messy democracy.” I am not exactly surprised by this but I did not have to do a lot of changes. Our democracy is still messy; and hopefully as the results are finalized today or the next two days, we will be again congratulating ourselves.

Like 2013, as I finish writing this column, people continue to line up at their clustered precincts to vote. Being active in the Grace Poe campaign, I have followed the reports of problems in the elections. Voters have complained of long lines, not finding their precincts or of broken Voting Counting Machines (what we use to call PCOS). There are also some reports of election related violence. Whether the results are credible, untainted by cheating, remain to be seen.

There were last minute dirty tricks by one campaign on Sunday, disseminating false news of the withdrawal of Senator Grace Poe and Vice-President Jojo Binay. But that was quickly squelched and many people I know who posted the news quietly retreated and took it off their Facebook timelines. My Facebook post about it was attacked by trolls from that campaign but my own team was able to repel those attacks. Sadly, that took time and energy out of our final efforts to nudge the elections closer to what we would like it to be.

Every Election Day I remember has always been 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. This time around, another Marcos is on the ballot for Vice-President and we will know soon enough if he would have vindicated his family name.

The historical record, as dug up in 2010 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 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.

In 2010, there was fear in the adoption of a new technology – the Automated Election System. Unfortunately, even as we have done automated elections twice already, the Commission on Elections still has not succeeded in forging agreement on contentious issues. Down to this Election Day, the election body 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. 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). They are honest, diligent, innovative, resilient and courageous. This election, we should again give them standing ovation.

In 2013, a few weeks before the elections, I was in Athens, Greece and visited The Phynx. This is the hill by the Acropolis where the Athenians debated and decided issues. I shared with my sons Eman, Rico, and Rafa, 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 contentious 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. Indeed, our democracy is not perfect, not deliberative  enough, and is certainly inefficient. Lets improve this so there is less paranoia and inconvenience.

Regardless, I will also choose democracy no matter how messy. One enduring image for me in this election, as it was in 2010 and 2013, is seeing senior citizens side by side with 18 year olds laboring over their choices, making sure they do not make a mistake. In this age of social media, another enduring image are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts of Filipinos proudly showing their fingers covered with indelible ink, a badge of honor signifying they have done their civic duty of voting.

Filipinos are 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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