2010 Elections 101


Automated elections.  The Philippines will hold its first national computerized election on May 10, 2010 to choose its national and local officials from president down to city and town councilors.

Electronic voting is not perfect.  The Bush-Gore legal battle over a few hundred votes in Florida during the 2000 U.S. presidential election immediately comes to mind.  But that should not deter us from shifting to automated elections because the alternative manual voting and counting of votes is no better and has long been discarded by advanced democracies around the world.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) should conduct a nationwide voter’s orientation program to ensure that voters would understand how to use the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines.  With this, when the voters enter the polling place, they already know what to do.

We may experience isolated cases of system “hiccups” and confusion over the use of the new voting machines on election day, but the benefits of automated elections outweigh momentary inconvenience and confusion.  Should we experience any of these, my advice to fellow voters is to stay calm and be patient with the new system.

Parallel outcomes.  With the elections still half a year away, things are already shaping up that this presidential election will draw some parallel outcomes from the November 2008 U.S. presidential election.

Non-partisan Filipino voters will be looking for a ‘transformational leader” who could pull them out of the rut, as the Americans perceived and elected President Barack Obama as the agent of change needed to pull them out of socio-economic doldrums.  Gilberto Teodoro, Jr., the standard-bearer of the ruling coalition party Lakas-Kampi-CMD, will face the daunting task of defending the unpopular Macapagal-Arroyo administration, as U.S. senator John McCain, the Republican Party standard-bearer, reluctantly defended the likewise unpopular Bush administration.  Leading opposition candidates Manuel Villar, Benigno Aquino III and Joseph Estrada will focus their attacks on the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, as then candidate Obama transformed the Bush administration as the main issue of the election.

The parallel ends there, for now.  We cannot discount a win by the opposition, as happened with the election of President Obama.

Party system.  The Philippines has a multiparty system with numerous major and minor political parties.  The system allows for greater representation of minority viewpoints within a pluralistic society.  In practice though, the system may be marked by instability since the coalitions that minority parties must form with other minority parties to achieve a governing majority are often fragile.

Some members of the House of Representatives are elected under a party-list system.  The party and not the candidate person is voted upon in  this system.  Only parties representing the so-called marginalized sectors are allowed to run in the party-list election.  To gain a seat, a party must win at least 2% of the total votes cast for a particular election.  A party-list party is limited to three seats irregardless of the total number of votes it garnered.

Multiparty system ensures that each national election will draw a rich variety of presidential aspirants, from the standard-bearers of major political parties to the publicity-seekers and the bizzare characters.  Presidential aspirants who claimed to be God the Father, the resurrected Jesus Christ and some spiritual beings have filed certificates of candidacy (COCs) in past elections.

The Comelec will again be put to task reviewing and qualifying tens of thousands of COCs for the 17,888 elected positions that will be up for grabs in next year’s election.  It will hold numerous public hearings in various parts of the country just to sort the legitimate from “nuisance candidates” out of the thousands seeking elective positions.

Nuisance candidates.  Section 69 of the Omnibus Election Code describes a “nuisance candidate” as a candidate who filed a COC to put the election process in mockery, or to cause confusion among the voters by the similarity of the names of the registered candidates, or has no bona fide (“made in good faith”) intention to run for the office for which the certificate has been filed.

A lack of “bona fide intention to run”, according to Comelec Resolution No. 645, is demonstrated by a candidate who does not belong to or was not nominated by any registered political party of national constituency, a presidential or vice-presidential candidate who does not present a running mate or senatorial candidates, and a candidate who does not have a platform of government and is not capable of waging a nationwide campaign.

Technically, the Philippine Constitution, the highest law of the land, is silent on “nuisance presidential candidates.”  Section 2 of Article VII provides for a minimal qualification for president, hence the constitutional requirement for a presidential candidate“No person may be elected President unless he is natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least forty years old on the day of the election, and a resident of the Philippines for at least ten years immediately preceding such election.” 

“Nuisance candidates” are of course disqualified from running.

Electoral behavior.  Elections in the Philippines are “a game of perception.”  The late President Ferdinand Marcos was perceived by the voter to be a brilliant lawyer and politician with superior vision, and so he won in 1965.  Former President Joseph Estrada was perceived to be pro-poor and pro-Filipino, and so he won in 1998.  Incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was perceived to be better qualified and experienced in state matters than her closest rival, the late movie star Fernando Poe, Jr., and so she won in 2004.   Of course, voter’s perception seldom lives up to expectations but, as they say, “that’s how the cookie crumbles” in Philippine elections.

Candidates coin and associate themselves with slogans and catchphrases to boost their public image or project a social cause.  Some of the popular ones are Ferdinand Marcos’ “Iginuhit ng tadhana“, Corazon Aquino’s “Tama na, sobra na!” and Joseph Estrada’s “Erap para sa mahirap.”

The publicists of Estrada went as far as popularizing no-brainer Erap jokes to boost Estrada’s mass appeal and name recall.  And it worked.

Public perception is so hard to cultivate and maintain, which is why only a handful of men and women can become president.

Campaign kitty.  Money, lots of it, will always be a crucial resource in any election campaign, in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world.  R.A. 7166 (Synchronized Elections Act of 1991) sets the election spending cap to PhP10 (about US$0.22 at today’s rate) per voter for a presidential or vice-presidential candidate.  Based on a conservative estimate of 50 Million registered voters in 2010, a presidiential candidate can spend as much as PhP500 Million (about US$10.74 Million) without violating the law.

Some election experts say the cap is not realistic and moneyed candidates routinely violate it anyway.  They say presidential  candidates need to raise and spend anywhere from PhP2.5-5.0 Billion (about US$53.7-107.4 Million) to win.

For all the headaches a president will face and embrace throughout his or her tenure of office, why spend billions for a job that pays a yearly salary of PhP693,000 (about US$14,800)?  Does that mean they all steal?  Or all for the service of country and the Filipino people?  Some sense of nationalism, perhaps?  The benefits must be good.

Money often decides the outcome of local elections.  But if a candidate is running for president, he or she will need more than huge amount of money to win.  Billionaire and former ambassador Eduardo Cojuangco and former first lady Imelda Marcos had (and still have) “tons” of money for the 1992 presidential election, yet they were both roundly beaten by former President Fidel Ramos.

Only one will emerge winner in next year’s presidential election and the losers will include moneyed candidates.

Presidential candidates usually raise much of their campaign kitty from “contributions” by big business, interest groups and the Chinese community.  Fat commissions from government contracts are rumored to be the principal source of campaign money for many incumbent officials.

Political dynasties.  The 1987 Philippine Constitution, in its Declaration of Principles and State Policies, provides:  “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law (highlighting mine).”  This constitutional provision clearly prohibits political dynasties in the Philippines, but the phrase “as maybe defined by law” means that the provision needs an enabling law before it can be applied.  Unfortunately, no such law has been enacted by Congress for the past twenty-two years.  And it is easy to understand why.

A recent study made by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has revealed that two-thirds of the members of Congress are from political dynasties.  These members constitute the majority in Congress and cannot be expected to legislate the demise of their families as political entities.  As long as they remain in Congress they will tend to legislate in favor of their own interest to the detriment of the majority of the Filipino people.

The PCIJ study also traced the roots of political dynasties in the Philippines to the introduction of electoral politics by the Americians at the turn of the last century, when voting was initially limited to the rich and landed who then monopolized public office.

Congressman Mickey Macapagal Arroyo, a third generation politician from the Macapagal clan of Pampanga, was quoted by the media to have said “we cannot be considered a political dynasty because people vote for us.”  Of course, everybody knows that his mother is President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the late former President Diosdado Macapagal is his maternal grandfather.  His younger brother “Datu” (Diosdado)  and paternal uncle Iggy Arroyo are congressmen too.

In my home province of Nueva Ecija, local elections have been dominated by the Joson family for half a century now since the late family patriarch Eduardo “Tatang” Joson became governor in 1959.  Other prominent political dynasties in the country include the families of Marcos in Ilocos Norte, Singson in Ilocos Sur, Aquino and Cojuangco in Tarlac, Magsaysay in Zambales, Macapagal in Pampanga, Laurel and Recto in Batangas, Romualdez in Leyte, Osmeña in Cebu, Roxas and Villareal in Capiz, Lucman in Lanao del Sur and Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte, just to name a few.  It is estimated that there are more than 150 political dynasties in the country today. 

Political dynasties are not good for Philippine democracy and politics.  They tend to perpetuate parochial/vested interest and politics of patronage. 

Campaign trail.  “The big circus has come to town”, wrote one newspaper columnist.  Campaign sorties and rallies in the Philippines resemble big and expensive entertainment parties with an odd mix of ati-atihan mardi gras, stage show and bombastic political speeches.  Candidates and hired professional entertainers sing, dance and perform stage shows in between speeches for the entertainment of their audience.   Hakot (paid crowd) is commonly resorted to by many candidates to pad the size of their rallies and intimidate their opponents.  People hop from one “party” to another to get entertained and treated to free meals and freebies. The campaign headquarters and residences of local candidates will serve as “social welfare centers” throughout the duration of the campaign period. 

There is no distinction between politics and show business in the Philippines.  More and more movie actors and actresses dub in politics (and get elected!) and more and more politicians appear in movies and TV shows since the early electoral successes of former President Joseph Estrada (and the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan).   

More and more  candidates are now employing the web as a campaign platform for all kinds of campaign gimmicks and promo contests meant to promote themselves and generate mailing lists.  Some moneyed candidates also make use of multiple short message service (better known as multiple “texting”) provided by some enterprising communications outfits.  The service allows candidates to send unsolicited campaign messages to tens of thousands of unsuspecting mobile phone users.

If you go around the country during an election season you would think the entire archipelago is celebrating a national fiesta, with too much campaign posters, banners and streamers of all sizes and colors hanging or posted almost everywhere you go.  The Fair Election Act of 2001 and Comelec Resolution No. 3636 set the types and respective sizes of allowable election propaganda, including where these campaign materials may be legally posted.  Nobody enforces the law, nobody follows.

Vote-buying, an election offense, has achieved a degree of sophistication over the years.  Candidates these days distribute health insurance coverage, gift check, vocational course scholarship, membership in social welfare program and similar things of value to induce votes.  Cash buying of votes remains the prevailing practice among scrupulous candidates.  In whatever mode the practice constitutes an election offense for both the buyer and the seller of vote.  

Election-related violence in some parts of the country still perists today.  Intense rivalries among political dynasties and warlords in known election “hot spots” often lead to violence, disruption of election proceedings and even deaths.  Closely monitored by the Philippine National Police (PNP) as potential election hot spots are the provinces of Abra, Nueva Ecija, Basilan, Sulu, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Masbate and Maguindanao. 

Attitude of the Church.  In principle there is a separation of church and state in the Philippines.  The Catholic church maintains its independence and calls on its followers to vote according to the dictate of their conscience.  It does not publicly endorse any candidate but has a history of taking up activist position on a number of political issues.  The two people power revolutions  (EDSA-1 and -2) that ousted two presidents might not have succeeded without the active participation and guidance of the Catholic church.

The Catholic church manifests its position and preference on election issues through the pastoral letters and press statements of the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

The “separation” disappears in the case of some religious institutions and leaders.  The politically influential Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) openly endorses and supports candidates.  Its members are noted for block voting.  It also lobbies for the appointment of its members to top government positions.  

Eddie Villanueva, the leader of the pentecostal Jesus is Lord Church, ran for president and lost in the 2004 elections.  His party-list party Citizen’s Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) participated in the 2004 elections and  won two seats in the House of Representatives, one of which is represented by his son Joel.

The spiritual leader of the Catholic charismatic movement El Shaddai, Mike Velarde, “anoints” and endorses candidates.  His party-list party Buhay also participated in the 2004 elections and won three seats in the House of Representatives, one of which is represented by his son Rene. 

It is difficult to prove the existence of a religious vote.  Eduardo Cojuangco and Fernando Poe, Jr. were both endorsed by the INC in their presidential bids but lost.  Candidates nonetheless queue up and elbow each other to get the endorsement of religious institutions and leaders.

The media.  The mass media remains active and partisan during elections.  Moneyed candidates pay large sums of money to ensure publication of polls they themselves commissioned to project a trend that they are ahead of other candidates.  Big time publicists and PR men and women hired to do “hack” jobs for candidates are themselves mass media practitioners.

Parting words.  If it is of any consolation to the Filipino people, the huge volume of money that circulates during elections helps boost local economy, from brisk business by local producers and service providers, increased employment and livelihood, increased consumer spending and extra cash for many voters.  Media practitioners, publicists, endorsers, entertainers, pollsters and election lawyers all have a field day too come election season.

Finally, no one concedes election defeat in the Philippines.  A losing candidate is either cheated in the counting of votes or the winning candidate resorted to massive buying of votes. 

A “fearless” forecast by a newspaper columnist:  “In the end, the tandem that will make it to Malacañang is the one that always make it:  graft and corruption.”

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 23 November 2009