The recent elections were quite unusual. The near total shutout of the opposition, the staggering losses among political dynasties and the emergence of millennial-elected leaders are just among the remarkable results we are seeing from the unofficial results. As expected, these unofficial results are already being contested. The mysterious failure of the Comelec transparency server gave new meaning to the word oxymoron. Failures of both voting machines and memory cards were reported in record numbers. Yet the Comelec and PPCRV assess the elections to be within the normal range of acceptability.
The tragedy of Philippine politics is that we equate democracy with elections. This doesn’t make sense. Elections happen every three years or so while democracy should be an ongoing national project. We are a democracy only on paper. The Constitution states that: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” In truth, most Filipinos do not participate in the democratic project as they should. For all intents and purposes, we are a quasi-feudal society. Power is controlled by a few business and political families while the rest content themselves in participating in the fiesta-like atmosphere of the elections while choosing to be absentee citizens thereafter.
Citizen absenteeism starts at the barangay level. I remember more than a decade ago when our barangay captain called an assembly to discuss the growing drug problem in our neighborhoods. Drug “sessions” in certain households and surreptitious transactions in the middle of the night had become an open secret. I was happy to attend the assembly and was impressed by the number of early attendees and the many seats reserved for the event. As it turned out, less than 10 percent of the seats filled up during the whole assembly. Many people seemed to think that the drug problem was just not worth their time.
I’m not surprised that drug distribution and use are at such an alarming level. Neither am I surprised that so many people have, and continue to, put their faith on an authoritarian approach to the problem. The Senate election results seem to endorse the President’s bloody approach to the drug issue. People are willing to sacrifice fellow Filipinos as collateral damage for action on the problem – any action at all as long as they don’t have to be involved. But this mentality is exactly the problem: the belief that complex social issues will be solved by political leaders without the close and extensive engagement of the citizenry. Filipinos seem to think that governance is a spectator sport.
Some would claim engagement with governance issues through social media. Indeed, Filipinos are a dominant presence in social media. But is this the kind of engagement necessary for developing democratic institutions and achieving our collective dreams as a nation? The level of discourse is notoriously shallow in social media and often filled with so much vitriol that people resort to blocking others who post opposing opinions. The recent Pew Research Center’ “Mobile Technology and Its Social Impact Survey 2018” reported the Philippines as scoring highest among 11 emerging countries where social media users block someone online due to political opinions.
What citizens need to do more is to make their elected officials know their views on issues of the day and to make them accountable for the promises they made during the elections. This is where the Filipino’s penchant for avoiding confrontation gets the better of him. When I ask my MBA students to let their congressmen know their views on current legislative issues, they recoil in horror, as if I had just asked them to jump off a cliff. The concept of talking to their representatives in Congress is so alien to them. They explain that they don’t want to be singled out or exposed to retaliation because of a complaint or negative feedback. I advise that they can always begin with positive feedback.
During a class session, I projected the list of congressmen on screen from http://www.congress.gov.ph and asked a student to identify his representative. I then asked him if there was any initiative of his congressman that he was happy about. I dialed the number of the representative’s office and asked for the Chief of Staff and gave the positive feedback, with the student’s mouth agape. The Chief of Staff was quite happy to receive the feedback and asked for any suggestions for the congressman. I said that I was calling for a constituent and that the latter would be in touch. I told the student that the ball was in his court.
It’s great that we love participating in elections. But the real substance of democracy begins after the winners are proclaimed. The real work is in debating fellow citizens in a civil way while making our politicians accountable to us as the people.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is the Jose L. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.