In both colonial and post-colonial periods, political contestation in Philippine society has always been dynamic, in which elites and the masses engage in a particular exercise called elections.
Since the 1990s, however, the explicatory mechanism has involved new and emerging perspectives from the classic interpretation of patron-client relation that traditionally governed electoral contests. Aside from the changing dynamics of patron clientelism, the understanding of electoral dynamics has been complicated by the acknowledgement of the importance of political machinery, transactional politics, and social media.
In terms of the political and legal environment under which elections are held, the phenomenal EDSA Uprising of 1986 has enabled a non-authoritarian landscape that boosted the democratic spirit in the conduct of elections.
The personalistic character of Philippine elections has also persisted alongside other undemocratic tendencies and practices — political turncoatism, pragmatism, populism, elitism, and the use of “guns, goons and gold” that promote money-politics, vote-buying, dagdag-bawas tactic, and other political machinations that undermine the power of the ballot.
As such, however grand the objective of democratizing the electoral contest is, any effort or action to democratize the process would never be amiss. Specifically, democratizing Philippine elections hinges on three fundamental challenges.
Educating the electorate is one of the enduring solutions in order to democratize elections in the country. It is the role of civil society, in general, and think tanks, NGOs, the academe, and other social formations, in particular, to expose nuisance and undesirable candidates. On the other hand, the electorate should also take the initiative of knowing the respective candidates, participating in political debates and engaging in political mobilizations that promote the democratic conduct of elections.
In particular, the electorate should also be keen on sloganeering as a strategy of populist leaders. For instance, the current administration has unveiled the long-term vision of development dubbed as “Ambisyon 2040,” which is supposed to represent the aspirations of Filipinos for themselves and for the country in the next 25 years. Appealing to the sentiments of the people, who would not find it hard to not be enchanted with living a “matatag, maginhawa at panatag ng buhay” (strongly-rooted, comfortable, and secured life)?
Unfortunately, we hardly hear populist candidates openly discuss these specific measures for the Philippines to reach “Ambisyon 2040.” Unless the necessary institutional measures have been laid out, this vision of development will remain to be a slogan.
Another second strategic solution is the meticulous adoption of institutional reforms. Undemocratic political recruitment, socialization and mobilization has been undertaken under a weak party system that is primarily responsible for the promotion of political exclusion in the country. It is only by reforming and strengthening our party system that we could engender inclusive politicization. By making our party system program-based instead or elite-based, we could inspire the electorate in particular and the population in general to actively and fruitfully reengage in the political process.
A reformed party system would further ostracize nuisance political parties that are based on personality politics and operate on the principle of pragmatism. In turn, political recruitment, socialization and mobilization of the people would also be program-based and would lift their political awareness.
Thirdly, as the electoral contest is by and large influenced by broader processes in society, the continuing advocacy and action for reforms is a must. Corruption in all its forms and at all levels should be addressed; for it is that rust that corrodes not only the very credibility of any electoral contest but the essence of institutions as well.
Economic reforms are likewise imperative. Through economic empowerment in the form of combating poverty and job creation, the population is provided with the means to live decently and this insulates them from political manipulation by the elites.
A particular civil society organization is currently working along these lines of democratic political engagement. Founded in 2014, Democracy Watch Philippines or democracywatch.ph, is a “citizen-led democratic initiative that envisions a mature and reformed Philippine Republic that delivers effective and responsive governance with an inclusive economic prosperity and a truly democratic political system.”
This organization aims to promote honest, fair and free elections; eradicate corruption by instilling electoral integrity; and advocate reforms to strengthen political party systems.
The humongous task of democratizing the electoral contest needs like-minded organizations and formations that share and advance the political ideals of Democracy Watch Philippines.
In this age of Philippine political development, a continuous and virtuous search for political alternative and change could never be amiss.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the founder and managing director of the Stratbase group and president of its policy think tank, the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi).