Three weeks from now, Filipinos will be casting their votes for the country’s midterm elections. According to the Commission on Elections, there are around 60 million registered voters for the upcoming elections, 2.5 million of whom are new voters. We also have a relatively high voter turnout — 84% in 2016, considering that voting is not compulsory unlike in other countries such as Australia, Brazil, and Singapore.

While elections are an important political activity in a democratic society, its presence does not make democracy. Democracy is both a process and a product, one that requires the synchronization of many vital pieces, two of which I shall briefly discuss. The first vital element is having free and fair elections. The second one is the ability to initiate and sustain genuine civic participation.

One key element in a democracy is a society’s ability to conduct elections that are free and fair. Free and fair elections encompass not only the right to vote, but that the exercise of such right is free from fear or coercion. Moreover, choice must be meaningful — which implies that there should be genuine competition among candidates. Voters should be given an array of options that reflect fundamental differences between values, belief systems, assumptions, and ideological core, rather than differences based on family names and bloodlines. Hence, it is unreasonable, unthinkable even, for one person to switch from one party to another because, after all, party membership is like skin and not a shirt. We must therefore work towards the establishment of real political parties — one that is organized along common views, policies and programs, with the goal of promoting collective good and interests rather than their own.

When freedom of expression is under attack, it is difficult to initiate, much less sustain, public discourse. Assault on press freedom and encroachment on the rights of speech of ordinary citizens, fear of online surveillance in social media and other online platforms are alarmingly on the rise globally. These realities tend to impinge rather than broaden civil discourse. In fact, Freedom in the World reported in 2018 that global freedom is continuously declining and that democracy is in retreat. For democracy to thrive, it requires not only adherence to its rules but also a deep understanding and commitment to its processes and institutions. This includes maintaining and protecting a space where diversity of views can be expressed and addressed in a critical and respectful manner. Habermas calls this “public sphere” — a place where citizens come together for the purpose of using reason to further critical knowledge that leads to political change. For this kind of democratic culture to take root, however, civic education must be strengthened and should begin in our elementary schools. One cannot engage critically if our understanding of politics and the basic political rules such as our Constitution is poor.

Elections do not guarantee a certainty of outcomes. But if done correctly, it gives citizens some handle on the outcomes based on rules that are not only understood but collectively constructed as well. Democracy cannot thrive on its own. It needs conscious and constant defending by the people, for the people.

It is unsettling to note that the wave of democratization triggered by the end of the Cold War in the 70s has rolled back in just 30 years by the early 2000s. This inability to sustain democracy is attributed to the fragility of institutions — institutions that were rapidly erected but are not capable of addressing deep-seated economic and social struggles and inequalities. Poor civic education exacerbated further the fissures and contributed to the deterioration of our democratic institutions.

May 13 is not the time for grand illusions. The upcoming elections is critical because whoever wins will be our intermediary in engaging the pending agenda for the remaining term of the current government such as federalism and constitutional change, drug control policy, and the pivot to China to name a few.

In three weeks’ time, we must put in mind that the ultimate goal of our exercise to vote is to make sure that those who we put in power are those who can protect and respect public discourse spaces, deepen democratic institutions, and defend core democratic ideals. We should stop electing politicians. Instead, we should choose those who understand that, once elected, their role is to facilitate the building and consolidation of a stable, inclusive, and free Philippine state and society.

And that this project is not theirs, but ours.


Anne Lan K. Candelaria, PhD, is currently the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs of the Ateneo de Manila University. She is also a faculty member of the Department of Political Science in the same university and a United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia Fellow for 2018-2019. Anne’s teaching, research, policy engagements and consultancy work focused on education governance, public policy, decentralization, and citizenship education. Her advocacy is to make education a more meaningful experience for the Filipino learners through democratic governance of schools and a bottom-up construction of curricula.