Why do we vote the way we do?

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By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

May 9, a Monday, could be just any ordinary day. Metro Manilans would endure EDSA’s bad traffic and the decaying and stuffed LRT and MRT trains rumbling above the city gridlock. In far-flung provinces, people would toil on a farm or fish in a sea, worrying about being able to put food on the table tomorrow. At the airports, families would bid farewell to loved one who join the ranks of overseas workers. May 9, a Monday, could be just any ordinary day — but it is also Election Day. And with it comes the hope of great change.

Amid the many things that are wrong in this country, over 50 million registered voters are hoping to get one thing right: to elect leaders who will guide the Republic of the Philippines onto a path that is paved with less traffic and filled with fewer people who are hungry and leaving for greener fields abroad.

The country has elected the erudite, celebrities, gamblers, a hero’s widow, and even a priest into posts of power in the past. How can we choose the best leader? Why do we vote the way we do? According to one professor, it can be traced back to our history. A political analyst, on the other hand, says don’t blame our culture. A sociologist agrees and adds more to both arguments.

“Our history gives us clues [on why we vote the way we do],” said Dr. Paul Dumol, a Philippine History professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific, at a lecture at the Ortigas Foundation Library on Dec. 9.

Mr. Dumol — a member of the Philippine Center for Civic Education and Democracy and a recipient of National Historical Commission’s Gawad Rizal in 2012 — said that the Philippines actually held its first elections at the end of the 16th century, with datus (chieftains) choosing among themselves for a chief datu. By the end of the 17th century under Spanish rule, he said the Philippine electorate was limited to Tagalogs and Pampangos only, because of “unrest, factions, lawsuits, and political negotiation.”

Factionalism “is the worst defect of the Filipinos,” said Mr. Dumol, echoing Dr. Jose Rizal’s sentiments. As an example, he pointed to the eight rays on the country’s flag that symbolize the provinces involved in the revolution against Spain, and asked: What were the other regions doing?

“The Philippines isn’t a nation — yet,” said Mr. Dumol.

“Social evolution is proceeding within the framework of the state at different speeds in different parts of the country. Past and future coexist. You cannot address the voters in the same way. Nag-iiba ang mentalidad nila (Their mentality varies). The stages of our social evolution chart the evolution of our understanding of the common good,” he added.

“There’s no national common good if people are only concerned about their family,” he said.

The solution is a “change in our minds and hearts,” which is the lesson of history, noting the patriots Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, and Heneral Antonio Luna, he said.

“The Philippines is a feudal nation,” declared the history professor, who is also a playwright.

He expounded on the idea that our “society is held together by ‘vertical loyalties.’ In short, kaninong tao ka? Sinong amo mo? (Who’s person are you? Who’s your boss?)

“This [has] roots [reaching] back to [the] timawa and aliping saguiguilid and aliping namamahay, and the datus,” he said, referring to the various classes of serfs and slaves of pre-colonial Philippines.

This traditional set-up still exists today, with the modern-day datus being the rich families that hold power in a barangay or city; the modern serfs/slaves are the “goons, workers, and domestic helpers.”

Borrowing from University of the Philippines professor Randy David’s observation, Mr. Dumol said “The Philippines has the largest number of security guards — a little less than half a million — in the world… They are the modern timawas (emancipated slaves). Again, my point is that history is within us. You will vote as the bossing (boss) will tell you to vote.”

But some beg to differ.

“I am not swayed by anyone, not even my bossing,” Bing Dominica declared in Filipino. She has been a house helper for six years and counting.

“I’m not yet decided for whom to vote, but definitely not [Jejomar] Binay,” she told BusinessWorld.

Rodelyn Francisco Mainit, also a house helper, said she makes her own decisions. “I’m voting for someone who has the heart and compassion for the country,” she said in Filipino. She said she wants to vote for Grace Poe. Her employers are voting for another candidate.

“We have to do a study on this [vertical loyalties affecting elections] to have a conclusion,” said Edmund Tayao, a political analyst and political science professor at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), in an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld.

“If recent elections would be any measure though, we could very well say that the surveys in 2004, 2007, and especially 2010 and 2013, all failed to anticipate who’s going to win. In the countryside, perhaps there remains this kind of process,” he said of vertical loyalties, “but I am just assuming based on the assumption that the relations there could be more personal compared to Manila or other highly urbanized areas. Still, we can’t draw any conclusion unless there is a real study on this,” he said.  

“Vertical loyalties” do not rule the entire country. “We have improved,” said Mr. Dumol. While feudal-style voting can mostly be found in Mindanao, he said the rest of the country has moved to vote selling and buying instead.

“Vertical loyalties” mean other things, said retired UST professor and sociologist Crescencio Martires Doma, Jr.

“While we normally support someone close to our heart,” said Mr. Doma in an e-mail interview, “forced loyalty is also a reality in Philippine politics. This can be traced indeed to a colonial mentality wherein one’s loyalty is based on the benefits derived from someone in authority or a more powerful figure in society,” he said.

Imagine an ordinary Juan de la Cruz, who, out of fear of losing his small business, will vote for a candidate who will bring benefits to his business. This is a common picture and problem, said Mr. Doma.

“These political loyalties are but fragments of a really complicated socio-economic dynamics of Philippine politics wherein the powerless, especially the poor, are left voiceless and disenfranchised during local and national elections,” he said.

Everything boils down to who has cash and clout.

Take a closer look, for instance, at our political parties, said Ateneo de Manila School of Government program director Joy Aceron.

“Because [political] parties have no resources, it’s the candidates with lots of money who end up being fielded by parties,” she told BusinessWorld in an e-mail interview.

“There is still [on the] ground politics, especially for local candidates, which is engaged [in] by candidates through [political] machineries that take care of the different kinds of vote-buying. Those who accept the money do so because they need the money. This remains true for most poor, yes. But vote-buying comes in different forms. One form is provision of in-kind assistance such as job opportunities and connections and access to prestige and statute. The middle class falls prey to this kind of vote-buying. Why? Economic security is one reason as well as the historical aspect, as discussed by Prof. Dumol,” said Ms. Aceron.

The modern-day timawas/alipin — commonly called the masa (masses) — are a big part of the dilemma.

“If you have timawa and datu mentality, what election do you have?” said Mr. Dumol.

Alipin mentality is “dependency” on the powers that be, he said. Datu mentality, on the other hand, is “the mentality of the privileged.”

“It’s a matter of who you know,” Mr. Dumol said.

The masa are intelligent enough to exploit these views of entitlement and dependency: “the modern version of the lower tier has realized the power of their votes,” explained Mr. Dumol.

The timawas/alipin mentality plays on their “sense of entitlement and balato (reward).” So when they approach a candidate, they feel entitled to ask for something, say money to buy rice, or else they won’t vote you, said Mr. Dumol.

Vertical loyalty has become a two-way street. The modern datus rely on their money to get the poor to mark their ballots in their favor, while the modern timawas/alipin play on their “poorness” to wring cash and assistance in exchange of their precious vote. It has become a tango between two evils.

Is there a formula to get more masa votes? Perhaps, it is this: Always smile, join a “boodle fight,” and eat your pride.

“It’s amazing how candidates throw away their dignity, sing on stage and dance, and make their selves ridiculous if they want votes,” said Mr. Dumol, smiling.

In the absence of verbal communication, people judge superficially, making judgements based on things like personal appearance. In the Philippines — where fair skin and a fashionable appearance are considered superior — many, if not the majority, rely blindly on first impressions.  

“This is the reason why oftentimes, people vote for people running for public or even private office in terms of the candidates’ popularity. Not necessarily popular because of their leadership capabilities but, merely on their being ‘sikat’ (well-known) or ‘kilala sa lipunan’ (prominence in society) because they are a sports figure, an artist, or rich businessman,” said sociologist Mr. Doma.

“Their concept of being ‘sikat’ is the same as ‘magaling’ (good), ‘mabait’ (kind), and ‘puede’ (with potential).

But this isn’t always the case. Actors like Aga Muhlach, Richard Gomez, and Cesar Montano ran in elections — and lost. Yet many elected officials have showbiz connections: action stars Lito Lapid, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, actress/host Lucy Torres (Richard Gomez’s wife), and boxer Manny Pacquiao, to name a few. Recent surveys have placed actress Alma Moreno, comedian Vicente Sotto III, and Mr. Pacquiao among the top senatorial bets in the upcoming election.

Since about half of the voting population is now composed of tech savvy Millennials, next to having a winning personality and the ability to connect with the masa, candidates should also start tapping the power of social media. This includes viral infographics.

“In the Philippines, majority of the infographics coming out [online] during elections are statistical or ratings-based and text heavy. Also, some of the viral infographics created by netizens are more of memes,” De La Salle Taft applied media graduate students Raffy Antes, Fay Virrey, and Kevin Dulla told BusinessWorld.

The three have made Facebook infographics that weigh the pros and cons of the presidentiables (except for Rodrigo Duterte who announced his candidacy after they had finished their project). Their aim is to inform the public so they will vote wisely, but the students found it’s easier said than done.

“Cultural transition is not easy to achieve for it requires time and effort to reach the majority [especially those without internet access]. The notable significance of this project is to change the voting pattern of the Filipinos and for the succeeding generations to have a factual basis in selecting a candidate they want to vote [for],” said the group.

“Creating an infographic [intended for social media consumption] is not the absolute answer but a potential tool in altering the Filipino voting pattern from subjective (personality-based) to objective (What have the candidates done?).”

The power of social media is undeniable, but experts say fixing our convoluted party system is more important in terms of creating educated voters.

“Many think that we vote the way we do because of culture. I disagree with this view. It is more because of the system [that is] in place that we vote the way we do. And this does not mean that it is not changing. We still vote by personalities because it is how the system goads us to vote, but the considerations for choosing which candidate to vote [for] are changing,” said political analyst Mr. Tayao.

“Now, it’s difficult to say there’s a trend or there will be a trend. What I’m certain is, the voters are not dumb, they are continuously experimenting on what criteria. Of course, popularity is still a plus, but it’s no longer the single most important consideration,” he said.

To avoid the pitfall of personality-based voting, ADMU school of government director Ms. Aceron said we should focus on platforms and competencies. After all, aren’t these what we should be looking for in the next president? But Ms. Aceron said even the political parties, which should be highlighting candidates’ plans and accomplishments, are not doing what they can.

“We vote the way we do because the institutional-legal framework governing our electoral system is flawed. It doesn’t facilitate and support a discerning collective process that enables us, as a people, to vote based on considerations such as platforms, strategy, long-term vision, and competency,” she said.

Our party system — or the lack of it — leaves voters to make decisions based on their own perceptions alone. “We know, of course, that individual capacity is determined by many factors, and often, individuals have many other considerations that they find more important,” she said. But the load of studying the candidates could be lessened if there was a concrete party system.

“At a given national election, a voter chooses at least 30 candidates to support. That’s from President to Councilor. Because we are a multi-party system, in any given post, there are at least three candidates vying for the same position. Because parties do not matter in the country, each candidate has his/her own thing. It’s not like in other countries where parties signify a distinct program of government or at least perspective. Here, parties are there only logistical support to the candidates at most,” said Ms. Aceron.

And individually studying at least 90 candidates in an election is a “gargantuan task even for an educated person.”

“In sum, voters vote the way they do in the Philippines because of the system (or the non-system) governing our elections,” she said.