By Benjamin R. Punongbayan
It may not be obvious to many; but elections in the Philippines are manifestly not competitive. A clear symbol of that condition is the apparent permanent existence of political dynasties, composing of 100 or so families in the Philippine political setting. It may be difficult to discern whether this permanence of political dynasties is the effect or the cause of improper election practices but, just the same, it may be worthwhile to highlight what I think are the two most significant election campaign practices that make our elections not competitive.
I define competitiveness in an election as the condition where opposing candidates contest their election to public office based on their respective merits that are observable from their personal qualifications and proven or potential abilities that the public office they seek requires. I would like to add similar things for the comparative ideology of their respective political parties but, unfortunately, political parties in the Philippines have become silent about their strong beliefs and, it follows, that they have not been engaged in the pursuit of any ideology. Moreover, the political party’s useful societal function of filtering the best candidate from its own cell to oppose a similar choice from the opposing political party has become extinct for a long time now. Philippine political parties are dead and now just serve as merely pieces of distinguishable clothing that are oftentimes replaced at a whim. And so, we need to deal solely with the candidates themselves.
An absolutely improper election practice is vote buying. In fact, this is a practice that is clearly identified as illegal in the Omnibus Election Code, and is punishable by imprisonment and disenfranchisement of both the vote buyer and the vote seller. Vote buying is a rampant practice in Philippine elections, especially in local area elections (as opposed to national elections) — those for local officials, including barangay officials, and congressmen.
In a particular geographical area, I was told that the current price ranges from P500 to P1,500 per vote. The price is generally higher at the mayor level as compared to governor or congressman level. It is higher for a voter in the opposite camp as opposed to a voter already identified with a candidate. The scope of buying is retail and not wholesale. This means that a candidate buyer buys the vote only for himself and the price does not cover support for his allies running for other positions. A vote seller may, therefore, get multiple vote buys equivalent to the number of positions to be voted upon on election day.
With vote buying being rampant all over the Philippines, it is a big wonder why the Comelec and the entire government machinery do not prosecute this evil practice. Is the neglect deliberate? Is it deliberate in the sense that the current officials want to keep the elected posts within themselves and their family members, and prevent others from getting in?
If the government wants to eradicate this practice or at least keep it to a bare minimum, I am sure that it can devise a way to catch some of the evildoers, both vote buyers and vote sellers, and at the very least, disenfranchise all of them to give a clear warning to others. I do not think it requires rocket science to develop an effective plan and process to catch these lawbreakers. But the Comelec and the entire government machinery never did and, apparently, will not do any such thing. This is indeed a big puzzle!
Clearly, the candidates spend quite a lot of money in buying votes to get elected to a position that provides a small salary. Even a mayoral candidate in a small town of 20,000 voters will need to spend at least P10 million to buy votes. It will be foolish to say that the elected candidate will not try to recoup his “investment.” This practice of vote buying inevitably leads to corruption and, in turn, corruption leads to another round of vote buying — a vicious cycle indeed.
The other significant improper election practice that I would like to cite is the deliberate effort made by some religious groups to influence the outcome of the elections. These religious groups include those that do not maintain physical churches of worship. These groups get their members to vote for their chosen candidates either by formally endorsing the selected candidates to their members or by inviting the chosen candidates to their public meetings.
Many may say that it is within the rights of these religious groups to anoint election candidates. But I want to point out that these religious groups are different from other citizen groups. They are given a privilege by the state in the form of tax exemption — a privilege the effect of which is borne by all citizens and, therefore, they must not favor any specific candidate over another. Otherwise, they are abusing that privilege. Moreover, there is the doctrine in our Constitution about the separation of Church and State. I believe that this doctrine embraces a requirement that the Church must not interfere with the election process by supporting specific candidates over others.
Some politicians go to excess in trying to get the favor of these religious groups. Every now and then newspaper ads appear where these politicians express good wishes to a religious group or its leader on occasions for celebrations by the group. I find those ads too fawning and, as such, borders on being distasteful.
Of course, we cannot require these religious groups not to influence the elections. But if they want to, they must be stripped of the privilege of tax exemption. They cannot have it both ways. They have to choose one or the other. Accordingly, the government must pass a law to that effect and enforce it vigorously.
There is another reason why we need to impose such a law. There is a question of what consideration is given by the candidates to these religious groups in exchange for their support. It would be naive to say that there is no consideration at all taking place. I will leave that to your imagination. But whatever it is, it adds to the regime of unfairness in our society.
These are just two instances in a specific area of government activity where we are unable to provide a solution to maintaining an even playing field for all of our citizens. We do not have yet the competence to deal with these issues. This lack of competence is prevalent in many, many more areas of state governance, as are evident in the whole array of government institutions and bureaucracy.
The contemporary political philosopher Francis Fukuyama has stated that sustainable economic development is not possible without the presence of the condition of government competence. He made this conclusion on the basis of his observation of the political and economic development of many countries. It is a very convincing statement. On this basis, we need to focus urgently on improving competence in the whole range of state governance. But, sadly, our government, past and present, has instead been looking for scapegoats for its inability to improve the lives of Filipinos, especially those of the very large number of our suffering poor. Its current favorite lightning rod is the existing Constitution.
The Philippine government must accept and face frontally the real problems. Otherwise, its chosen solution is bound to fail. And as an additional consequence, the country loses valuable time as has happened repeatedly over the long past.
Benjamin R. Punongbayan is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo, one of the Philippines’ leading auditing firms.