BY the time this column is published, we will have gone to the polls, cast our votes for the people who will determine our country’s future, and the fraught process of counting those votes will be under way. As I write, however, Rodrigo Duterte, the presidential candidate who has admitted to murder, jokes about rape, and has thuggish, dictatorial tendencies, holds a steady double-digit lead against the other candidates and is likely to be our next President. His most diehard supporters have threatened to spill blood should he lose.
Away from the whooping Duterte followers, the mood is one of alarm and dread. There is cynical talk of getting the government we deserve. There is sarcasm toward bobotantes, an insulting term for the mass of poor voters who are blamed for taking money for their vote, or for voting unthinkingly on the basis of personality and name. There is a creeping fear that the electoral process will be hijacked. There are rumors of a possible post-election coup, the imposition of military rule, and the enactment of martial law, similar to what happened in Thailand in 2014. Most of all, there is a seeping, spreading sense of uncertainty, despair, and disillusionment over Philippine democracy. The emergence of a Duterte, it seems, is due to our dysfunctional system.
The political sociologist Randy David has observed that, in the absence of real political parties with a coherent program which fields candidates with clear platforms, it is next to impossible to “vote rationally” in the Philippines. Add to that an impoverished populace, and a rapacious, oligarchic elite who lord it over the country’s political, judicial, and economic institutions, and our democracy is well and truly hobbled. The country is run by 178 dynasties and just 40 families gobble up 76 percent of the entire nation’s gross domestic product. At a local level, clans control 73 of the 80 provinces. In this year’s elections, over 800 candidates running for local positions do so unopposed.
But elite domination is nothing new. The Americans introduced national elections in 1907.
It was an astute, quintessentially colonial move. Thousands had been slaughtered and the “insurrection” had been quelled in a nakedly brutal three-year military campaign. But nationalist sentiment was still burning. What better way to defuse independista passions than to co-opt the Filipino elite and intelligentsia whose default mode was, in any case, collaboration? The historian Benedict Anderson has described the American strategy as a “counter-revolutionary intervention.”
American-style political mechanisms were grafted on to a colony without a well-formed and centralized indigenous bureaucracy, and a trained military. The oligarchs simply scrambled for seats in the new national legislature. Only men who were landed, educated, and with a linguistic command of either English or Spanish were allowed to vote. Women didn’t get the vote until 1937 and, even then, a huge number of adults remained disenfranchised.
Next, the Americans kept everything sweet with free trade to US markets. Philippine sugar, produced cheaply under feudalistic conditions on sprawling haciendas, was allowed to be sold in the US at prices high above the world market. Sugar planters and millers had a bonanza. Then there was the big sell-out. The Americans took 400,000 acres of agricultural land from the Spanish friars that got snapped up by those who had the means.
Rich, propertied, and dominating the colonial legislature, the homegrown oligarchy did what they do best: they plundered the state treasury. The dawn of dynastic rule under an ostensible democracy had arrived. Hence, even after the Philippines gained independence, the broad swathe of the young Republic’s population had yet to feel the benefits of legislation that was passed to their advantage.
For better or worse, mostly worse, we have kept faith with a system that has been rigged against the common interest from the beginning. But the only alternative would be to plunge into the abyss of dictatorship, and we already know what it’s like.
Voting is emblematic of our full citizenship in the modern age. And we know that ideally, legislation that is impartially enforced gives a better chance for our rights to be protected and upheld than goons with guns, oligarchic patrons who dispense favors, and fascist bullies who rule by fear and intimidation. Democracy and the electoral process, however imperfect they might be, hold out the best possible hope for a more equitable, humane, and just society.
Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.
As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him… We need not wait to see what others do.” By which we might take to mean that only the concerted effort of great numbers of people can overturn injustice and bring about social change. One person, acting alone, will achieve nothing.
This is also the promise and potential of electoral politics.