Do elections really serve the national interest?



First of two parts

A week ago, this writer urged Catholic prelates to announce that perpetrators of computerized fraud through the automated election system (AES) would be excommunicated. The moral and religious bases for that call are two-fold.

First, God endowed humanity with freedom and dignity, and elections are one way in which those qualities are exercised in the political sphere. Thus, cheating, especially the kind that miscounts votes by the thousands or millions, directly violates that divine will for people to decide freely and thus partake in the supreme dignity of God’s own unfettered will.

A second major reason for declaring election fraud a grave sin is the divine edict for every man to love and serve his neighbor. In the political arena, this commandment demands that institutions of governance be responsive and accountable to the people. Elections help make that happen. Hence, vote fraud violates heaven’s wish for a government that shows concern and goodwill toward its constituents.

That’s the theory. The sad truth, of course, is that elections are but one more arena of power struggle first and foremost, more civilized than assassinations and armed battle, but just as obsessed with gaining, keeping and wielding clout as the savage bloodsports of the past.

Sure, there is much good done for people in the course of pursuing democratic politics, just as there is in conducting free enterprise, despite the overarching pursuit of power and profit, respectively, innate in these institutions of the modern era.

And government of the people, by the people and for the people, as the assassinated president of Steven Spielberg’s latest hit put it, tempers the abuse of power and directs it to the common good far better than autocratic systems of yesterday and today.

But with the paramount purpose of power sweeping aside all other objectives, politicians constantly trade the common good for narrow interests able to provide the political backing, popular support, and financial resources needed to attain and maintain power.

Such compromises confer the authority to advance the lofty goals of governance. Sticking to godly principles may gain entry into heaven, but the art of the possible gets things moving on earth. Or as the late Ronald Reagan told hecklers in New York’s South Bronx district on his presidential campaign in 1980, “I can’t help you if I’m not elected.”

That argument has been used to justify everything from white lies and black propaganda to vote-buying and horse-trading. Not to mention corruption, repression and liquidation. As Reagan also quipped, “politics is the second oldest profession, and I’ve come to realize over the last few years, it bears a great similarity to the first.”

Of course, in the Philippines and many other countries yet to fully emerge from centuries of oligarchic rule by foreigners or fellow natives, entrenched elites need no justification to do whatever it takes to stay in charge. And even idealists-turned-pragmatists seeking earthly power supposedly for heavenly goals, too often forget those godly purposes and amass might and money as ends in themselves. Just listen to the 1990s song “Trapo” by Yano; that’s how low leaders can go in their power-madness.

To see the people as innocent, hapless victims, however, miss­es the indispensable other half of any democratic exercise: citizens do choose their leaders. In fact, many if not most people are keen to exploit every aspiring or sitting leader’s need for votes by demanding favors and freebies with little regard for what truly benefits the nation and community at large.

Where destitution is endemic, this quest for personal or family gain is understandable, if not inevitable. Even the late Cardinal Jaime Sin acknowledged the difficulty of the poor refusing money offered for votes when he urged people to take the cash but vote their conscience. Which led some candidates to simply pay people not to vote, marking their nails with indelible ink, in areas where rivals were strong.

Even when the people have their way, the outcomes may not be for the better. Despite two People Power uprisings, the Philippines still lags many countries in reducing poverty and corruption. Meanwhile, authoritarian China and Vietnam have brought the percentage of poor people to less than half the Philippines’ ratio.

Moreover, democracy has a way of becoming the tyranny of the majority or the rule of the mob. Judging from online opinions, if ordinary Chinese had their way, their navy would have long occupied disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

Plainly, the quality of popular views, sentiments and decisions depend immensely on the citizenry’s access to quality education and sound information undistorted by political agenda and extremist perspectives. And even when good reporting and commentary are available, even the most knowledgeable experts cannot know everything in every candidate’s agenda, backroom and closet.

When about 40 percent of Filipinos voted for Joseph Estrada in 1998, Gloria Arroyo in 2004, and Benigno Aquino 3rd in 2010, did they know that Erap would pocket billions as “Jose Velarde,” Arroyo would phone a Comelec commissioner during the elections, and PNoy would allow smuggling to leap more than five-fold from past administrations?

Thus, one may rightly ask if elections, if not democracy itself, are but an utter crapshoot where the electorate’s will and the common good are advanced only by chance or, for believers, divine intervention? What are the virtuous politician and the upright citizen to do in seeking to make politics work for true justice, freedom and the welfare of the nation?

The concluding article on Friday will address this question at the individual and collective levels. Suffice it to say for now that the first step in getting democracy right is believing it can be done. Without that, the battle is lost even before it begins.

(The last part will be published on Friday.)


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