Century of the Populist Vote

How do we get the mass electorate to back the purposes of reform?


A “free and equal vote” has become the primary right—and duty—of democratic citizenship. In the age of the common man, restrictions on universal suffrage may pass only by force or stealth. So that governments put much effort in trying to get around this mass vote.

• In the United States, –the manipulation of constituency boundaries—still preserves Congress seats for traditional parties and dynastic politicians.

• In Singapore, the requirement that, in designated constituencies, parties nominate a multi-racial team, instead of the usual single member, handicaps the ethnic-based opposition to Lee Kuan Yew’s no-nonsense People’s Action Party.

• In Hong Kong, Beijing’s decree that it would “vet” candidates for Chief Executive in its first-ever popular vote in 2017 is setting off civil disobedience movements already.

• In Thailand, the generals have imposed another spell of martial law, after the populist vote broke the Bangkok elite’s political control of over 80 years.

Money politics and media personalities
Another consequence of the mass vote is that political parties are losing their primacy to individual politicians able to communicate personal narratives sympathetic to mass electorates.

Consider how our two-party system has broken up into a jumble of factions grouped around an anarchy of personal ambitions. At last count, the Comelec listed 162 separate “parties.”

Even in caste-conscious China, the reticent President Xi Jinping—compelled to show some common touch—has turned up for “fast-food” lunch at a working-class shop serving Shanghai dumplings.

In mass democracies, “money politics” feeds television, newspapers and the social media. (The TV giant GMA reports a rise in its net income of as much as 49% from political advertising during the electoral cycle.)

The most common complaints about money politics focus on “media-created” political personalities and TV policy debates with scanty content—since candidates must put across their goals and visions as15-second “sound bites.” The qualities that get media-genic candidates elected are getting almost incompatible with governing once in office.

American public intellectuals have gone as far as to propose outlawing campaign advertising on radio and television—to “reduce the debasement of public discourse.” But—like President Eisenhower excoriating the “military-industrial complex” in his 1961 farewell address—they’re fighting City Hall.

Following a still-controversial 2010 US precedent, our Supreme Court has just vetoed tentative limits on political advertising. President Obama noted, then, that the US decision repudiating restraints on corporate political spending as infringements on free speech “reverses a century of law.”

Corporate cash corrupts the electoral process
Corruption of the electoral process by corporate money is a worldwide problem. In return for financing political campaigns, the great corporations benefit from the deregulation of their businesses and the outsourcing to them of public functions.

Only now are we Filipinos coming to realize our economic weaknesses are politically rooted. In the World Bank’s view, “they stem from the effective control by interest groups of the state machinery, such that rule-making and enforcement serve not the general welfare but particular interests.”

According to Renato Reside of the UP School of Economics, itals bold the state end itals gives away business incentives worth P100 billion unnecessarily. The social critic Solita Monsod quotes Justice Carpio as saying mineral royalties make up only 2% of their value at source.

Senate President Drilon and Speaker Belmonte themselves count at least 186 laws that offer “redundant and overlapping” incentives to favored industries.

Populism Left and Right
The populist vote has become crucial to electoral politics: it asserts the claims on the state of the angry poor. In Western Europe, populism is reactionary, anti-immigrant, and on occasion violent. In Latin America, it is subversive of the established order.

Even the “preferential option for the poor” the Roman Church offers its estranged Third World missions is a kind of religious populism.

In our country—where the mass vote still is fractionalized by the patronage system—populism is more political style than ideology.

Populist politicans endeavor only to build electoral coalitions of the self-rated poor, who make up some 55% of all Filipinos.

Not even the archetypical populist, Ramon Magsaysay (1953-57), ever spoke of redistributing land and wealth—the Latin-American populist battlecry.

In India’s Tamil Nadu state, actors, actresses and sport heroes have become instruments of ethnic nationalism. Five of its seven chief ministers between 1950-70 were active movie stars. In Pakistan, the opposition is led by Imran Khan, the national cricket sport hero.

In Indonesia, the populist vote has just raised an urban “everyman”—Joko Widodo, Governor of Jakarta since 2012, who campaigned on a credo of  “People First.” More than a 100 million Indonesians still live on the minimum $2 a day.

“Jokowi” is the first non-establishment figure elected since the strongman Suharto was forced out in 1998.

Supply and demand in the political market
The law of supply and demand apparently works even in the political market.  There must be an expressed demand for a type of political policy—if policymakers are to be compelled to supply it.

This emphasizes the necessary role of public opinion in policymaking in a representative system. But—as President Ramos (1998) has noted—“The Philippine state requires extraordinary little of citizens.

And, as individuals, we Filipinos acknowledge few obligations to the national community.”

Our poor may harbor great expectations of government. Survey data have 85% of respondents saying government is responsible for providing jobs, and 84% for providing basic incomes for all. (SSW, 1993.) But many in our urban middle-class demand remarkably little of those they elect to office.

This class in particular has benefited splendidly from the boom in the urban half of our dual economy. But, instead of paying their rightful taxes and demanding better government, particularly its younger members are forsaking their civic duty.

Where they haven’t migrated physically, they’ve isolated themselves from the common life in gated communities—having privatized their security, infrastructure, health care, children’s education—even sewage systems and cemeteries. Their social contract is nothing more than for State and citizen to leave each other alone.

What are we to do?
There’s no fast and easy way to achieve “citizen competence”—especially since our representative systems are so weighted down by people’s expectations, while threatened from without by the authoritarian alternative. Yet citizen competence is what democracy is all about. Civic education is a hard slog we must begin now.

Certainly public policy should discourage factionalism of every type and foster the growth of community. Most urgently, we must prevent some charismatic rabble-rouser from mobilizing the mass vote into an instrument of class conflict.

We must enact social safety nets and redistributive systems, so that the poor can begin to share in the fruits of development.

Affirmative action for our poorest regions should keep down social enmities generated not so much by poverty by itself as by perceptions of unjust inequality.

To restrain the competition for votes, I think it right as a rule to reduce economic incentives for elective office—as the Supreme Court is beginning to do.

Finally, we need not resign our political opinions to the juggernaut of majority rule.

Popular movements in our country have a short shelf-life—so strong is the push of centrifugal forces. Populist impulses will be volatile.

Occasions will rise during which reformist parties can steer the mass vote—much as the Mar Roxas-Noy Aquino team did after the death of Cory Aquino—and seize the day for the common purpose.



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  1. when I read that congress were all proaquino, that was the hard awakening! If congress are blind to see what is happening, and still vouch for Aquino because of maybe promise of more fund for their district which they in turn, can enjoy, what next? People can be bought so easily nowadays. It is not a matter of education, our congressmen/women are all educated, where are they now? They lost their brain cells because the future would look better for themselves when they are pro Aquino. Why not take part a slice of the pie? right? why therefore would we expect the common people to be totally different from them? There are a few good men, composed of both educated and noneducated people, people with convictions and moral. But they are only a few. EducAtion does not make a man, it is common sense and an open mind that makes one think outside the box. The thinking that would keep asking why, what, when. Feudalism plays a major role, and, not to forget that most of our countrymen are more focused on dramas, dancing programs, actors/actresses, etc, instead of policies that affect them, instead of keeping watch what is happening to our country. With poverty, as long as the poor gets some food to eat, they will bow down to the benefactor, even if he is evil. Unless we solve poverty and take on an intense widespread information dissemination, we will be at a standstill for years. People will still take money for a vote, that is a fact. why do we think Aquino/abad is planning for more kickbacks? because they know that money works in our country. In the US, the congress is the worst congress in many years. Nothing much was acted upon, the work they should have tackled is a mile long and all they do is argue against Obama. Our country is worse, except for a very few, all Aquino does is turn on their keys and they auto dance to the music. Don’t you want to puke sometimes?

  2. Thank you for this article, Mr. Gatbonton and Manila Times. Eventually we Filipinos must do what you propose. Otherwise our Philippine Republic is doomed. In today’s politics here, however, the very bad governance of President Aquino has come to own “reforms” thanks to the co-opted media, which are the ones with the largest audiences. The groups that are working for reform are hardly heard and read.

  3. Here’s my two centavos worth of suggestion to the question —

    Have a VERY STRONG LEADER that get rid of the Oligarchs that pretty much are doing whatever they please in lining up their deep pockets to the detriment of the people.

    • Good point Marco. But having a Very Strong Leader seems to be like a futile “Waiting for Godot” exercise. Despite the day-to-day oppression of the ruling kind, the typical Filipino seems to have lost hope of eventually being saved from these callous monsters. They are content to coast along each day from hardship to more hardship. There must be a different path out there that can effect the salvation of the people within the for-seeable future. Otherwise, there might be a cruel repeat of the 333 years the nation had been under the Spaniards.