The first presidential debate turned out unsurprisingly to be a non-starter and a non-event. No single candidate spoke to any particular issue with any kind of wit, substance or depth. They all seemed to be defensive about something–Mar Roxas, about his social media image as a hopeless failure and a wimp; Vice President Jojo Binay, about everything that has been thrown at him and his family by the Malacanang attack dogs; Mayor Duterte, about every vile thing that has cascaded out of his foul mouth; Miriam Defensor Santiago, about her reportedly failing health; and Sen. Grace Poe Llamanzares, about her questionable citizenship and residency and her lack of experience.
The two-hour debate showed once more that you can only give what you have. You cannot draw fresh or seawater from the desert. In the completely non-exhilarating exchanges, the candidates tried to throw a punch, whenever they could, at their favorite adversaries instead of trying to enlighten the audience with wit and humor on any important point. Indeed, nothing shone or sparkled from any of the candidates.
Contrast the US debates
In the ongoing US Republican debates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida just made one unforgettable quote: “I’d rather lose the election than be wrong on abortion.” I was hoping someone would say something half as courageous and as memorable as that. Or something half as witty as Ronald Reagan’s quip to the much younger Walter Mondale, who had wanted to put the former actor on the defensive because of his age, in their Kansas City1984 debate: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign, I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Mary Grace’s inexperience
In Cagayan de Oro, Mrs. Llamanzares, whose rapid-fire, mechanical delivery made her sound like the even more mechanical Chiz Escudero, was the only debater who readily conceded one charge against her–that she does not have enough government experience. But the freshman senator, who is facing a disqualification suit before the Senate Electoral Tribunal and the Supreme Court for her questionable citizenship, tried to spin it by saying, “There is no proof that you will do better because you have been in office longer.” It was a great opportunity for Mar Roxas, who had provoked the riposte, to point out that where experience is not enough, what is needed is more experience not a complete lack of it.
But Roxas missed it.
I hope we are not setting the bar too high. But no one came away from the Cagayan de Oro university hall or from their own TV sets feeling they had heard anything that offered instant gratification or left something on one’s mental palate.
In the United States, the Democratic and Republican parties are counting on the ongoing debates to help them choose their respective presidential candidates. Once chosen, the opposing candidates will face off in a round of debates to give the American people a chance to vet their candidates. In our case, the various parties have already chosen their bets, and we are now in the process of choosing the next president.
No help to voters
The debates should help the voters choose. But if they are empty and vacuous, they could offer no help; the voters will have to turn to the inane TV commercials and media advertorials which hype all the candidates’ nonexistent virtues and airbrush their most obvious blemishes and defects. People will end up voting for candidates they do not know, based purely on their media image. Another Aquino-type incompetent, corrupt and unspeakably bad government cannot be avoided.
This has been our recurring experience. In the space of just 18 years, we managed to inflict upon ourselves our first dysfunctional mother-and-son-presidencies–those of the two Aquinos. The nation has suffered much from these twin calamities, while being told how lucky and blessed it has been to have had these two “graces.” This should not happen again.
What the Church wants
It may be for this reason that the Church has seen it fit to ask the Catholic faithful, who constitute the nation’s overwhelming majority, to be particularly discerning in their choice of their candidates. Every voter is supposed to do so without any prompting from any priest or pastor, but given the apparent lack of candidates with distinct moral or intellectual excellence, the Church obviously does not want to take anything for granted. This is how important this matter is.
But it seems to me a mistake to make this, the voters’ choice of candidates–however important it may be — our primary and most pressing concern. While it is necessary to make sure that the faithful choose the next President with their eyes open, the Church cannot assume and must not assume that the people’s votes will be read and recorded correctly by the machine or those in control of the machine, if nothing is done to make sure that it happens. The most palpable signs suggest the exact opposite.
For the whole length of last year, concerned citizens have been urging the Comelec to restore the security and safety features and accuracy mechanisms it had illegally removed from the voting machine in the 2010 and 2013 elections. The tumult of voices demanding such a corrective step has reached a crescendo with the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines weighing in. But to no avail. Three days ago, former Senator Richard Gordon, the principal author and sponsor of the Automated Election Law and one of the first victims of automated cheating in the 2010 and 2013 elections, filed a petition before the Supreme Court to compel the Comelec to restore the missing features, as required by law.
The entire Church
Independent of what is now before the High Court, the entire Church–clergy, religious and laity — must now raise her voice on this particular issue. Not just the president of the CBCP, but the entire CBCP and everybody else; and not just they but the entire religious sector–all the other faiths that believe in one nation under God. They all must all speak out. For this is not a simple electoral issue; it is a monumental moral issue, upon which depends the political legitimacy of government. There is no breach of the constitutional separation of Church and state.
And the military too
Together with the religious sector, the military establishment, as the constitutional protector of the people and the State, should join in this effort. Instead of allowing themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians for their usual “special operations,” the officers and men of the Armed Forces (and the Police) should once and for all commit themselves totally and unconditionally to safeguarding the absolute integrity of our elections.
Under Article XVI, Section 5 (3)…”The armed forces shall be insulated from partisan politics. No member of the military shall engage directly or indirectly in any partisan political activity, except to vote.” This prescription of neutrality does not prevent, and should not prevent the officers and members of the AFP from acting decisively to protect the integrity and sanctity of the electoral process, whenever it is in peril as it is today.
Cheating expected, says survey
Most analysts fear the May election will be a farce, the cheating wholesale and conclusive. This will be accomplished through the voting machine, and will entail no bloodshed or physical violence. “Peaceful and orderly cheating,” as one late bishop friend of mine used to say. It will be carried out at the national level, without individual vote-buying, intimidation and other practices that usually attend voting at the local level.
This fear is shared by ordinary citizens. The latest reported survey, for those who believe in surveys, shows that four out of ten who were surveyed believe there will be massive cheating in the polls. But by “cheating” they mean candidates cheating other candidates, not operatives of the Comelec and its foreign partner Smartmatic doing all the cheating to dictate the results of the national contest, and who will own the next government. Individual cheating by candidates has been part of the evil of our electoral system from the very beginning, but wholesale cheating by those who control the process has reduced all this to child’s play.
Since 2010, it has created so many de facto officials in the highest offices of government.
But nobody cares
Lamentably, the most seriously concerned individuals and groups about this are not even running for any office, or identified with those who are. Ironically, the major political players seem entirely apathetic: Many if not most of them seem more interested in trying to buy into the cheating operation so they could use it for their own benefit, instead of making sure that no voter or candidate is cheated.
What to do then?
The Church must continue to pray, but she must pray not only for deeper discernment among the voters and greater dedication and honesty among the candidates, but above all for the basic integrity of the electoral process–that those in control would abandon any and all plans to subvert and falsify the process for their own ends. The Church must also ask the faithful to be ready to fight electoral evil not just by praying and fasting and other good works, but also with concrete moral and political action, as conscience would allow or dictate.
Church workers, in cooperation with other sectors not excluding the military, should now organize themselves and undertake a full threat analysis of the cheating that could take place. One US-based big data analyst suggests that this should include network transmission algorithms, counting software, audit process, encryption and decryption methods. Everything should be closely monitored–unexplained delays in the voting, counting and transmission of votes, malfunctioning of computers or voting units, clear and blatant inconsistencies with Church-run exit polls, etc. And then thresholds should be established like a line in the sand, so that when the line is crossed, the people on the ground would be able to respond.
The point that must be clear to all is this: We, the People, cannot forever allow ourselves to be left at the mercy of the election thieves. Those who have found someone to vote for in this election should not only vote but above all make sure that their votes are correctly read, recorded and counted. But if and when massive cheating occurs, they should be ready to do something they probably have not done before. Stand with the people, make the criminals accountable, and transform the rotten election into a genuine people’s revolution.