Sunday, January 14, 2007

Philippine Elections

Philippine Elections – Will They Ever Change?

(Or, to the gallows with Garci!)

Just this afternoon I received information that the registered voters in our small town of Llorente, Eastern Samar has skyrocketed to 70,000. I still have to check on the accuracy of this, but if correct, then we must have remarkably attracted immigrants from all over because in the last 2004 elections the voting population was a mere 10,000. That means an increase of 60,000 voters in the span of 3 years!

Surely the 600% spike in the number of registered voters cannot be attributed to a sudden population boom. Only rabbits, with their legendary fecundity, can populate any land area that fast in that short a time. There must be some reason other than human reproduction, and I think I know why.

Votes for Sale

As far as I can remember, elections in our town have always been characterized by vote-buying. During the Marcos times, voters would be given a token amount of P20, sufficient to buy two gallons of tuba and maybe a tin of sardines or so. Pahalipay,” “hokip,” “ta-ta” were various words they used to describe it – a gift in exchange for the bother of casting one’s vote.

Everything changed commencing with the Aquino administration. Maybe the voters got greedy. Or, as theorized by some, politicians unable to present any other sterling qualification to the voters decided that they could buy votes instead. Thus, from the P20 of the Marcos era, it became common in our town to buy one’s vote for P500. Then it became P800 per vote. Then P1000, and so on and so forth. As of the last election, one vote had the monetary equivalent of P2500-P3000! Like poker players, the politicians raised the ante with each election period until the roots of greed took hold of the electorate and can be banished no more … at least not in the near future.

The last time my Dad ran for the mayorship of our town was in 1995. Votes, at that time, were already being sold for P1000 each. His campaign chest already depleted, he remarked wryly in frustration as he visited the barangays to thank his supporters, “This is like going to SM Megamall with only fare money in you pocket – so many things to buy, but nothing to buy them with!”

Oh, and the so-called principled Left is no different. Ensconced in the hinterland barangays, these self-styled revolutionaries extort “access fees” from politicians in exchange for allowing them to hold electoral meetings in these barangays. And come election day, they coerce the villagers to vote for the ticket of the politicians who gave them the highest “access fee” – which need not necessarily be cash, but can come in the form of guns, camouflage uniforms, or even a pledge to give support in the future in exchange for the votes of the villagers.

One cannot blame the syanos for selling their votes. After all, a lifetime or two of experience tells them that they get to see politicians only during election period. After that, they have never seen – nor can they expect to see – any of the campaign promises become reality. They know fully well that when a politician takes to the stage he or she is just a bag of air who will promise everything and deliver nothing. So a typical syano would tell himself, “Better to sell my vote to the highest bidder. That way, at least I get something out of these bastard politicians.” The same holds true for the “revolutionary” Left, a sector in society that has never recognized the legitimacy of elections in this country.

That’s why, if true, the abnormal increase of registered voters in our town of Llorente. Some of them do not actually exist, but their names will be used to fill up ballots by cheating politicians and teachers. But most are residents of neighboring towns (they can come from as far as Borongan, around 40 kilometers away) who were hauled to Llorente and registered by unscrupulous elections officials. For registering alone, they would have already been paid P500 or so. Their sole motivation – the balance of their “pahalipay” that they are sure to receive come election day.

“Where are the authorities? Why can’t they do anything about these flying voters?”

So a sensible person would ask.

In the first place, these non-residents would not have been able to register as voters in Llorente had it not been for the Election Registration Board (ERB). By law, this is composed of the Municipal Election Officer, the Municipal Civil Registrar, and the School Superintendent/Principal. It is the ERB which gives out the registration forms and which approves such when duly accomplished.

In the 2004 elections, the practice of bringing in flying voters had already been resorted to. Cases were filed with the Municipal Court for the exclusion of these non-resident voters, and most of them were actually expunged from the Voter’s List.

But why, you ask, has this been repeated again for the 2007 elections?

The blame falls with the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Criminal and administrative cases were filed against the members of the Llorente ERB for approving the registration of the non-residents: A couple of them had even placed in their registration forms that they are residents of Mandaluyong City, and yet the ERB approved their registration.

Instead of imposing sanctions on the ERB members who allowed these anomalies to happen, the Comelec in Manila dismissed the charges saying that it was not done intentionally but was possibly caused by inadvertence.

And so the “inadvertence” has been repeated this time around. And it will be repeated again and again, until such time that the Comelec takes action against the perpetrators of this anomaly.

But will the Comelec ever do so? This is not expected to happen as long as Benjamin Abalos is the Chairman. He was, after all, placed in that position to make sure that electoral anomalies would take place so that the elections of 2004 would be decided by operators such as Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, the will of the electorate be damned.

In other words, cheating intentionally takes place at the highest levels; it follows that cheating will also be resorted to at the local levels. And all these occur not just with the connivance – but even upon the initiative – of the Comelec, the body tasked with by the Philippine Constitution to ensure honest and fair elections.

“What of the Legislature? What can it do?”

Just take another look at what happened to Virgilio Garcillano … and despair.

First, he disappears. Then, upon surfacing, he lied through his teeth to Congressmen and to the Filipino people. He presented, as evidence in a solemn congressional hearing, a “clean” passport which was later certified by the Bangko Sentral – which prints the official Philippine passports – to be “irregular”. Expectedly, however, the charges of perjury and falsification filed against him by opposition lawmakers were dismissed by the Department of Justice.

And despite their saber-rattling, opposition lawmakers were no match against the administration congressmen. It was not mere numerical superiority that caused their defeat: it was because Garci also had them by the balls. It turned out that even opposition lawmakers – some, anyway – had actually sought Garci’s intercession to ensure their victories at the polls. No wonder they did not push their case to its logical conclusion. This is also probably why only a pipsqueak was heard from the opposition when the news broke that the Department of Justice had dismissed the charges against Garci.

On this aspect, even the Senate is not spotless. I was able to listen to the interminable Garci tapes (downloadable from the website of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism) and recognized the voice of a senatorial re-electionist – God damn his soul! – who called up Garci to ensure his victory and even mentioned the amount he gave to an “operator” from the Comelec. The re-electionist almost made it, except that the one he almost bumped off got wise to the shenanigan and threatened to expose the entire electoral cheating at Comelec. A compromise had to be ironed out: the now-deceased former Senator backed out for a sum of money, while the “winner” exposed only the tip of the iceberg, just enough to say that he was being true to his principles.

So, can we trust Congress – whether the Lower or Upper House, or both – to make the changes? Maybe, once Lucifer has decided to return to the fold of God.

“Do these things happen only in the Philippines?”

This is not to say that lying, cheating and corruption do not happen in other countries. Politicians are politicians and they will always lie … brazenly or with dissimulation, and come hell or high water. As for cheating, one must remember that G.W. Bush won Florida – and the presidency – by cheating Al Gore. And corruption? Well, there was this case of a US Congressman who stashed his filthy lucre inside a freezer which the FBI stumbled upon in the middle of an investigation.

In the US, in Japan, in Korea, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in developed and undeveloped countries … you will always find lying, cheating and thieving politicians and civil contractors.

What’s the difference, then? you might ask. The big difference is that, unlike in the Philippines, the institutions of law and justice in other countries are working and robust. That means that erring government officials are made accountable for their actions. It is not a strange sight in these countries to see former and incumbent congressmen and prime ministers hauled off to courts of justice for their anomalies.

More importantly, their economies are well off, which means that their citizens can afford to feed themselves well. Thus, they take their governments seriously and are not wont to sell their votes for a sack of rice, or a case of beer. Nobody can gainsay the obvious fact that when a person is not worrying where the next meal is coming from, then he his mind is freed up to think about kicking the assholes out of city hall.

Take, for instance, the cabinet minister in a European country who was forced to resign because of non-payment of the taxes for having a TV in her house. In the Philippines, a corrupt politician will not only have undeclared airplanes, mansions in San Francisco and New York and houses for his mistresses, he will even aspire to become – and actually become – a Senator or a Vice-President or even a President.

In other countries, their Justice departments or ministries will investigate, arrest and prosecute wrongdoers even if they are members of Parliament or even Prime Ministers. Just take a look at what’s happening to Ehud Olmert now, and to countless South Korean prime ministers. But in the Philippines, the Secretary of Justice will be the first to defend the removal of a convicted rapist from Philippine jails, and to dismiss charges against lying Comelec commissioners to protect his Big Boss; and the Office of the Ombudsman will clear Comelec officials for an anomalous multi-billion contract despite a Supreme Court decision scrapping it. Kapalmuks talaga!!!

“Is everything lost, then?”

At this point in our history, it would seem so. That’s why so many of our kababayans choose to migrate to other countries, without even a thought of coming back (except for the occasional vacation during fiestas, weddings and funerals). In this country, only politicians, smugglers and drug lords have the capability of climbing the ladder of success, while the rest of the population are mired deeper and deeper in poverty each day. Politicians – consciously and subconsciously – do what they can to perpetuate this situation because they know once the populace is able to economically stand on their own two feet, lying and cheating and thievery would suddenly mean jail sentences for them.

I recall a friend who spent some time in Switzerland telling me that the Swiss are actually obligated – to their great reluctance – to render public service. They would rather attend to their personal businesses, and they perform the obligation to do government work with even a tinge of distaste. But then again, if there’s such a thing as a pure democracy in the political spectrum, it is the kind practiced in Switzerland. This just shows us that, as has been enunciated by Thoreau and other political theorists, government is but a necessary evil. In the Philippines, it is not even necessary; but it is certainly evil.

I subscribe to the view of Prof. Randy David that something positive is bound to result from this diaspora of Filipinos to the four corners of the globe. What they see, hear and experience in the countries which they have adopted as their own will, in one form or another, filter back to this side of the Pacific and will ultimately have an effect on those who – by choice and by circumstance – have been left behind.

It will not happen tomorrow, and maybe not even in my lifetime. But I choose to believe that not all is lost, that the majority of Filipinos will someday find their economic footing and thereby regain their dignity. It will take a lot of effort, although maybe not so much if only those who have left for greener pastures will plow back to their country of origin not only their experiences but also a little of the financial resources they have amassed by creating income-generating projects for those who remained behind.

When this happens, Filipinos will finally realize that their government is what and how they make it, and that they can do something about their government because government is a mere extension of themselves and not the tool of exploitation and oppression that their politicians have made it to be.

And when that happens, then maybe – even if only for a short time – we should bring back the death penalty and haul to the gallows the likes of Garcillano, his cohorts, and their ilk.