Monday, May 13, 2013

The Philippines - Ballots and Bullets

One of the fundamental realities of life has been written in a religious book: that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Nor bread to the wise, nor wealth to the skilled. In other words, it often happens that those who deserve much get little. Or they get the worst of a bad lot. That’s how things often turn out in politics.  

A mess.

And nowhere is it messier than in the Philippines, at least according to some Filipinos and observant foreigners with whom I talked when I was there last week.

One former politician — a former senator and member of the cabinet — said Philippine politics had gotten so dirty he could not get himself to run for any office any more.

A lawyer who was at one time an aspiring young politician said he had finally decided to remove himself from politics because he just didn’t have the stomach for the vote buying that is de rigueur in election campaigns.

The general election in Malaysia last week was far from perfect. If you believe reports by independent media, the ruling Barisan Nasional won through massive dole outs and gerrymandering. But the reportage that the Barisan lost the popular vote should assure you that most Malaysian voters are not impressed by dole outs.

In the Philippines, however, vote buying has been refined to an art. Votes are bought according to a hierarchy of prices. In some places, a vote can sell for as low as the peso equivalent of $2.50. In areas where the contest happens to be fierce and close, a vote commands the equivalent of $90.00.
The chairman of the Commission on Elections, repeating advice once given by the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, tells voters to accept the money, but vote according to their conscience anyway. It doesn’t work that way. The politicians and their enforcers always have a way of checking. They go as far as quarantining the voters they’ve bought so the rival camp can’t gain access to them until after election day.

An Indonesian friend who now lives in Manila admits that Indonesian elections aren’t perfect either. He says it’s a circus full of sound and fury, but you don’t hear of Indonesian politicians mowing down their rivals with an automatic.

He’s right. The only people killed in Indonesian elections are those who fall from the overcrowded tops of jam-packed campaign buses.

I took a look at a Manila newspaper last week and was stunned by the dismal list of casualties: two supporters of a gubernatorial candidate gunned down in one province. Other fatalities: one supporter of a mayoral candidate. The mayor of a town up north shot dead in Manila. Three soldiers going about their election-related duties fired on by communist rebels. And that’s just one day. Earlier, a central Mindanao mayor, ambushed and wounded, survived but lost two of his daughters.

From Jan. 13 to May 7, there were 66 election-related incidents, including 57 shootings that killed 42 individuals, among them 31 elected local officials. The good news is that this isn’t as bad as in 2010 when there were 93 such incidents and in 2008 when there were 101.

If it’s any consolation, senatorial and presidential candidates don’t shoot one another. That’s a pastime reserved for local candidates.

Meanwhile, the communist rebels are making a killing by extorting millions of pesos from candidates. Those who don’t pay up can’t campaign in villages the rebels control. They could even end up pumped full of lead.

Today, Filipino voters go to the polling stations, many of them herded by politicians’ enforcers. 

Good luck to Philippine democracy.

Yet I’m sure Philippine elections have their good points. One day I’m going to find out what they are.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language consultant for the Indonesian government. The views expressed here are his own.

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