Philippine Democracy

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Philippine Democracy: Alive, but is it well?

By Walden Bello
First Posted 03:47:00 05/11/2010

Filed Under: Inquirer Politics, Eleksyon 2010, Elections

The 2010 campaign has drawn to a close, and it’s time to distill my experiences after registering hundreds of miles by land, sea, and air crisscrossing the country as a party-list candidate. On the purely physical side, my shaking thousands of hands—I estimated some 3,500 in one two-hour period in the public market in Angeles, Pampanga—has apparently given my right arm a life of its own, like that of Dr. Strangelove or one of Jim Carrey’s characters. It twitches uncontrollably when not in action, as if waiting impatiently to be fed. There is no doubt in my mind that Philippine democracy is alive. Everywhere I went, there was intense interest in the candidates, particularly the presidential candidates, with many pausing from their labors to inquire which presidential nominee I favored and what program my party Akbayan had to offer. Everywhere the courtship of the voter was intense. Gone are the days when the “command vote” for a candidate could be considered sufficient to deliver victory. Except in the remotest places, the “market vote” has increased in both size and decisiveness. The market vote is no statistical abstraction for candidates: In almost every municipality and city, it has become de rigueur for candidates to present and sell themselves in the public market, trying to shake every hand within reach, even the wet hands of fish and meat vendors embarrassed to extend them. Most of the time, the cynics say, the people are at the mercy of the politicians. Maybe, but for at least three months every three years, the politicians are at the mercy of the voters. Philippine democracy is alive, but is it well?

It is difficult to answer in the affirmative. The reason for this goes beyond the fact that come election day, scores will have been gunned down and huge sums will have been passed out to buy votes. What worries me, more than the violence and the vote-buying, of which we will always have a good dosage of, is the skyrocketing cost of elections. P9 billion is now said to be a conservative estimate for a presidential run, and P1.1 billion for somebody running for the Senate is said to be a low figure. For a candidate for Congress, P450 million is definitely on the low side. Most of these sums are spent on media outreach, particularly television. One is tempted to say the media is king. It might be more appropriate to say that the market is king, since it is the demand for advertising space, in a system where there are few legal constraints on electoral spending on media exposure, that raises its price many times over in the course of the 12-week election period. The need to raise enormous sums to have some impact on an expanding electorate has, of course, naturally strengthened the influence of the rich and those organizations favored by the rich over the electoral system. In this respect, Philippine electoral democracy is a spitting image of its parent, American democracy. In both, the influence of moneyed elites in shaping electoral outcomes is enormous. Candidates fit themselves to the interests of the rich and powerful when they do not themselves come from the ranks of the rich and powerful. In a very real sense, in both countries, elections function not so much as a means through which people choose their leaders but a mechanism whereby rival factions of the elite compete for possession of the state apparatus. The Political Class on a Treadmill

There is a strong correlation between wealth and political power, but it is not perfect. There is a distinct political class, and in this campaign I truly learned the meaning of the saying that politics is a profession. While it usually does have other sources of wealth, like land, this class is extraordinarily dependent expanding its wealth, power, and status on the control and maintenance of...
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