Disembalming FPJ and the electoral issues

Ms. Co is associate professor at the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, January 31, 2005 edition, p. 21.

The death of “Da King” last December 2004 resurfaced some issues, which
included the electoral protest filed by FPJ himself and a range of
electoral controversies. Lately, the electoral issues have been
sparking fire among candidates and interested parties; they also hound
the electorate in general.

Which brings to the fore the importance of examining the electoral
system. This includes the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the system
and administration of elections, the political party system, the
candidates and their qualifications and programs, and the
instrumentalities and paraphernalia of propaganda, including the media.

A recently concluded assessment of elections and political parties,
initiated by the University of the Philippines, in collaboration with
the Ateneo de Manila University, the Consortium on Electoral Reforms,
and other civic sector groups, unraveled interesting information and
insights. It validated old conceptions about Philippine electoral
practices and behavior. Also known as Democracy Audit, it is part of a
comprehensive assessment of Philippine democracy, that uses 14
indicators. The audit framework is shared by 10 other countries:
Bangladesh, El Salvador, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, New Zealand, Peru, South
Korea, Australia and the United Kingdom. The 14 indicators:

  1. Nationhood and Citizenship
  2. The Rule of Law and Access to Justice
  3. Civil and Political Rights
  4. Economic and Social Rights
  5. Free and Fair Elections
  6. Democratic Role of Political Parties
  7. Government Effectiveness and Civilian Control of the Military and Police
  8. Accountability
  9. Minimizing Corruption
  10. The Media in a Democratic Society
  11. Political Participation
  12. Government Responsiveness
  13. Decentralization
  14. International Dimensions of Democracy

The Philippine assessment focuses on elections and political parties –
their strengths as well as the deficits. It unravels the many ways by
which political candidates corner the electorate to gain their votes –
either in a friendly way of offering cash or in a less friendly manner
of being visited by local hoodlums. Candidates dance and sing their way
to win votes rather than presenting platforms and agenda of governance.
The assessment reiterates the flaws in the administration of election
procedures, the weakness of non-enforcement of rules, the vast
discretion on decisions by the Comelec based on a mandate that stems
from its constitutional authority as well as a mixture of executory and
quasi-judicial functions, the non-accountability of candidates to their
political parties, and others. We know well most of the findings. So
what’s new? The assessment validates old knowledge and information, if
only to probably say that nothing much has changed in the Philippine
electoral practice and political party system over the past years. The
same electoral issues continue to haunt us.

The assessment takes on a different angle in examining electoral and
party systems. It scrutinizes the mediating values that society holds,
as they coalesce into our institutions and political behavior. Based on
a set of search questions, the assessment provides a discourse on the
norms and practice of elections and political parties; it weaves
through the amazing yet frustrating practices embedded in Philippine
political culture.
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The values examined by the assessment are participation, representation, accountability, authorization, and solidarity.

Participation

The extent and quality of citizens’ participation in the choice of
their representatives are shaped by the information, education, and
critical assessment of the citizens’ choice of candidates and platforms
of governance. Electoral procedures, including registration, voters’
identification, and precinct location and assignment are all
information-based. However, the electoral knowledge and information
base is flimsy, unclear, or variable depending on the interpretation of
rules. Although elections and political parties are governed by rules,
these rules suffer from weak or arbitrary enforcement. Moreover, the
media – broadcast, electronic, or print – has taken center stage in
influencing the voters’ minds regarding choice of representatives.
Sadly, media itself is fettered to patronage – either by business or
partisan politics. In most instances, the media effaced the political
parties in mediating between government and people. A challenge to
media lies in its role as provider of substantive information about
elections and party platforms and candidates, beyond the pay motivation.

Voters’ participation also has to do with the various agencies for
participation. The Comelec is tasked to provide basic information on
elections. However, its machinery is not quite oiled to deliver the
information. Unknown precinct location and assignments and missing
names of voters in the list, both arising from an unsystematic
administration of elections, are the common causes of voters’
disenfranchisement. These have led to weak voters’ participation. The
gross consequence is voters’ disenfranchisement.

Although literacy is usually a factor in the choice of representatives,
the challenge to Philippine participation is not so much the basic
ability to read and write, as the functional ability to critically
examine the options offered by candidates, parties, and programs on
governance and leadership.

While there are agencies that promote voters’ participation such as the
parish-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, the
network is not sufficient to fill in the gap. Other agencies of
information and participation deserve support to sustain their agential
function in elections. Political parties have neglected the role of
educating and enabling voters’ participation.

Representation

Many of those elected to national positions come from well-known,
powerful clans who continue to dominate the legislature since two
generations back. The elites largely exercise patronage politics, shape
the choice of the majority, who in turn are prone to patronage and
reciprocity of relationships. Within political parties, the selection
of candidates, especially at the national level, is determined by the
national executive committee or the national directorate, often with
little involvement from the general membership. At the local level, the
chapters implement the decisions made at the top, usually only to
support the national candidates. Membership in parties is largely
determined by geographical, ethnic and personal ties. Among the voters,
parties do not mean much. Since party switching is common practice,
voters think parties do not provide distinct issues and platforms that
would keep party members’ loyalty. Parties do not represent anything
politically substantial, except for the expediency to win a seat.
People do not identify candidates with political parties, and
candidates do not necessarily represent the parties they belong to.

Accountability

Two pillars of accountability on electoral exercises rest with campaign
finance and with the votes casting, counting and canvassing. Campaign
finance remains unregulated in practice despite rules and limits
regarding this. For example, there is under-reporting of campaign
expenditures, in keeping with the official requirements and provision
of the law. In fact, however, campaign costs are generally high and not
all candidates receive support from parties since party funds are
decided upon by individual party leaders. Candidates get funds from
personal supporters but funds are hardly ever accounted for within the
parties.

The 2004 election was the closest that the Philippines ever got to
making the exercise accountable and transparent. This could have been
made possible through the computerization of the elections. Again,
despite the law and Congress appropriation of the budget, the Supreme
Court scrapped the computerization policy on the basis of some
unreasonable and suspicious awarding of contracts. The reversal to an
old mold of voting, counting, and canvassing made the election
inefficient, less transparent and less accountable to the public.

Authorization

In spite of the Comelec’s avowed independence by virtue of its nature
as a constitutional body, the appointment of the commission’s echelon,
and its ranks, is suspect to be politicized, thereby diminishing its
absolute independence and authority to carry out its functions in the
most professional manner. Moreover, much is to be desired if the
commission wants to perform its functions with professionalism.
Authorization and the exercise of responsibility are certainly coupled
with competency and professionalism for the execution of
responsibilities. Insulation from politics remains a challenge for
effective authorization.

But in fairness to the Comelec, it carries out its functions based upon
the provisions of the Constitution and the law. However, the
authorization system provided for creates a condition for Comelec to be
subordinated to laws that restrain functional independence. For
example, the Comelec abides by the Party List Law (RA 7491), which
works upon virtually a quota system rather than on proportional
representation.

There is widespread doubt regarding the impartiality of votes
canvassing as well as proclamation of election results on the high
national positions, based upon a political body such as Congress. But
such is the provision of the Constitution. Rather than disaggregate the
executory from the quasi-judicial functions, the system endorses a
range of responsibilities to Comelec, casting doubt on its
effectiveness and credibility. Certainly, some provisions of the
present Constitution and the laws should be re-examined to strengthen
fair and democratic selection of leaders in government.

The nature of the presidential system, which poses a strong Executive
and a bicameral legislature, can lead to fragmented points and enclaves
of political power rather than achieve democratic consolidation.

Solidarity

The Overseas Absentee Voting Act (RA 9189) broadens citizens’
participation in elections. It recognizes the inclusive right to
suffrage of overseas Filipinos. But again, implementation problems
emerge in relation to voters’ registration, votes casting, and
canvassing.

All told, there is a long way to go before deep electoral and political
reforms take root. Disembalming FPJ does not mean re-igniting the
intense rivalry between the warring political elites. Rather, it
suggests that despite FPJ’s passing, his protest can spur further
reform in the system.

(These issues was discussed in a forum on Feb. 1, 2005 at the
University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration
and Governance.)

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