Do Worry

Galang specializes in good governance.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, May 7, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

The final heat of the electoral campaign is upon us, and we have the venerable Jovito Salonga warning us that the coming May 14 elections could turn out to be as “dirty, violent and fraudulent” as those held under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. The former senator has raised the alarm in the wake of recent orders from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the military to deploy soldiers to areas in Metro Manila and set up more checkpoints nationwide. He finds these moves hauntingly familiar.

The worst case that comes to the former senator’s mind is the 1986 elections whose final tallies showed Marcos getting most of the votes without necessarily winning them, prompting the electorate to vote with their clenched fists instead. Better than worst in Mr. Salonga’s memory is the 1969 elections whose counts gave Marcos a second term as president.  American journalists, however, saw the elections then, without the benefit of clairvoyance, as the “dirtiest, most violent, and most corrupt  in modern Filipino history.”  They were writing too soon.

To these events we add a couple of our own recollections.

Perhaps out of modesty, Mr. Salonga omits mention of the 1971 senatorial elections that his party slate won at the cost of near-decimation  on account of a bomb that rolled into its miting de avance at Plaza Miranda. Mr. Salonga walks around to this day, his eminence notwithstanding, with some solid bits of steel still embedded in his tissues,  each one coded with a cold reminder of how politics can get to be despicably dirty and violent in this country.

I’m sure out of courtesy, “Hello Garci” failed to figure, too, as reference to the most corrupt, insofar as we know.  Although, in the same league, he did remind us of “dishonest elections in southern Mindanao” to which was “linked” a military commander who happens to sit now as AFP Chief of Staff.

It’s not difficult to share Mr. Salonga’s apprehension.  His is not the alarm of that candidate who cries “Cheat!” for fear that he might get out cheated.  Mr. Salonga’s is real, but with all the respect that is due him, I can’t keep this inner urge to ask cynically, what’s new? The house has been on fire for some time now and everybody knows it.  Fraud, filth, corruption and violence are constant features of Philippine elections since as far back as I can remember, and some people think they are colorless without them.  Mr. Salonga’s worry, it seems to me, is about these features approaching worst-record level, and I think it’s worth the wrinkles and the stress that come with it.

I have my own real worry, though. It is less in knowing that this perennial problem, as a problem, is here to stay. It’s more in the tendency among us to take fraud, violence and corruption as the hard electoral reality we all ought to live with, like it or not, after its own fashion. Call it denial, ego defense, resignation, self-deception, or whatever, it’s there, in various guises, and apparently with unwanted implications.

The petite young lady on TV, the only daughter of President Arroyo, a few nights back, was answering questions for a one-on-one interview about her father who had just walked out of the hospital.  She was smart and straightforward in her answers, especially to that question about how the first family has been taking the flak thrown the way of her father and mother.  Compared to politics during her grandfather’s time, as she was saying, politics nowadays is very vicious, and much as we want to change it, we cannot; and so we have to accept it as it is.

As a follow-up question, I was expecting the reporter to ask, what do you do, in turn, after having accepted the viciousness of it all? How do you fight back?  Of course, the question is impolite, for it leads one into asking again: if we accept the viciousness of politics and play its game, how do you ensure you don’t become vicious yourself?

Some people who have accepted the harsh reality of elections find themselves stripping the vote of its value and sell it just like any other commodity in the market. They begin to forget that to vote is a hard-won right with a sanctity of its own.  How does it happen? I will illustrate.

Classical political economics will tell you that, for an item to become a commodity, it has to get, first, a price; and, second, it has to lose its utility to the owner (otherwise, why part with it?). With money in hand, the vote-buyer, face to face with the voter, satisfies the first condition. Elections that voters find meaningless after repeated experiences clear the ground for the second condition. They find no use for the vote for it cannot serve its inherent purpose. The vote gets “commodified.”

Overall, there is risk in playing along with an unwanted reality. Everyday realities, psychologists tell us, acquire a weighty sense of being the prime reality, the reality par excellence, by virtue of our collective acceptance.  It builds into a “frame”—a collective mindset of sorts that “organizes and governs social events and our involvement in them.”  We become willing players, play by its rules, or worse, get to be its protector. As we are wont to say, we get gobbled up by the system.

What do we do, then, to avoid this? Unfortunately, I have nothing to offer at the level of Mr. Salonga’s, save this shallow one: keep in mind it’s a problem and never stop worrying about it. Unlike Bobby McFerrin, I say: Do worry, be unhappy.

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