Election Notes

While following the mid-term elections from a distance, I found myself turning to studies by such scholars as
Benedict Anderson, Nathan Quimpo, John Sidel, Eve Lotta Hedman, David Wurfel, Patricio Abinales, Paul Kramer, among others. Reading their work, I came away with a number of observations and questions. I list them here for whatever they’re worth:

1. In world historical terms, elections were most effective and meaningful when they were introduced in the wake of social upheavals and movements to democratize society (see for example, the French and American Revolutions; the US Civil Rights Movement). Such elections did not inaugurate change, they simply followed and extended change that was already under way.

2. The promise of electoral change coming in the wake of (rather than before) these social revolutions could only be realized, ironically, through the medium of a strong state and established bureaucracies left behind by the old order. Refurbished by the new regime, these were the only vehicles capable of carrying out legislative changes on a truly national scale.

3. In the Philippine case, national elections have American colonial origins (whereas local elections date back from the Spanish era). They were first introduced by the Americans in 1907 as part of a series of counter-insurgency measures to quell the Filipino-American war. Hence these elections, like the municipal elections that preceded them in 1903, were not meant to further social revolution but precisely to put an end to its populist energy, re-channeling its demands into a conservative, elite-dominated, counter-revolutionary institution called the Philippine Assembly, the acknowledged grand daddy of the Philippine legislature today.

4. Because of the extremely restrictive franchise under US rule (only English or Spanish-speaking, property-owning males could vote–no more than 14 percent of the population until the 1940s), elections invariably planted the seeds for post-war political dynasties.

5. The American colonial state introduced local and national elections without an adequate civil service and centralized bureaucratic apparatus. Result: the strengthening of the local (i.e., provincial and municipal) basis of elite power brokers amid a weakly centralized state, with the former taking turns at controlling the latter under the watchful eye of the United States. This disparity between local power and national state was further reinforced by a largely agrarian economy dependent, by virtue of free trade agreements, on preferential access to a highly lucrative American market, all of which further contributed to #4 above.

6. The post-world war II widening of the franchise (a condition for full UN membership), coinciding with peasant unrest that escalated into the Huk Rebellion, created turbulent social conditions that would shape the elections of 1946, 1949 and 1953. As with 1907, such elections resulted in domesticating rather than capitalizing on the democratizing possibilities of social movements and rebellions in the interest of re-instituting oligarchic rule under US sponsorship.

7. People Power nullified the results of the snap elections in 1986, clearing away the Marcoses from power, and once
again raised the expectations of significant reforms in the elections of 1987 during the regime of Cory Aquino. And again, as with elections of the past, the results amounted for the most part to the restoration of the old order. The pre-Marcos oligarchy returned in full force, alongside the emergence of new dynasties made up of celebrities, former members of the military, and a bunch of Marcos cronies which in time would include the Marcoses themselves. The momentary opening up of “democratic space” was thus quickly shut down: attempts at land reform fell by the wayside; negotiations with the left abandoned in favor of the vigilante para-military groups (remember the brutal Alsa Masa?) whose attacks on anyone suspected of being on the left made Cory’s administration arguably more violent than Marcos; and the return to a de-centralized state that once more ceded power to local elites.

8. Post-EDSA elections continued to be vehicles for consolidating and enlarging the status quo, not changing it, regardless of whatever good legislation was pursued by truly patriotic members of Congress or admirable policies crafted by idealistic technocrats.

9. Conversely, only the mobilization of popular political participation alongside or outside of elections will tend to spur the democratization of public life. This, in turn, raises the promise of making elections more of a reflection of the popular will rather than a means for reproducing existing inequalities of wealth and power. Example: a broad-based coalition succeeded in pressuring Congress and PNoy to pass the Reproductive Health bill designed to alleviate poverty and empower women. Unless you are a Catholic bishop, you would think it was a great law. But will there be sufficient means to enact and enforce it (presuming of course that the Supreme Court will eventually dismiss pending challenges to it)? Is the state strong enough to course its provisions through the sea of local government units in all their particularity? One could raise the same sort of questions with regard to that other signature reform program of the PNoy administration, Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs).

10. More broadly, in the absence of any alternatives in the near future, can political dynasties and good governance co-exist? Will politicians be willing to go after their own friends and family members for corruption? Are members of political families capable of standing on principle and merit even if it means supporting non-family members and going against the wishes of their elders, as in recent local elections in the vote-rich provinces of Pangasinan? And what are the chances that even non-dynastic candidates, once they win, can resist the temptation of inaugurating their own dynasty?

11. Is it possible to have a strong state given the geographical divisions and strong local allegiances of voters, and given the sway of money and personalities over political parties and issues? Can we ever overcome the colonial legacy of a decentralized, “weak” state without returning to authoritarian rule? Can the national ever dominate the local, which even under Marcos, proved unfeasible? Or does democratization in the Philippines also mean increasing decentralization and localization of power which are anathema to the building of a strong state capable of reshaping all levels of social life? As we assess the results of 2013 and begin to look towards 2016, these are some questions that may be worth pondering.

Vicente L. Rafael is Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of several works on the Philippines, including Contracting Colonialism, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History, and The Promise of the Foreign.

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