SAN FRANCISCO — Perhaps the stupidest reaction to the last Philippine elections came from people who concluded that, based on the outcome, Filipinos are really stupid.
Someone even came up with a faux Time magazine cover making that argument. In an ironic twist, a few who embrace the stupidity claim believed the spoof was for real.
Then there’s the Philippine Star columnist who argued that, “In the present system no matter how hard we try, the numbers are against an intelligent vote. … It is inevitable that the huge majority of unintelligent voting will always overwhelm a small intelligent vote. So it is not about making clueless voters more intelligent to achieve better elections alone. It is also about restructuring our politics and governance so that the selection of leaders does not depend on money and popularity.”
Carmen Pedrosa’s statements about “restructuring our politics” and the need to neutralize the role played by “money and popularity” in elections certainly make sense.
That’s not just a problem in the Philippines. You can hear that complaint in most electoral democracies, even in older, presumably more established, ones like the United States where the fight to reform the way elections are financed has been raging for decades.
But in a country that very recently had a disastrous encounter with dictatorship, what she said can easily be twisted around by forces with a much narrower view of elections and who probably don’t even believe in democracy.
You can almost hear some of these forces declaring: “Well, clearly, the people are stupid and unintelligent. So it’s time for those of us who are not stupid and unintelligent to take charge.”
Yes, some of the big winners aren’t exactly paragons of democratic governance.
As an Associated Press report said, “From Imelda Marcos to Manny Pacquiao, familiar names of political clans and celebrities dominated the ballots in the Philippines’ congressional and local elections Monday, making them a contest of popularity first and reform second.”
It would have been great to see Risa Hontiveros and Teddy Casiño on the list of winners and to have them inject more progressive ideas and discussions into the Senate. (It would also be fascinating given that they belong to rival segments of Philippine progressive politics. But that’s another story.)
But the results aren’t as “unintelligent” as some would think.
As columnist Rina Jimenez-David pointed out, the number of women in the Senate just doubled – a big deal in a political culture notorious for narrowminded machismo.
The top-notcher Grace Poe has quickly come across as intelligent, thoughtful and eloquent. She clearly has no delusions about why she won. She knows it’s because of her ties to a revered cultural icon and was quick to acknowledge the hard work ahead to really earn the people’s trust and respect.
Meanwhile, Nancy Binay has quickly emerged as the most ridiculed political newcomer in the history of Philippine politics. Some of the criticisms and fears may be justified. But many of the attacks have been so over-the-top and unfair.
There’s an important point in the elections that I haven’t heard much about. And it has to do with those whom the supposedly “unintelligent” masses rejected.
There’s the son of the one-time guardian of fascist rule in the country, the veteran trapo now also known for a new literary genre we could probably call ‘extremely creative memoir writing.’ (“I was ambushed. … No, that was a hoax. … Just kidding, I was really ambushed.”)
His son will not be joining the Senate because enough people apparently were not impressed with Jackie Enrile’s ‘I didn’t kill anyone and I really wanted to be a missionary’ narrative.
And Filipinos won’t have to read or hear about Senator Migz “This-time-I-didn’t-cheat’ Zubiri. That’s apparently because enough people didn’t buy into the former non-senator’s ‘Believe me, I didn’t know my votes were stolen” tale.
Then there are the other signs of cracks, even small ones, in the elite political machine on the local level. Why can’t we celebrate the victory of Leni Robredo who just won a congressional seat in Camarines Sur by beating the powerful Villafuerte clan?
But the biggest win is this: Filipinos yet again were able to engage in this crazy exercise. For there was a time when elections were a far more dangerous political activity in the Philippines.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of one of the dirtiest elections in Philippine history.
The year was 1978. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos was in power and thought that he should prove to the world that the people really love him. So he called for elections for a new legislature.
A broad opposition coalition, led by the likes of Ninoy Aquino and Nene Pimentel, took him on. They waged a spirited, courageous campaign, winning the support of Filipinos who had grown tired of the regime.
The dictator hit back by cheating his way to victory. The cheating was so massive and so brazen it stunned even Marcos’s key ally, the United States.
Journalist Raymond Bonner recalls in “Waltzing With a Dictator” how the US Embassy in Manila reported how the Marcoses used flying voters and “printed and marked one million fake ballots for use in the process as necessary” to assure an “overwhelming” victory.
But cheating wasn’t enough.
After the elections, Marcos went after those who defied him by throwing his opponents in prison.
There’s a famous editorial cartoon by the legendary Herblock that brilliantly summed up Marcos’s twisted view of elections. It shows Marcos standing next to one of his generals. They’re both angry as they watch a military van hauling off protesters.
“Ingrates!” Marcos roars. “You let them vote and the next thing they want their ballots counted.”
Filipinos have come a long way since those dark days. And it’s time for an important reminder.
Democracy is a journey, and it’s often messy, unpredictable, at times exhilarating. And the destination isn’t paradise.
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