PHILIPPINE democracy is in crisis. Twice in the three presidential elections held since the present Constitution was ratified in 1987, there is the widespread suspicion that the popular mandate has been subverted. The method of subversion differs from that utilized in the past, both during the dictatorship and in the elections helds before martial law. Where once politicians bribed individual voters, and frightened with goons those who couldn’t be bribed, today the voter has been made irrelevant. The subversion of democracy is popularly known as “dagdag-bawas,” or, as it’s translated these days, “vote cutting and shaving.” Businessmen will understand this development in political fraud as a transition from retail to wholesale cheating.
The reason “dagdag-bawas” is tantamount to subversion, and goes beyond more of the usual cheating and fraud we expect in our elections, is that it has arisen as an antidote to the increasing independence and, in a sense, honesty of the voter. Politicians have come to realize that the Catholic Church may be politically inept in many ways, but it has had one marked effect on political behavior. The advice of Jaime Cardinal Sin, for voters to take the proffered bribes of candidates, but to go ahead and vote for the candidate they really want, has sunk in. Anecdotal evidence indicates that politicians were despairing of the growing population of the country, which (thanks to the Catholic Church, again, which has done its part to promote Filipinos having a superabundance of babies) means there is an ever-increasing number of unreliable voters when it comes to fraud.
It was really an act of evil genius to come up with the idea of ignoring the wishes of the electorate altogether, and instead, concentrating money and influence on those responsible for counting the votes.
The reaction of reformists to this phenomenon has been a demand to computerize the counting (if not the actual casting) of votes, in order to prevent vote cutting and shaving. Automation is necessary because it fights fraud with speed, and removes the power of supervision and discretion from officials who can be bribed and intimidated. Therefore, the first requirement for more credible, more honest elections, is to automate the process of casting and counting ballots.
But there’s another problem. Even if elections were computerized or automated in some other way, there remains the problem of Congress. From 1935 to 1986, the role of the national legislature in presidential elections has been largely ceremonial. Each province submitted the result of the elections to the legislature, which then went through the formality of tabulating the results, and then proclaiming the winners in the name of the Filipino people. The 1987 Constitutional Commission attempted to inject a democratic safeguard by granting Congress the latitude (and even giving it the obligation) to go beyond provincial, official, figures, and dig deeper into the counting per province. Some say –and wish- the counting can go as far as each precinct ballot box.
The present sad scenes in Congress –of a majority muzzling the minority, and of lawyers making futile manifestations irrelevant to the outcome- are an example of what happens when well-meaning reforms come head to head with practical realities. As it is, the time between election day and the inauguration of a new president is too short to permit a proper and thorough review of election returns, and brings up the genuine problem of a duplication of duties. For example, if the Congress really looks into election results all the way down to the precinct level, what then of the authority and duty of the Supreme Court to act as the presidential electoral tribunal, which would do basically the same things?
It is clear that something needs to be done. The additional practical problem that the terms of the president, vice-president, and members of the house of representatives all end on June 30 in a presidential election year, means that only the senate and supreme court, among the three branches of government, continue to exist (the senate representing only half of the legislature at that).
But since the senate, headed by a senate president who is constitutionally mandated to be acting president in case Congress cannot (or will not) proclaim a president-elect, continues to exist, and is a much smaller body, it may make more sense to give the senate the sole duty of canvassing the national vote and proclaiming a president and vice-president elect.
This, of course, requires a constitutional amendment. At a time, however, when constitutional amendments are increasingly attractive –even necessary- this is one idea whose time may have come.
And while we’re at it, there is the growing clamor, undemocratic on its face, to institute educational requirements for national candidates. Obviously those in favor of such restrictions fear the growing popularity of actors and other charismatic personalities, when it comes to election to public office. The possibility educational requirements would be approved as a constitutional amendment are probably slim. Not only would such an amendment require the support of politicians already in office despite being unprepared, intellectually, for office (if amendments are passed by Congress acting as a constituent assembly), it would also require popular approval in a national referendum –subjecting educational requirements to the consideration and rejection of an electorate fully satisfied with electing the uneducated to office.
What, however, is the alternative? The attempt, many among the educated believe, must be made. A miracle might happen and the public might support it. Nothing lost if nothing’s ventured, they say. Never mind that such an amendment to the constitution might be viewed by the poor and ill-educated, and the uneducated, as a direct challenge and affront to their democratic rights.
The basic reality is that voters are fighting a war on two fronts to keep their votes relevant. Wholesale fraud stands to turn the country into an oligarchy without any pretenses to even considering the popular pulse: the American oligarchy, for example, allowed its plebes the pleasure of casting their votes but allows the oligarchy to interfere (in theory) and overturn the popular will through the electoral college system. Parliamentary democracies use party politics to entrench their oligarchies which select leaders based not on their acceptability to the public, but instead on the ability of party leaders to cobble-together coalitions.
In the Philippines, if the present situation persists, we will have elections that are more than just the sort of farces enjoyed by dictatorships: we will have elections as examples of a professional and shameless rejection of the popular will by politicians who have the money to commission their own version of the counting. And we will have candidates who are empowered to drive the destiny of the nation, but who lack the basic qualifications the private sector demands for even the lowest-paying janitorial job: at least a high school diploma, if not a college one.