PCIJ: Elections are like Water

Special Election Issue

[posted 7 May 2004]

Elections are like water

The stakes in Philippine elections have been fundamental. For many, what is at stake is their future and their hope for a better life.

by Manuel Quezon III

ELECTIONS are like water, missed only in its absence. For the overwhelming majority of Filipinos who have no recollection of life before martial law, elections are like water: a requisite for political life, as essential for the body politic as water is for the human body. But for the older generation, elections are like water: In that, as they view the arid desert that is our current political culture, they yearn for a time when the political landscape was lush, abloom with idealism, fragrant with the virtue of the leaders and the led; far, far removed from the horrifying sight of a nation tearing itself apart at the polls and beyond. Elections are like water: a means for cleansing the body politic, a roaring torrent of votes, channeled, like a river, to clean out the Augean stables every administration seems to become.

In 1935, when the country had its first national election, fully a third of the voters didn’t bother to cast their ballots. We had a million and a half registered voters then, all male, all literate. We were looking forward to self-rule preparatory to full independence; it would seem logical that the voters would be interested in participating in the creation of the foundations of their future nation state. But a significant number were not, and the reason they were not should come as no surprise. The choices at the time were limited: three candidates for president, and of that limited number, one was the overwhelming favorite to win. The result was a foregone conclusion, and at a time when all seemed to be going well, a third of the electorate found no reason to even bother. Manuel L. Quezon won by a landslide, 68 percent of the votes, against Emilio Aguinaldo and Gregorio Aglipay, neither of whom managed to get even 18 percent of the votes cast. In 1941, with women added to the rosters of qualified voters, the turnout remained about the same, that is, a third continued to find it pointless to vote, even though the incumbent, Quezon, this time got 81 percent of the vote.

In the democracies we Filipinos like to envy, a turnout of 66 percent of the registered voters would be phenomenal; the United States regularly involves a far smaller percentage of its population in elections that do not only determine the direction of their country, but which profoundly affects the rest of the world as well. The turnout of voters in the supposedly halcyon days of Philippine democracy before the war points to a defining characteristic of our democracy, which is that a sizeable majority of Filipinos have put, and continue to put, great stock in the voting process. The difference is that the predictable nature of our political and national development before the war was ended by a series of shocks and disappointments: the national trauma that was World War II.

Between 1941 and 1946, the Philippines went through six heads of government: Manuel L. Quezon, Jorge Vargas, Jose P. Laurel, Sergio Osmeña, and Manuel Roxas, within that five-year period having two leaders contesting the title of legitimate president of the Philippines (Laurel sponsored by the Japanese at home; Quezon then Osmeña sponsored by the Americans in exile). Taking sides was no longer a political business, it was a bloody business. There were collaborators and guerrillas, officials in exile and officials in the hills, officials in Manila claiming to be secret guerrillas or who were overtly pro- Japanese.

The end of World War II, and the first national elections held after the wartime trauma, set the stage for elections as we know them today. The pretense of political virtue, so carefully nurtured prior to the war, was difficult to sustain in a nation for which voting was a life-or-death matter. Before World War II, elections were like water in that they took on a sacramental aspect, the anointing of a leader by his people. After World War II, elections were like water in that they were viewed as not only a means to cleanse away filth, but as a fundamental requirement for survival. Voters torn and divided, who were guerrillas, fake guerrillas, genuine collaborators or unfairly accused as such, landlords who had fled their estates to seek refuge behind Japanese bayonets (and who now clung to America for dear life), disgruntled peasants-whatever their circumstances, survivors all-now had a desperate stake in the outcome of elections.

In the elections of 1946, genuine guerrillas, radicals, and leaders ruthlessly defeated during the two decades of Quezon’s ascendance in national life, fought desperately for their time in the sun. Behind Roxas rallied the orphaned apparatus of Quezon’s party machine, both guerrilla and collaborator, but most importantly those accused of collaboration for whom political survival offered their only prospects for rehabilitation and not disgrace. Both sides courted a destitute nation that viewed independence with mixed excitement and dread, having been conditioned to think of 1946 as the year in which the carefully-built-up development of the prewar years would find fruition, only to find independence would a flag waving over ruins emanating the stench of death and decay.

A nation literally parched, its infrastructure in ruins, its population decimated, its ideals proven woefully hollow by the war, viewed elections like water: And like parched people, the fight for the elections was desperate. 1946 saw no landslide, but a simple majority. It also saw vote buying, allegations of vote rigging, and election related violence on a scale previously inconceivable. It would only get worse in 1949, when Elpidio Quirino won in an election that achieved shocking notoriety around the world for even raising the dead and drafting flora and fauna to cast votes. Yet in 1953, the much-anticipated deluge came, when Ramon Magsaysay beat Quezon’s 1935 record by getting 68.9 percent of the votes. But by 1957 Magsaysay was dead; his successor became the first president by plurality, in a period when the Philippines of today was being born.

IN 1957, when Carlos P. Garcia, in a field of seven candidates, was elected president with merely 41.3 percent of the votes cast, the modern Philippine political system can be said to have been born. A nation doesn’t always have leaders with flair and charisma who, by hard work and ruthless plotting, like Quezon, or sheer flair and an even greater charisma, like Magsaysay, dominate national life. The overwhelming majority of politicians are humdrum, devious but not outstandingly cunning people, and it is impossible for someone to always shine.

Add to this the weaning away of the electorate from an era in which politicians were expected to be reserved, and to have pretensions to viewing appealing to the masses as a vulgarity not to be indulged. And furthermore add the combination of a natural shifting in tastes and expectations between the jaded and, in a sense, morally bankrupt generation of politicians active since before the war, and the young, brash generation that had actually fought in that war or grown up since. And add, further, the steady erosion of presidential power and the institutional mechanisms such as block voting that Quezon had carefully put in place, and which Magsaysay wielded by sheer force of character, and the following was the result.

Not only the first plurality president, but also a president now shorn of many of the basic levers of control his predecessors had taken for granted. Carlos P. Garcia was a president born and bred by the party machine, and yet whose partymates had eliminated block voting, a basic bulwark of party-oriented voting. A president who inherited the steady removal of local government positions within the gift of the presidency, a process that had begun in response to the domineering nature but weak political gifts of Quirino. An old-style politician at a time when Magsaysay had already further eroded the ability of old-style politicians to achieve majorities simply by commanding their surrogates to issue instructions to the voters. A man who spoke Spanish and was inaugurated in an old fashioned cutaway when the electorate far preferred the rustic barong Tagalog wearing style of the late Magsaysay and was poised to raise to the Senate Rogelio de la Rosa, whose only qualification was his being a matinee idol. A president occupying an office that voters expected him to wield with the same aplomb and colorfulness as Quezon and Magsaysay.

The problem was, Garcia was like neither of these men. What Garcia was, as he himself said, “was not stupid,” and for a time he and his successors proved that they were clever enough to grasp the remaining levers of power to make it to the presidency.

The popular vision of the presidency — both among voters and among the politicians aspiring to the position — thus suffered from the larger-than-life personas of past presidents at a time when contemporary presidents could not, even if they had wanted to (and try, they did), wield the powers of the executive with the same overarching authority and effectiveness as their predecessors. The means, under the law and under the system, simply wasn’t there. But the expectations on the part of voters remained the same, the ambition afflicting the politicians remained the same; the intensity of popular interest in elections remained at the same fever pitch it had been at since 1946, and even more so after the brief, meteoric rise of Magsaysay. Garcia was turned out by Macapagal for much the same reasons Quirino had lost to Magsaysay, but Macapagal proved woefully ill equipped to wield executive power. He was thrust aside in 1965 by Ferdinand E. Marcos, who saw no other way to achieve the power he craved, and the position he had no intention of relinquishing, without scrapping the system altogether.

Marcos in 1969 received 61 percent of the vote, giving him the fourth-highest percentage of votes in a national election and making him the only president to achieve a second full term. Just as Quezon had set out to change the system to make it more conducive to executive influence and control, so did Marcos set out to set the stage for something even more daring: the elimination of the system altogether. This infrastructure-minded president would view elections as something like a dam, a means to channel political control, allowing him to irrigate the fields of his cronies, leave parched the lands of those who opposed him, and present to the people the pharaoh-like image of a an irresistible and indomitable will that could change the course of nature.

The water in the vast manmade lake that was the New Society proved muddy, shallow, polluted, and foul. In 1986 the dam was breached, a more natural course of water flow restored. Corazon Aquino lost the official count but won where it counted —a moral victory in the eyes of her people and the world. From the start, she had shed the reluctance of a shy widow for the increasingly confident role of a revolutionary restorer: accomplishing what her husband had set out to do, which was restore elections, bringing back water, so to speak, to a nation parched for elections.

Cory Aquino was brought to power by election, indeed, by referendum, and she used elections-as-plebiscites as her key to maintaining legitimacy.

But the stage of development — or underdevelopment — of the political system that had emerged with the election of Garcia would come back with a vengeance under Fidel Ramos, who holds the unenviable record of having the smallest plurality (28 percent) in our electoral history. His success had a baleful influence on the idea of elections as a means for legitimizing presidential governance. What was important now, under the post-Edsa scheme of things, was neither popularity, nor machinery (his opponents possessed both), but tactical supremacy: doing the most with less. It was no surprise then that after the strange rise to power of Ramos, rejected by an overwhelming number of his countrymen, but esconced in the presidency anyway because he proved less unpopular than the majority of his opponents, Joseph Estrada’s election six years later would take on the characteristics of a landslide (which it was not; it wasn’t even a plurality as healthy as Garcia’s). Ramos and Estrada proved minority presidents occupying an office burdened with expectations institutionally impossible to fulfill. An electorate increasingly polarized, desperate, and despairing; a change in popular tastes and means of mass communications that saw Joseph Estrada as the heir of Rogelio de la Rosa.

Without Ramos’s tactical cunning and long experience at handling subordinates, Estrada proved inept at maintaining himself in power. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the other hand, had achieved a first in post-Edsa elections: a near-majority. This armed her with the ability to invoke a mandate of her own, as putative successor to Estrada. When Estrada fled the Palace, Arroyo deftly moved in (to cut a long story short), but under circumstances so unique as to be denied the natural advantages a successor-president historically enjoyed: being the heir apparent, the keeper of the flame, the inheritor of legitimacy.

The present presidential campaign is a quest for legitimacy: legitimacy lost on the part of Estrada’s anointed candidate, legitimacy never quite earned on the part of the incumbent; a quest for legitimacy by other candidates dependent neither on discredited leaders in jail nor an incumbent grievously wounded by allegations she deserves to be behind bars as well. All the candidates at the present time are fighting an electoral contest overshadowed by the maturing of a political culture born in the 1960s, made ruthless during the 1970s, and made morally bankrupt in the 1990s —and yet which collectively leaders and the led view through the rose-tinted spectacles of the struggle to restore the credibility of elections in the 1980s. We have elections, just as we have water: not as the result of a rational, well thought out plan of national action, but because of fits and starts on the part of leaders who view voting as they do water: handouts to inculcate gratitude among a mendicant populace.

The day must come when fully a third of the electorate can decide to sit home and not vote, because whatever the results of the elections, nothing fundamental is at stake. Since 1946, the stakes have always been fundamental, which is why graft and corruption have always been the fundamental national issues in those elections. For what is at stake, for so many people, is the very hope of a life in which water, quite literally, can be theirs to drink, and bathe in, and where life isn’t measured in one faucet per barangay, and garbage-infested canals.

Elections are like water: essential to the parched, a source of power to those who control it or even own it. Elections are like water: possessing different meanings for different people. Elections are like water: for us, at least, in a country where each upper-class swimming pool represents a reproach to entire barangays that must line up hours for something murky and foul to drink.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.