The Long View: Evolution of an electorate

Evolution of an electorate

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 01:41am (Mla time) 04/19/2007

MANILA, Philippines — Since the voting for overseas Filipino voters (OFVs) began, the news hasn’t been very good. There were the early birds: The first to vote was OFV Nicanora Maglinis in Palau; the second was Rowena de la Cruz in Hong Kong.

But the 70,000 overseas Filipino worker (OFW) voters in Rome have been the focus of much of the news, because the ballots haven’t arrived. (The Philippine Embassy there held a seminar on how the voting works only last Sunday, when voting had already started). On the other hand, overseas Filipino voting in Belgium and Luxembourg, according to our ambassador to the European Union, seems to be enthusiastic, but no figures have been given. (All we know is that in Antwerp alone, 1,500 Filipino seamen will be voting.)

It’s interesting that in Hong Kong, one group, Migrante, said that OFV turnout was low even though workers were on their day off. A press report put the turnout at 235 on Saturday, and 700 on Sunday, or less than a thousand out of the 96,505 registered OFVs in Hong Kong. If voters won’t vote on their day off, how much lower is the chance they will vote during a work day? At the rate OFVs are voting and with a 30-day voting period, it looks like only a third of them will vote. This year’s voting – again according to Migrante – has been underwhelming compared to that in 2004, when 4,000 Filipinos cast their ballots on the first day of overseas voting. In that election, 65 percent of OFVs voted. Here are the global figures on OFVs who cast their ballots over the weekend: only 896 on Saturday; 1,049 on Sunday. Some 275 mailed their ballots.

There’s the usual blame game going on: Sen. Richard Gordon is pointing the finger at the Commission on Elections; President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is saying the OFV turnout is low because the whole process is such a hassle. Of course, there’s all the he-said, she-said in the news because everyone knows that OFV figures are nothing to sneeze at.

The numbers this year are significant: 504,122 Filipinos, including 18,404 seafarers, can vote overseas. Saudi Arabia has the biggest chunk of the OFVs with 127,947; next is Hong Kong with 96,505; the United Arab Emirates has 35,304. This year, mail-in ballots will comprise a sizeable chunk of the total vote: 174,832 overseas Filipinos are entitled to receive and mail back their ballots through the postal system; while 329,278 can cast their ballots personally at our embassies and consulates.

OFVs can only vote for two kinds of candidates: senators and the party list. In either case, Filipinos overseas can make a difference. In 2004, the last two elected senators, Manuel “Lito” Lapid and Rodolfo Biazon were separated only by 335,000 or so votes; and between the last placer, Biazon, and 13th-placer Robert Barbers, there was a difference of less than 12,000 votes only. Filipinos in the UAE alone could potentially make or break a Senate candidacy; Saudi Arabia or Hong Kong could put a candidate safely in a Senate seat.

All together, OFVs could make or break party-list candidacies. If even half of the OFVs voted for one party list, their votes would be enough to give it one seat in the House of Representatives. Theoretically, if all OFVs voted for just one party list, they would give it two House seats. For example, in 2004, some successfully elected party-list parties were Anak Mindanao with 269,750 votes or 2.1204 percent; Citizen’s Battle Against Corruption with 495,193 votes or 3.8924 percent; not to mention the other, more prominent parties such as Anakpawis, Akbayan and Bayan Muna.

But all this assumes two things: first, that if you’re an OFV, you’d want to vote. Second, that even if you voted, your vote would be properly counted.

The reason some are saying that OFV voting will be a flop is that these low numbers have been accompanied by statements – to the press or in text messages or in e-mails and phone calls to friends and family – that things will be rigged, anyway. A friend now working as a driver in Saudi Arabia recently sent me a text message, updating me on his situation, including his being unhappy over the increasing strength of the peso (less money for his family in Sorsogon province). I asked him if he intended to vote. No, he replied, he wasn’t registered. Were his co-workers going to vote? No, he said, it would be difficult considering their schedules. And finally I had to ask, did he even care?

No, he said, and he told me why. His has been the experience of lining up, filling out forms, paying fees at home so he can work abroad: not one candidate, he said, has stepped forward to say that the fees would be lessened, the paperwork reduced, the process made – if not easier, then at least – a little nicer. No candidate at home, he said, has bothered to contact him, or even his family in Sorsogon; and his experience, he said, isn’t all that different from the experiences of his fellow workers. His attitudes, he said, are shared by many of his coworkers, too.

The truth is, there are about 10 million Filipinos abroad, about 11 percent of our population. Of these, at least 1.3 million are officially OFWs, according to our government. Other sources put the numbers of Filipinos abroad as follows: 3,187,586 stay abroad permanently, 3,599,257 stay abroad for work contracts, and 1,296,972 stay abroad irregularly (without proper documentation) – for a sum of 8,083,815. For comparison, in Metro Manila, there are 5.7 million registered voters; and in Cebu province, 1 million. Just the number of OFWs working illegally already equals the number of voters in all of Cebu!

So if half a million of actually registered potential voters is an impressive number, it pales in comparison with the millions who aren’t, either because they can’t register, or they don’t want to.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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