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PHILIPPINES Elections: Did the Filipinos Participate?

Roberto Ricci*

The holding of the national elections in the Philippines was a critical test for the country's democratization process. On May 11, 1992, the Filipino people exercised their right to elect new national and local leaders. That day also witnessed the first presidential election since the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos' authoritarian government, an event which was to put to the test the mechanisms of democracy which President Corazon Aquino initiated after her coming to power through the 1986 people's uprising.

With the official approval of the Comelec (Commission on Elections), a pool of non-governmental and people's organizations convened an International Observer Mission (IOM) to monitor the conduct of the elections in selected areas. In a nutshell, on May 15, the IOM stated before national and international press that 'the May 11 election day was not as bloody and dirty as early predicted. However, the elections cannot be considered clean and honest. The observations [....] reveal the occurrence of electoral manipulation and violation of legal safeguards.'

Because of time constraint, the IOM findings are only partially relevant to the elections' process which is still ongoing as this article is being written. Nonetheless, the interviews released by some of the voters and candidates and the actual observation at election sites did point out certain issues which, though not glamorous, strike at the heart of the whole concept of free and genuine elections.

The Right to Participate in One's Country's Government

1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or t hr 0 U g h freely chosen representatives.

2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedure.

(Universal Declaration, Art.21)

The 1992 Philippine elections, up to the voting stage, can be assessed positively in terms of form. The Comelec's preparatory work was successful in ensuring a set of proper legal safeguards. The last moment decision to hold back the employment and proceed to the disarmament of the Citizens' Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs), prompted by the lobbying of progressive forces, was commonly perceived as having lessened tensions and therefore, contributed to relatively little violence. The work of education before, and of monitoring during and after the polling day carried out by volunteer organizations, played a major role in enhancing people's participation and understanding of the voting exercise.

At a more substantial level, things were quite different.

The most recurrent violation of election ethics was the vote-buying practice. The price of a vote varied from place to place and in accordance with the position the buyer aspired for. Furthermore, private citizens were logically rewarded with smaller amounts as compared to those in public office for example, barangay officials. In the Philippines, vote-buying is overt; it is seen as something which belongs to the electoral competition.

The popular understanding of the vote-buying affair was astonishingly thorough and was well articulated in the course of many interviews. The first statement that many electors would make was that the little sum (from 50 to 200 pesos in rural areas) they got by selling their vote would be the only positive goal they would achieve through the elections. Bitterly, they would add that that money would anyway be re-paid with interest in the following years. An aged rural folk declared: 'I am pressured to vote for the person who hires me. Sitting at the voting booth I will have to fight with my conscience. Still, my struggle is pointless: unless a genuine land reform is carried out, the situation of people like me cannot improve. With no alternative, I had better keep my work.'

On the other hand, interviewed candidates regarded the matter as "something we have to live with." An aspiring congressman shamelessly lamented the unfair competition with his local opponent who was giving the voters double the current market price. Another candidate with a legal background explained that vote-buying occurred only on the polling day and all he did was to grant awards to his workers. When asked to quantify the number of his workers, he eloquently skipped the question.

Vote-buying is a symptom of a serious illness which undermines democracy in the Philippines. The issue at stake is indeed that of people's participation in policy-making. The right to take part in the government of one's country either directly or through freely chosen representatives can only be enjoyed if: 1) people are free; and 2) there is dialogue with the representatives.

According to popular testimonies, many people in today's Philippines are still subjected to working conditions that amount to bonded labour. Further, it seems that, especially in rural districts, being a big landowner or anyway belonging to a privileged clan is a must to run successfully for elections. Candidates show no concern for the vote-marketing, attributing it to people's ignorance. While the people are well aware of the injustice they are subjected to, they still have to live with it.

Candidates and electors appear to hardly communicate. If ever, political dialogue is to be found in urban areas where communication is easier and politicians cannot escape the challenge of their constituency. That explains why votes are much more expensive in cities. But the majority of the rural Filipinos never get the chance to make their voice heard. Poor structures and the lack of educational opportunities that go along with poverty prevent these citizens from formulating their political will. They are reduced to silence by an elitist system. Indeed, a genuine land reform, just to mention one of the people's demands, was not to be found in any parties' platforms.


Rumours of coups accompanied the national elections as from the beginning. On the popular front, many people affirmed that the present oligaich system would be swept away by a popular uprising leading to a revolution. Without going to such extremes, it was high time that the Philippine government faced its countries problems and paid due attention to popular demands.

Raul S. Manglapus, a learnt Filipino politician, in his "Will of the People" pointed out that democracy, far from being a western invention, is deeply rooted in Asian societies. After years of foreign domination, and despite present economic constraints, the people of the Philippines have begun a process to shape their own model of democracy. At this point in history, only by favouring people's actual participation in policy-making will future governments legitimize their mandate.

* Roberto Ricci is one of the members of International Observer Mission. He is

now working for the Human Rights Program of the Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples. - Editor

Posted on 2001-08-29
Asian Human Rights Commission

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