God and the Philippine Election

Lately in the Philippines, there’s been talk about God and the elections. Grace Poe, the presidential candidate leading the pack so far in a tight race, was coincidentally in a church in Quaipo when she heard the long-awaited Supreme Court decision allowing her to run over a disqualification case. It was in a church in Iloilo where Poe was found after her birth mother apparently abandoned her.

“Perhaps God wants us to receive this news on this day,” Poe said. To a largely Catholic nation, this sounded appealing.

But God’s wish or not, the final ruling made last week provoked internal fissures in the 15-member Supreme Court, going against the Commission on Elections (Comelec), which had previously turned down Poe’s candidacy on the basis that she was a foundling unable to prove her citizenship and for failing to fulfill the residency requirement after having spent most of her adult life in America.

The justices who dissented had wanted to stick to the words of the constitution on natural-born citizens and give Poe the burden of proving herself right, as opposed to the majority that were said to be liberal about interpretations.

Added to that, Comelec has had to wrestle with the court handing out another order that polling machines should deliver receipts for the voters to ensure minimal cheating. This has put the commission in a tight spot. There is little time left to change codes and suggesting the May 9 elections might be postponed for a few more weeks.

In this jittery runup to the national elections, Comelec said it has reached a critical point. In sorting out the matter and the quirks in the logistical nightmare, the chairman raised his finger upward seeking divine intervention, hoping to give 54 million voters peace of mind on the day of the polls.

Such unexpected turns, steeped in belief, are the stuff of the usual confusion in the country’s political life. Eventually they are weathered out and things fall back into place. In this year’s voting however, a mixed bag of candidates has brought a heightened sense of unpredictability on whether the Philippines will remain true to its style of democracy.

The rationale of political parties setting the course, honing new leaders, institutionalizing reforms, has been eased out of the game in the imperfect American-style democracy. In their place now are personalities (usually celebrities with great name recall) and dynastic families that have doubled in numbers in the past three decades.

The current pool of candidates has a bit of everything.

Grace Poe represents the best and the worst of Filipino sensibilities. She won the highest number of votes for Senate seat riding on the name of the late movie icon, Fernando Poe Jr., who had adopted her. She was a political neophyte who did her homework, impressively topping popularity surveys.

When she decided to run for the presidency after failing a deal with the incumbent administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the issue of her American citizenship shot to the fore: how could a nation vote for someone who had once renounced her own country to live in the United States?

She returned upon her adoptive father’s death, from which time her residency and intent to stay was questioned by Comelec. A majority of the justices took her side supposedly on the framework of human rights that must be accorded to foundlings, and therefore free to run for the highest seat of the country. This decision has likewise created societal rifts.

If she wins, it would be the first for an independent candidate. That will then have defied the stakes on political machineries and coalitions.

“Should the people elect Senator Grace Poe to the presidency, this may be a signal of the Filipino people’s approval of the (court) decision,” said legal analyst Mel Santa Maria, writing for the news website InterAksyon.

“But if she is not elected,” he warned, “it is not entirely wrong to say that the nation, the people themselves, has made known their abhorrence to what to them may have been unwarranted unconstitutional judicial over-reach.”

For a long while, it was the old dynasties that ruled, the few that ran the country. President Aquino is cut from that cloth, along with his chosen successor Manuel Roxas II, whose grandfather, his namesake, was a post-war president. Both are from landed families. Both their fathers were political friends.

Roxas had a good start in his political career but under the shadow of Aquino, he turned clumsy with decisions and strategies. He appears to be running low on steam in his campaign courting the lower classes to his side, although he has vowed to carry on the gains made by the current government – one of which, as it turned out, is the cash transfer program for the poor that is said to be the biggest in Asia.

A survey done last year by the United Nations with the aid of the Department of Social Welfare and Development showed this was the government’s most popular program, benefitting more than 20 million Filipinos living below poverty. Receiving the equivalent of US$7-10 per month – an amount that can go far in remote villages – families are in turn required to send their children to schools and mothers to health centers.

Philippine GDP growth has soared in the last few years, although in the eyes of many, it’s not enough, jobs and money aren’t trickling down as fast as they should, and the idea of wealth fizzles when services as basic as getting the metro trains to run aren’t working or when lining up for security clearance for employment takes a day’s time.

Roxas’s longtime foe, the vice president Jejomar Binay, knows how to touch the masses. Himself a poor boy finding his way to law school, he was later made mayor of the capital’s financial district from where he allegedly amassed illegal wealth and installed his family among the new breed of dynasties.

Binay is almost on the same level as Poe in the surveys, which shift now and then as they come out on a weekly trend like an addiction to soap operas plotting the fate of the candidates.

In spite of the corruption charges leveled against him in court, Binay has mastered the maneuverings of ground-level politics and the kind of patronage common everywhere. In his case, he has been dogged about his ambitions, waiting for his chance at the top seat of the land.

It is the family enterprise in dynasties that partly curbed the rise of true leadership. And it is in the choices out there that have shown “we have degenerated,” said Tony Igcalinos, who is with a non-government organization calling for an anti-dynasty law. “We’ve been on a downward trend in terms of the quality of our politicians since after the dictatorship,” he added.

Such desperation hounds the younger generation – which comprises a bulk of the voters – that did not know the kind of fight it took to depose an authoritarian ruler and so might be willing to vote for one who could impose draconian measures to put order in place and stamp out corruption.

The fourth candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, fits into the image of a renegade who at the age of 70 has promised to end crime and corruption in a few months once he is elected. To get that done, one might try to imagine how he would replicate his alleged vigilantes in Davao city, the third largest in the country.

As mayor in that part of Mindanao in the troubled southern Philippines, he is a combination of the old and the new brand of political families and was shot up to fame (or notoriety) by cleaning up the city from its days of insurgency.

The unpredictability of the election outcome may be as it is, said Ronald Mendoza, the incoming dean of the Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government. So long as when the voting is over and the dust has settled, the next administration must put the country a notch higher, with economic growth steady or rising to carry the millennials to an upward mobility at par with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

“Our biggest nightmare is status quo,” he said. If the “same old, same old power” will remain and “still a confused citizenry” remains, then a murky future is to be expected. The old power he refers to as “transactional,” one that involves trade-offs with vested interest and leaders in Congress, three-fourths of which are from dynastic families.

The key in choosing the next president, he suggested, is to know who are in the circles of the candidates, who they intend to appoint in key cabinet positions where they should have “reforms put in place that will outlast and withstand the changing of the guards.” So far there have been mostly rumors and guesses floating about.

As for now and as the voting nears, the commission overseeing the elections will have to move heaven and earth just to get the machines running fine.