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The Philippines votes for change

Amid new voting technologies, old-style patronage politics remain deeply entrenched

Paul Hutchcroft 21 May 2010 3008 words

The Philippines’ new president, Noynoy Aquino. Aldwin Cablao/Vibal Multimedia

BENIGNO S. AQUINO III is an unlikely leader. His legislative record as a senator is decidedly lacklustre and he has long been overshadowed by the memory of his martyred father, his iconic mother, and the local showbiz stardom of his younger sister Kris. He never sought the limelight, and – until the death of his mother last year – the limelight never sought him.

Yet as he steps into his new role as president of the Philippines, Noynoy, as he’s known, seems to be demonstrating a new sense of confidence in himself and a new sense of purpose about what he might accomplish. The obvious danger is that his decisive victory has raised expectations, and without a doubt these expectations will be difficult to meet.

Noynoy’s strong showing emerged from a significant clamour for change, perhaps best expressed in his campaign slogan: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (If no one is corrupt, no one is poor). His mother, the former president Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, is fondly remembered and deeply admired for her role in bringing down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986; indeed, it was the wave of nostalgia produced by her death last August that propelled Noynoy to the top of the Liberal Party ticket. Mrs Aquino’s entry into politics came in the wake of the assassination of her husband, former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr, as he returned home in August 1983 to lead the moderate opposition to the Marcos regime. Ninoy was fifty years old at the time of his death, and his son Noynoy is exactly the same age as he prepares to assume the presidency.

This heir to the Aquino legacy will replace Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose scandal-ridden presidency produced both extraordinary unpopularity and a widespread desire for clean leadership. With the exception of Marcos, who held power for over two decades, no one in Philippine history has had longer tenure in the presidential palace than Arroyo. She first assumed the presidency in January 2001 after a “people power” uprising ousted populist President Joseph Estrada amid anger over corruption charges – including allegations that he was receiving regular cash payments through control of a large gambling syndicate.

Elevated from the vice-presidency to the highest office in the land, Arroyo served out Estrada’s remaining term until she was elected to her own six-year term in 2004. With the goal of achieving clear electoral legitimacy, the presidential palace spared no expense in ensuring a one-million-vote margin of victory in that election. A year later, however, the country was rocked by highly credible allegations that the president had been personally involved in efforts to expand her vote margin in collusion with corrupt officials of the Commission on Elections, or Comelec. In weathering the storm of controversy, Arroyo demonstrated an exceptional talent for regime preservation as she deftly garnered the support of local politicians and congresspersons (by providing ample patronage resources, the chief lubricant of Philippine politics), the top brass (by skilfully rotating key military appointments), and the hierarchy of the dominant Catholic Church (by giving little attention to effective family planning measures, even as the country’s population is projected to balloon from ninety-five to 140 million over the next three decades).

Under Arroyo’s nine-year rule, an already crisis-prone democracy has faced an unusually high number of travails, including an uprising by the urban poor that nearly breached the walls of the presidential palace on May Day 2001; a botched military mutiny in July 2003; numerous corruption scandals involving the first family; allegations of presidential involvement in fixing the 2004 elections; a failed coup-attempt-cum-popular-uprising in February 2006 that led to the declaration of emergency rule; concerted attacks on the press; an alarming spike in extrajudicial killings; impeachment attempts in 2005, 2006, and 2007; two major bribery scandals in late 2007, one involving the chief election officer and the other involving brazen cash payouts to congresspersons and governors at the palace; a November 2007 bombing at the House of Representatives that killed a notorious warlord congressman from Mindanao; an incident the same month in which junior officers barricaded themselves at a luxury Manila hotel in protest against the Arroyo administration; ongoing conflict between the government and Muslim secessionist groups in Mindanao, as well as between the government and communist rebels; and a late 2009 election-related massacre of fifty-seven in the Mindanao province of Maguindanao.

In a survey by a leading polling agency in March this year, Arroyo’s net satisfaction rating plummeted to a record-breaking negative 53 per cent: 16 per cent satisfied and 69 per cent dissatisfied. No previous post-Marcos president had ever ventured into negative territory, but Arroyo produced net dissatisfaction over the past five and a half years of her presidency. The voters, quite clearly, were ready for a change.

New technologies, new terrain

This was also the year for the Philippines to bring its elections into the twenty-first century. After previous failed attempts at automation, electronic scanners have finally replaced an antiquated hand-written ballot system in use since American colonials first introduced the conventions of electoral democracy over a century ago. As recently as 2007, a tedious manual count commonly took weeks to complete as the results crawled upward from the precincts to the national level. In this month’s elections, the overwhelming victory margin of the front-running presidential candidate was apparent by the next day.

Noynoy Aquino faced three major opponents in the election, and seems poised to obtain nearly 42 per cent of the vote – the most decisive plurality since the fall of Marcos in 1986. His closest challenger was ousted President Joseph Estrada, who demonstrated his continuing appeal among many poor voters by capturing 26 per cent of the total vote. Real estate tycoon Manuel Villar, a former speaker of the House and president of the Senate, garnered 15 per cent of the vote, followed by the ruling administration’s candidate Gilberto Teodoro (a second cousin of Noynoy from a rival side of the Cojuangco clan) with 11 per cent.

As of press time, ten days after the election, these results are not final. For reasons yet to be adequately explained, some 10 per cent of precincts have yet to be counted. This highlights an important but oft-ignored element of the 2010 elections: the country was extremely fortunate that the first year of automation involved a clear front-runner in the presidential race. Had it been a close contest, as is the still-undecided vice-presidential race, the headlines in the Philippines and overseas would have focused on the slow counting of the final 10 per cent of the vote. As it stands, few commentators give this much attention.

In other ways, as well, the Comelec’s success with automation was by the skin of its teeth. In the week prior to the elections, belated testing of the system revealed major problems with the new voting machines. Comelec announced that over 76,000 memory cards had to be reconfigured and distributed to precincts throughout the country, and many feared that the automation experiment was destined to fail. Cynics feared that a nefarious plan was being hatched in the presidential palace, the result of which would be election failure and the incumbent’s perpetuation in office beyond the end of her term. These fears were heightened when, just seven days before the election, the president’s election lawyer called for a postponement of the polls. The Comelec insisted on going ahead with the elections as scheduled, and – in part thanks to the strategic use of military and corporate helicopters – the vast bulk of the reconfigured memory cards found their way back to the Precinct Count Optical Scan machines across the archipelago. In the final days and hours before the elections, most machines were tested and sealed and (with countless fingers firmly crossed) seemingly ready to go.

Achieving this feat has helped to redeem somewhat the reputation of the Comelec after its ignominious role in 2004. Those most inclined to probity, however, raise concerns about certain aspects of election conduct, notably widespread deficiencies in voter privacy, the absence of ultraviolet lamps that were supposed to verify the authenticity of ballots, the accuracy of voter lists, and a general failure (thus far) to spot-check the automated results through a promised “random manual audit.” In addition, a shortage of voting machines led to major overcrowding of precincts throughout the country, and some voters were forced to wait six hours or more to vote. Others went home without voting, leading to a decline in turnout rates (from roughly 80 per cent of registered voters to an estimated 75 per cent, lower than usual but still extremely respectable by standards).

These important issues notwithstanding, election watchdog groups have applauded the relative absence of large-scale fraud – unlike in the past, when the long manual vote count provided ample opportunities for Comelec officials to solicit payoffs from candidates. Although the voting was slow, the bulk of the counting has been fast. The campaign period may have had “more twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” to quote prominent columnist Conrado de Quiros, but, as he readily acknowledged, his earlier fears of electoral manipulation had proven incorrect. “I was wrong about the automation, I was wrong about the Comelec commissioners… And, boy, am I absolutely ecstatic to be so.”

Old politics endure

Amid the clamour for change and the introduction of new technologies, vestiges of old-style patronage politics are almost everywhere to be found. Philippine elections are grand fiestas, and as in the traditional town fiesta people expect to be fed. In the literal sense, meals need to be provided to both supporters and would-be supporters. Whether at barangay (barrio) centres, municipal halls, provincial capitals or candidates’ homes, one regularly sees tall stacks of plastic chairs used to give the multitudinous voters/eaters a place to sit. The more chairs that are occupied, and the fuller the stomachs, the better for the candidate. In the central Philippines, a city mayor running for re-election was prepared to feed 1000 people at his home two days before the election. Much to the surprise of his campaign organisers, 8000 hungry souls came forth. Noting the rising cost of elections, the mayor’s chief campaign strategist lamented, “There’s got to be a better way.” At a rally in Quezon Province, southeast of Manila, the incumbent town mayor boasted to a crowd of poor barrio folk: “My opponent only gives you one piece of meat, and I give you three.” As I went across town to see the paltry (and poorly fed) crowd at one opposition rally, it was obvious where more plastic chairs had been put to use. The incumbent, a wealthy local contractor, handily won re-election.

In the broader sense, Philippine candidates differentiate themselves not on the basis of platforms or programs but rather patronage and pork-barrel resources. While the government often fails to deliver vital public goods, Philippine political candidates certainly know how to feed patronage resources to their constituents. “For those who benefit but little from it,” explains economist Emmanuel de Dios, “government is an abstraction, an alienated entity, whose only palpable dimension is the episodic patronage dispensed by bosses and politicians, which merely reinforces the poor’s real condition of dependence.” From roads to health centres to basketball courts to traffic signs, politicians proudly proclaim their role in financing local projects.

With some 85,000 candidates vying for roughly 17,000 electoral posts, the competition can be fierce. Town ballots involved separate voter preferences for president, vice-president, up to twelve members of the Senate, one district congressperson, one party-list representative, provincial governor, vice-governor, provincial board, town mayor and town council. There is no provision for straight-party voting (indeed, given the weakness of most Philippine political parties it would be rare to see a coherent line-up from the top of the ticket to the bottom).

Particularly in close races, cheating can make the difference. While the new system of electronic voting seems to have curbed many opportunities for wholesale fraud, vote-buying at the retail level continues to be regarded by many as a normal part of the electoral process. The cost of a vote commonly runs between $7.50 and $13, and it is extremely rare for vote-buying to be prosecuted.

As in the past, the country’s “anarchy of families” is still alive and well as it continues its perpetual process of evolution. The electoral success of clans receives as much attention as that of political parties, and the consensus is as follows: it was not a particularly good result for the outgoing president but it was a very good year for two other prominent political families anxious to rebuild their fortune.

President Arroyo and her husband were counting on the victory not only of immediate family members but also of former cabinet members who could bolster an Arroyo bloc in the next House of Representatives. Gloria won a seat in her home province in central Luzon, a son won in southern Luzon, and a brother-in-law won in the Western Visayas. Former aides, however, found it difficult to overcome the so-called “kiss of death” commonly reserved for those known to be closely associated with President Arroyo. The Marcoses, meanwhile, celebrate the election of the eighty-year-old matriarch Imelda to Congress, son Bong-Bong to the Senate, and daughter Imee to a provincial governorship. And the Estradas had the seventy-three-year-old patriarch Joseph placing a respectable second in the presidential race, one of his sons winning re-election in the Senate, another son winning in the House, and one of his mistresses taking the suburban Manila mayoral post that first launched him from the movies into politics over four decades ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But not always. While coercion is part and parcel of local authoritarian enclaves, and violence quite common in local electoral competition, the country was horrified by the massacre perpetrated last November against the supporters of a politician who dared to stand for office against the feared Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao Province in Mindanao. Fifty-seven people died, including some thirty journalists who had been brought along to cover the story and thus offer protection. As the International Crisis Group reports, “It was one of the worst acts of political violence in modern Philippine history, and the largest number of journalists slain on a single day ever, anywhere in the world.” Members of the Ampatuan family were charged with the crime, and in the process the Filipino public learned of the power, wealth and huge armoury amassed by the clan through its close ties with the Arroyo administration. The 10 May elections pitted the powerful family against its rivals and, to the surprise of many, the Ampatuans are struggling to maintain their hold on the top two positions in the province. One election observer gave credit to the armed forces of the Philippines, whose vigilant presence allowed inter-familial competition to re-emerge – at least for now.

The challenge

What are the key tasks that lie ahead? First and foremost, the incoming Aquino administration will need to forge a ruling coalition. While the Liberal Party is the partial exception to the rule in an array of weak and poorly institutionalised political parties, it nonetheless begins with a minority position in both the House and the Senate. Fortunately for Noynoy, the historical pattern is for the party of the president to achieve control of the House through its control and disbursement of the pork barrel – the sine qua non of legislative achievement in the Philippines. The delicate task ahead is to boost numbers without taking on board an excessive number of undesirables (for example, those with ties to the drug and gambling lords who all too often finance the mounting costs of elections). The balancing acts required bring to mind Arroyo’s attempt at self-defence in the wake of the 2004 election scandal: “Our political system has degenerated to such an extent that it’s very difficult to live within the system with hands totally untainted.”

Second, in a somewhat different vein, the new administration will need to fulfil its campaign promise of combating corruption. Decisive action is required, but it will not be easy. Prosecution of the former president and her husband would be inhibited by Arroyo’s ongoing control of not only the Office of the Ombudsman but also the Supreme Court. Within the palace, Noynoy needs to ensure that the pattern of his mother’s administration – a non-corrupt president surrounded by a host of sometimes dodgy relatives and advisers – is not repeated.

A range of substantive policy concerns also demands attention. With a mounting budget deficit, revenue needs to be generated more effectively, and some of those funds will be needed to deal with the country’s woeful deficiencies in infrastructure. With 44 per cent of the population subsisting on less than US$2 per day, measures to alleviate poverty must also be a priority, along with policies to generate employment for a growing population, some ten million of whom have already gone overseas to find better opportunities. The secessionist conflict in Mindanao is now four decades old, as is a communist insurgency spread throughout the archipelago; the new president will be under pressure to deal with both. The public education system and ongoing issues of land reform are other urgent areas, with public attention sure to be focused on Noynoy’s family’s sprawling sugar estate located north of Manila. Over the longer term, the Philippines must address massive environmental degradation, which has heightened the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. It is also essential for the country to anticipate growing security challenges in an increasingly volatile environment.

Ultimately, success in addressing these problems depends upon strengthening political institutions. Sadly, the bureaucracy, military and judiciary have become even more politicised over the last nine years, as the Arroyo administration pulled out all stops to retain its hold on power. In order to deepen democratic structures and curb the excesses of patronage politics, the country needs more programmatic and better institutionalised political parties. The latter can probably be fostered most effectively through targeted reforms in the electoral system.

While there are huge challenges ahead, Noynoy Aquino will begin his term with a clear mandate for change and for cleaner government. Whether he likes it or not, the limelight is now his. •

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