Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Philippine Elections: Reflections from Afar

Image from
She writes…

Observing the Philippine elections outside the country for the first time was just as engaging as being on the ground. Since my last election assignment was in Maguindanao, the 7,000-mile distance made it safer (no flying bullets, no detonating bombs, no supporters on a rampage) but the bickering and propaganda was just as loud that I needed periods of disconnection from Facebook.

The distance was helpful in many ways- it didn’t require as much effort to be objective and to weed out fiction from fact. It was also easier to make accurate judgments on which campaigns were better planned and which candidates were going to win.

Now that most elected officials have been declared and are taking oath to office by June 30, I’m taking a short reflection on Philippine politics as I slowly understand and embrace the political landscape of my new country of residence, which is also conducting elections in November.

Photo from the 2013 Barangay elections in Buldon, Maguindanao province, my last election coverage. The province is known as the site of the single deadliest event for journalists in history.

Election time is fiesta time

The recent Philippine elections held on May 9 were “disappointing,” “peaceful and orderly,” or “dirty” depending on whom you ask.  

Of all the descriptions and comments I have heard about the voting process since my first coverage in 2004, one stands out and this is because it gave me a different way of looking at it:  election time is fiesta time.

I heard this comparison from a political strategist from Abra, a northern Philippine province up north where I used to be based. I had to ask her to explain this analogy because fiestas back home are celebrated for religious reasons and in a province that’s been a consistent hotspot, I expected her to say that elections were “tense,” “dangerous” if not “very violent.”

But to me, her explanation for the fiesta analogy is simple and spot on- like any fiesta or festival, election time is a time when many people are enthusiastic, happy and perhaps a little hopeful that the new leadership will positively affect their lives. 

As elections only happen every three years, candidates also go all-out to court votes and this means an inflow and outflow of money through vote-buying and temporary employment as goons and members of the campaign team; goods through outreach and other charitable activities; and other social services that include dental and medical missions sponsored by the candidate’s team. She said that for the most part, election time is actually the only time that public funds are spent on people since for the most part, public officials just spend money on their immediate family and friends.

I’ve never thought of interviewing stores and establishments if their sales indeed pick up during the election season but I’d guesstimate that the influx of money means that some stores that had change for a P1,000 made a killing. (A former colleague pointed out that sari-sari stores or the small next-door stores couldn’t break the big bills from vote-buying, so that money was spent on bigger establishments instead).

Philippine politics is personal Politics

Election day back home is declared an official non-working day because all eligible citizens are encouraged to exercise their right to suffrage.  Two days before election day, friends based outside of their provinces posted social media updates of braving the long bus and airport queues and heavy traffic just so they could be home to vote for their local candidates.

Residents of Pilas Island in Basilan Province head home on May 7, 2 days before the 2016 National Elections in the Philippines. (Photo by Julie Alipala)
This demonstrates how passionate Filipinos are about politics- they would stay registered in their hometowns so that they can continue to participate in the leadership selection despite establishing careers somewhere else. They’d find ways to vote and make time no matter where they are and how busy they are.  It also shows how much politics and local leadership means because much is at stake.

As politics back home is very personal, the lineup of winners could mean better security and opportunities for one family because members have been promised jobs for the next three years.  Families who are allied with candidates who lost, however, could suffer the backlash of being dismissed from their jobs and be subjected to different kinds of harassment from vindictive winners.

Politics also becomes personal because of family relationships- it is very likely that one is related to a candidate or two and choosing to support the opposing candidate won’t be tolerated and could in fact start a clan rift that could last for years.

Philippine politics, especially,  local politics is very delicate, thus much caution is needed in exploring, understanding and expressing opinions about it.

US elections coming soon

I have much to learn about US and California elections and this excites me. I see how invested people are with the US presidential race but there isn’t as much familiarity with state and city candidates as they have back home and that drives my curiosity.

What I know so far about the upcoming US elections is that more eligible residents have registered so that they can vote against Donald Trump. In terms of political participation in California, what I know is that the organization Future of California Elections was established in 2011 because California may be the most populous state but “ranks near the bottom nationwide in the percentage of eligible citizens actually registered to vote.”

For now, I experience the election process vicariously through Ray. He recently received his vote-by-mail ballot from LA County for the June 7th presidential primaries. It fascinates me that he can do this by mail. By contrast, back home,
the Commission on Elections added a biometrics feature in election registration to discourage flying voters or voters who try to vote in different precincts under different names.  The biometrics feature also authenticates voter identity in case someone gets the wild (but common) idea to vote using a deceased person’s name.

So far, elections in the US also seem personal but in different ways (this calls for a separate blog entry). What I can safely say is that it’s not like the fiesta atmosphere that it is back home. The political climate is the way Americans want it to be the way that Philippine elections is the way Filipinos want their elections to be. #

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