• Reading time:7 mins read

Is this democracy?

You have to live in an urban-poor area, a lower-middle-class community, or in a rural locality to realize what elections for most Filipinos really are. It is an entirely different world from what media portrays it to be, from what the upper and middle classes think it is.
When I had to register last year to be able to vote in the rural town where I live, I was pleasantly surprised that in the queue were young people most probably who just turned 18. Wearing worn-out rubber sandals and old T-shirts, they were obviously from poor rural areas. Maybe we have a new generation of civic-minded Filipinos, I happily thought. 

At the corridor where we had to fill out the two-page forms which I myself found tedious to fill out, I was puzzled at what I saw. A middle-aged man was there telling the would-be voters how to fill up the forms. In several cases, he even filled the forms himself, with the registrant’s participation solely in affixing his signature.

What I saw was machine politics at work, as a long-time resident in the area who got to be a friend later on explained.

“Do you think poor people from the farm fields would spend for fares to register and then go to the voting areas? ” he asked. The man tutoring the new voters was a ward leader, lider in Pilipino, a political operator, often a barangay chairman or councilor, who’s with a particular pulitiko’s group. These are the followers of incumbent mayors or congressmen, or those aspiring to be such.

The young people who were registering to vote made up a hakot crowd. They were bussed to the municipality to register for the first time to vote, given merienda, and perhaps even P50 to P100 by the politico’s lider. Today, they will be fetched by the lider, and told who to vote for, especially for the local politician the lider works for. They were sons and daughters of voters who are already within that lider’s group.

Philippine elections are basically machine politics to churn out command votes. The phenomenon is not even viewed as “vote buying.” A voter votes for whom the lider tells him to, out of some debt of gratitude to him for a favor done, or for a future gratitude when the lider helps him out for such things as endorsement to a job, or a letter to the mayor, governor, or congressman the lider works for asking for medical assistance.

This happens not only in rural areas, but also even—believe it or not—in cities. That’s one major explanation why slums have proliferated in several metropolitan areas. Particular slum areas are controlled by particular liders, who commit voters there to candidates. This is the reason why Joseph Estrada’s celebrity status won’t work in Manila. The urban poor had enjoyed his rallies with its sexy dancers, but today they will vote as told to by their local leaders.

It is a competitive industry, as operators of other political groups have their own bastions (balwartes) to compete with that of their rivals. In most cases, their breakthrough would be in their success in buying off their rival’s leaders. This explains most electoral violence, as the political kingpin would kill his turncoat leaders who “double-crossed” him, as a deterrent to others.

In a major provincial city in the South, I had wondered that I saw very few posters of the new aspirant for mayorship. I learned later that his political strategy was to devote most of his war chest to paying off councilors and barangay chairmen, P2 million and P1 million, respectively, to order their balwartes to vote for him.

Machine politics is really not as easy as it seems. Several years back, a tycoon spent nearly a billion pesos in a congressional district in Quezon City, paying unheard of rates to political operators, yet still lost—and even humiliated by winning his protest case just several days before this term ended. Running political machines is a profession that requires years of experience, knowing who to trust, when to enforce sanctions, and how to expand a local network.

It is perhaps not coincidental that Philippine elections are scheduled in May, the peak of the fiesta season in rural areas. For the urban poor and for rural communities, elections is fiesta time—the only time every three years when the powerful take notice of them, and even woo them. This is their merry season, when they are invited to rallies with its soft-drinks and pack-lunches (and even T-shirts that would last them years) and brought to the town center or even to the kapitolyo to watch people they see only on TV—celebrities, actors and actresses, and even sexy dancers. Candidates’ caravans going to towns with their blaring music and political jingles become festive events, interrupting the boredom of rural life.

What is unclear is how much a politician uses his machine for a national candidate, e.g., senators, and how effective it is. In most cases, even if the political kingpin tries to help a national candidate, his leaders don’t enthusiastically order those under his ambit to do so, knowing that he won’t be really faulted for this.

Enter the Fourth Estate with its unforeseen mercenary job.

Those who envisioned democracy didn’t foresee how powerful media, including entertainment media, would be, how it could subvert democracy. Nobody could have foreseen how broadcast media can create an individual’s entire view of the world, his perceptions of people, and during election of candidates.

After all, before martial law, only the upper and middle classes had television. Now, pass by Manila’s slum areas and jutting out of the shanties would be television aerial antennas. Who could have imagined that the image of billionaire heiress Jamby Madrigal for many people now is her being hosed down by anti-riot firemen in a demonstration created by her ad people? Who could have imagined that the assassinated martyr Benigno Aquino, Jr. could be magically resurrected by TV advertising into the mortal form of his nephew?

Grace Llamanzares would be a nobody if not for media that created the myth of the hero Panday, and now panders her as the daughter of that fictional hero? Risa Hontiveros is nothing without President Aquino, who has put her by her side in numerous photo-ops, even shamelessly in his sorties to flood victims. Even with that, she wouldn’t have gone up in the surveys if not for her TV ads her benefactor Mr. Aquino has been financing. Media hardly describes that JV Ejercito is the bastard son of a President convicted of plunder. Trillianes would have spent his entire life in a military stockade convicted as a bumbling putchist, if media had not romanticized him as a crusader.

We live in a unique period in humanity’s history when radio and television, and to some extent by the Internet, have subsumed reality into fiction, creating a world called “hyper-reality” by philosophers. Media has given tremendous power to the modern brain-washers called the advertising industry to bring to life invented people and invented worlds.

With a barrage of expensive advertising, politicians’ made-up images—such as the brat Jack Enrile embracing an old farmer or that other brat Sonny Angara being a farmer with his peasant’s shirt—cannot but get etched in voters’ brain synapses.

Today, in the hot polling precincts and after suffering a long queue, those images will involuntarily appear in voter’s mind that he will be voting for charlatans like a programmed robot. It is only for the local posts that he will use his mind, to recall the local candidates his lider said he will vote for.

Is this democracy? Maybe it still is. After all, whether by machine politics or media, leaders can be replaced, which can’t be done in a dictatorship. But it’s a democracy that has become silly.