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How Filipinos choose their leaders, in six images.

Second of Two Parts

If our nation suffers the “Grace Poe” disease of our political system (as I discussed on Monday) by which celebrity power determines electoral results for national posts, it is because democracy itself has a gargantuan flaw.

We fail to see this flaw because we suffer from the delusion that electoral democracy – the idea of one man, one vote – is an Absolute Good that has existed for all time.

This is partly because even before we became an independent nation, our US colonizers in 1935 had instituted universal suffrage (including for women), when just a generation before that, there was total Spanish colonial domination.

When the US instituted the first elections (for municipal officials) in 1902, one of the requirements for a voter was ownership of property worth at least P500, which is about P1 million today. As a result, in the 1907 elections for the first Philippine Assembly, only 1 percent of the population voted.

Contrast that to the 2013 elections, when 40 million — half of the country’s population and 90 percent of Filipino adults — voted for our senators.

Now here’s the problem, which no politician, except Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, would dare talk about, although every single one of them knows it to be true:

Unless you believe that God Almighty takes time out of his gazillion tasks to whisper to each of at least 40 million voters on election day an enlightened choice as to the best qualified president, vice-president, and senator, or unless you believe in the communist Maoist agitprop nonsense that a masa has innate genius bestowed upon him by History, probably the bulk of voters, the country’s vast poor majority, don’t really know what they’re doing.

Celebrity power: Grace in the Senate, Manny in Congress… next stop, Vice Presidency? Pambansang Kamao vs Pambansang Ampon?
Celebrity power: Grace in the Senate, Manny in Congress… next stop, Vice Presidency? Pambansang Kamao vs Pambansang Ampon?

What they know of the candidates is almost entirely what the local political bosses, their (urban or rural) landlords, the richest in the barangay, and — most importantly — what the inane 6:30 ABS-CBN and GMA-7 news programs, the tabloids, and radio “jukebox” block-timers tell them.

What they know of the candidates is merely how they are portrayed by TV, what they hear about him or her as told by radio commentators, and their role in the movies, confused as their real person.

Absurdities of democracy
Should we be surprised that as the media and the entertainment world have become more and more powerful in this century, we see more absurdities proliferate in our electoral democracy?

Antonio Trillanes 4th got to be in the papers and on TV because of his clumsy coup attempts, which still stupidly portrayed him as a bold hero. Bam Aquino changed his haircut and glasses to look like his uncle Ninoy. Both became senators of the Republic.

Identify them yourselves: Out of the 24 sitting Senators, 13 are there because of their father’s names, three because they were actors (one comedian), two were coup plotters, and one a billionaire who allegedly spent P500 million for the senatorial post.

It is getting to be more absurd.

Three years after she renounced her citizenship, Poe becomes a balikbayan, does well in popularity polls, and thinks she can be President. Her work experience has been in obscure California firms and in US government agencies, exactly what we aren’t told. Here, as head of the MTRCB, her accomplishment would be making sure that breasts in films shown in theaters and TV are pixeled out and the ‘F’ words bleeped.

Manny Pacquiao becomes globally famous by punching his opponents and getting himself punched, though he does it better than they can, and he thinks he can be a Senator of the Republic. He has even persuaded some people to believe he is a shoo-in for the Vice Presidency.

Who’s really better fit for such national posts?

I’m not sure if Manny finished even high school, but at least he’s been a congressman for five years, and even if he was absent most of the time in Congress, at least he would have some inkling what the masses at the ground level demand of a political leader. Pacquiao, since he’s a billionaire now won’t, I hope, be tempted by bribes. At the very least, we can say somebody managed to break the elite’s hold on the presidency in our generation.

On the other hand, Grace is without question more educated (her biography says she spent 13 years in the US for a bachelor’s degree) and speaks fluent American, in contrast to Pacquiao’s hilarious attempts at the language.

Pambansang Kamao vs. Pambansang Ampon. Is Grace a better version of Manny, or is Manny a better version of Grace in the theater of the absurd we call Philippine democracy?

Is ours a living proof of the inherent flaw of the idea of democracy?

While democracy was practiced as early as in ancient Athens, the great Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato disdained them, seeing such forms of government as irrational as mob rule — which it essentially is.

Democracy really wasn’t as popular and considered a Universal Good as we think it is. Not too well known, in fact, is that after that Athenian experiment in Ancient Greece, it would only be centuries later, in the mid-18th century that electoral democracy would be adopted by an important sector of the planet — Western Europe.

However, universal suffrage (which does not require voters to be property owners and which include women) would be adopted, by what we consider now as the most democratic countries such as the US and Sweden, only in the late 19th century. Women’s suffrage would be adopted even by such countries as France, Italy, and Japan, only did right after World War II.

Third Wave of Democracy
The number of democratic countries became significant only after the so-called Third Wave of democracy in the 1970s, from 35 to 120 by 2013, according to the latest book by Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, which contains an insightful study on the evolution of democracy.

So you see, we were far more advanced democratically than most nations on earth: By 1935, we already had universal suffrage; France got it only in 1945, Greece 1952, Italy 1945, Japan 1946, South Korea 1948, Switzerland, 1959.

We’re way ahead, in fact, among our Southeast Asian neighbors, except for Thailand, which had universal suffrage by 1933. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, of course, had full electoral democracy only after gaining independence, which was only in 1965, 1963, and 1949, respectively. (I can almost hear from readers of this column: “Look what that got us!”)

Unless we give up our irrational, metaphysical notion that each Filipino — no matter how unschooled or uninformed he is — has the intellectual capacity to choose the right leader, ours will be a democracy of the absurd.

While the US transplanted its system of electoral democracy into us in 1935, we were so naive to think it would work without the requirements and checks of a true democracy. In the US, its system of electoral colleges and primaries and its two party-system, among other institutions, have served as a check on celebrity politics, especially for electing the President.

In our case, we even junked our two-party system, thanks to Corazon Aquino and the 1987 Constitution, which she asked a group of people to finalize quickly.

While our two-party system before martial law had been merely a case of tweedledee and tweedledum characters, it had one important feature.

The Liberal and the Nacionalista parties served to weed out or train celebrities, as in the case of two senators, the actor Rogelio de la Rosa and broadcaster Eddie Ilarde. The parties had, in effect, required candidates for the highest office to first prove their leadership and coalition-building skills, which explains why all the post-war presidents served long terms as congressmen and senators.

The multiparty system ushered in by Cory Aquino essentially has meant a no-party system, with only pseudo parties being built around the politician who can afford financing one, or throwing their lot behind the most “winnable” presidential candidate.

Grace and Pacquiao would have to spend a decade jostling for position and proving their leadership within a party, if we had a two-party system.

Who would first be able to go through that gauntlet, Grace or Manny?