Why we must criticise the poor for voting corrupt candidates into public office. Can Filipinos be saved from themselves?

Why we must criticise the poor for voting corrupt candidates into public office.

SYDNEY, Australia – I know what you’re thinking: who I am to tell poor Filipinos who to vote for? If they want to vote for a corrupt candidate then that is their right. Suffrage is a political right that any voter can exercise according to his or her conscience. Yet nowadays I argue that many Filipinos just don’t seem to understand and appreciate this right. And it pains me so much that they waste this opportunity to make true social and economic reform.

The same corrupt governors, mayors, congressmen and women and senators get elected every time. Why? From Cotabato, Iriga, Makati, Cavite and all the way up to Ilocos; the same families still rule these places. The Ampatuans, Alfelors, Binays, Revillas and the Marcoses have dominated the political landscape. The economic conditions in these places have barely improved. Income is still pathetically low; jobs and infrastructure are still lacking. Everyone knows that these people are corrupt. So why do they keep electing them back into office?

Perhaps the poor are too afraid to speak up? The proliferation of guns and goons have truly kept the masses in silence and fearing for their lives. How did the Ampatuans get that many guns in the first place?

Perhaps it is the sense of futility and helplessness? People are too tired to fight and to voice their rights, knowing that it will only fall on deaf ears. There is a constant perception that anyone who is in politics is guilty of corruption, so why change?

Perhaps poor Filipinos are used to living in poverty? Lack of education, coupled with religious superstitions, has moulded a generation of poor Filipinos too lazy to fight and assert their basic rights.

Perhaps Filipinos have not truly seen the need for elections in the first place? Elections are purely cosmetic in Philippines society. I remember voting in Australia for the first time and I was disappointed. There were no people handing out money, no PPCRV, no flying voters and no free lunch or sandwiches! Remember, we have barely tasted independence from Spain in 1898 when the Americans became our new colonial masters. All this time Filipinos never saw the importance of the ballot, because we were too busy trying to kick out these colonizers. Generations of Filipinos never actually grew out of colonial infancy. Filipinos were in perpetual ignorance of the benefits of the ballot.

On the other hand, people in other countries have fought, suffered and even died for this right. In America in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson encountered a few dozen women suffragists protesting silently outside the gates of the White House with one of the banners reading: “How long must women wait for liberty?” The women were harassed and beaten and were later jailed; one named Alice Paul launched a hunger strike and was sent to the psychiatric ward. The women suffered immensely throughout the incarceration. President Wilson eventually felt the growing pressure from the public and media. He later pardoned all the women and in a few years, through an amendment in the US Constitution, the women were finally able to vote. It was an astonishing achievement.

The famous civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the ballot as a powerful tool to combat blatant racism in 1960s America. Together with then President Lyndon Johnson the Voting Rights Act was called, ‘‘a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield’’. But winning the right to vote is one thing; exercising it is another. Martin Luther King Jr. saw that problem when he said, “that the ballot would only be an effective tool for social change if potential voters rid themselves of the fear associated with voting”. Back then, black voters had to contend with the onslaught of harassment and attempts of states and counties, using regulations and tests, to deny them the right to vote.

Many developing countries like the Philippines are still constantly battling election violence that deters many people from voting. But election violence can be minimized and perpetrators of election violence can be brought to justice. The Ampatuans were brought to justice. The current Aquino administration has been very successful in going after corrupt politicians lately. We saw Chief Justice Corona booted out of office. We saw Benhur Luy testify against Napoles and three Senators. We saw former Makati vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado’s testimonies against Vice President Jejomar Binay. For the first time in many years I am confident to say that I trust the justice system in the Philippines.

For the first time too, I will temporarily stop criticising corrupt politicians. I am going after a new target, the ‘bobotante’ (stupid voters). Because no matter how thoughtful and rational my selection process for candidates is, the bobotante still outnumber conscientious voters. If Noynoy Aquino did not run for President in 2010 we would have had Joseph Estrada, a convicted plunderer, back in Malacanang; no thanks to 8 million voters!

I am sure that other countries have their fair share of citizens who elect corrupt politicians too. Nor can I confine blame solely to the economically poor Filipinos; the rich Filipinos are partly to be blamed for this as well. If Pulse Asia’s poll below is any indication, despite the corruption charges, notwithstanding the obviously crass and opportunistic election of the whole family into public office (political dynasty), there is something to be said about a nation that constantly favours one family name, in this case the Binays. Of course there are also well intentioned middle and upper class Filipinos who support good candidates. But I have to draw the line: middle class and rich people who vote for corrupt candidates, I argue, would hardly make a significant dent in the swing of votes towards good candidates, because they are few. Dr. Romula Virola, in his article in Philippine Statistics Authority, mentioned that in “2010 in order to be considered rich or to be counted in the high income class in the Philippines a family should earn at least Php2,393,126 a year or Php199,927 a month. In 2006, the rich numbered 19,738 families or 0.1% (emphasis mine) of the estimated 17,403,483 families in the country” and they are decreasing. I was pointedly advised, rightfully so, against criticising and blaming the ‘poor’ in order to not sound elitist. But I have done my fair share of blaming rich people and I am not alone in this assessment. I even supported urban poor’s right to live in Metro Manila. I know it’s taboo right now to blame the economically poor, but this sector of our society needs to pull its weight, so to speak, in order to effect change. And changing their electoral choices is one way of doing it.

It took Western civilization over 200 years, starting from the historic election of President George Washington in 1789, to fight for the right to vote. Obviously the Philippines cannot wait another 200 years for Filipinos to realize the importance of the ballot in nation building. The change must start now.

by Allan Espinosa

Mel Fernandez