International Herald Tribune
Filipinos vote, but for what?
Monday, May 7, 2007

KYOTO, Japan: Filipinos vote, but for what?

There will be a mid-term election in the Philippines on May 14, but apart from a few reports of gun battles between rivals, it is getting scant coverage overseas.

Is that because the results do not matter? Or that foreign media are shy of reporting on the state of democracy in the country where "people power" once restored it from the Marcos dictatorship?

While the result may indeed not matter much, the process shows why a Constitution which the Philippines partly inherited from the United States and partly created for itself in its 1987 tends to exacerbate other problems in a country: wealth disparities, a weak bureaucracy, an interfering church and an elite which finances a Beverly Hills lifestyle through a quasi-feudal system.

This election is for half of the upper Senate and the whole of the lower House.

Senators are elected by the nation at large. Political affiliation matters a little; name recognition a lot more. Hence the list of 36 candidates competing for the 12 seats this year has a high proportion of familiar family names.

The need for name recognition reinforces the fact that most political parties in the Philippines are transient. Differences are slight and allegiances often brief.

The small, mostly leftist, parties which actually have different policy agendas make no impact in the Senate race. This year, there are fewer movie stars and sports celebrities than in the past, but hopes that the system might be maturing towards professional politicians are illusory. In addition to various names from past presidential families, three of the leading contenders are a sister, a son and a nephew of sitting senators.

In the Senate contest, opponents of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are likely to come out on top, but that will be more a result of the individual names than a considered judgment on her government's performance.

It is a different story in the House of Representatives, which is elected on a district level. Arroyo's coalition of parties is likely to come out well ahead despite her own lack of popularity.

Here, the system favors incumbents enjoying pork and patronage. The issue is not the economy, or the south, or education. It is whether or not Arroyo's opponents will have sufficient votes to re-start impeachment proceedings over her alleged ballot rigging in the 2004 presidential election.

There are many candidates who are elected for having served the public good and have coherent policy platforms. But in the Philippines the sheer number of elective positions, the lack of strong parties and the power of local families compared with the central bureaucracy conspire to enmesh politics and business to a degree well in excess of other young Asian democracies.

The campaign seems largely detached from the country's most serious issues. Arroyo has focused on a period of relative prosperity for the economy marked by rapid growth (by Philippines standards), a rising currency, falling budget deficit and a boom in call-center business. Others argue that success is largely the result of Filipinos working abroad and sending home $12 billion a year, while the local investment needed to achieve sustained faster growth is still weak.

Arroyo has also had some success in moving towards peace in the Muslim south. But insurgency elsewhere is on the rise and may well be fueled by a dirty war of assassination of leftists and union leaders by elements linked to both the armed forces and private militias.

Yet debate, let alone ideology, is drowned out by personality issues and name-calling.

There are compensations. The press and broadcast media are free and remain robust despite frequent killings of investigative journalists.

The election process provides spectacle and entertainment. Politicians do meet the people, do face questioning and debate. But entrenched dynastic interests hobble the democratic process, and this election will only reinforce those interests.