this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on May 8, 2016.
“Crooks! Why would I trust those crooks?”
I shuffle out of a daydream in a rusty jeepney to see where the loud voice is coming from.
“What all these politicians do is steal the people’s money, and they get away with it!” the old man shouts straight into the ear of the driver, who, simply nodding, appears uninterested in his tirade.
The old man is 64. That means 10 presidents, two people power revolutions, a dictatorship, and decades of corruption, poverty and injustice. When he decided to retire his decades-old jeepney years ago, his belief in the Philippine electoral system died with it.
“Those candidates do not deserve our votes! I haven’t stolen anything in my entire life, never committed a crime. Here I am, still poor,” he says after counting the candidates on his fingers, not by their formal names but their monikers. “This is our resistance: Let’s not vote for any of them!”
He is angry and disillusioned, and rightly so. In a country where elections are both a blessing and a curse but viewed as the be-all and end-all of things, democratic participation has become centered on shading the ballot.
The people, in turn, believe in personalities—the messiah, the savior, the harbinger of change—because time and again they are confronted with “choices” that are unsatisfactory. They will vote for the lesser evil. They will think that it is, indeed, a choice. But the danger of choosing the lesser evil is the tendency to choose the status quo: safe, convenient, but still detached from the plight of the masses.
The lesser evil takes many forms: the radical punisher, the “propoor” technocrat, the motherly, the experienced, the economist, or the heir to the straight path—yet trailed by a long list of “buts” that will only bring frustration and confusion. No matter how progressive they may be, they will always be bound by the interests of their class. Essentially, it becomes about replacing kings and queens, but never abolishing the monarchy.
The electoral system is seen, by default, as a solution, but it can also foster an abusive relationship with the people. When elections are over, the people return to the cycle of poverty and landscape of social injustice that the person they elected had promised to eradicate. The electoral system is still bound by the structures that allow the flourishing of the elite, political dynasties, and patronage politics. After the dust has cleared, what remains is the elite web of allies that rallied the politicians to power.
Elections can be likened to Roland Barthes’ concept of wrestling: an open-air spectacle of excess. “For what makes the circus on the arena what they are,” Barthes said, “is not the sky, it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light.” What matters is not what the electorate thinks, but what it sees. It sees passion—in the ways by which the candidates make their promises, badmouth their opponents, or insult the intelligence of their audiences, never mind if it’s real. It sees hope—amid all motives, consequences, suffering, defeat and justice.
In the age of the internet, a cognitive dissonance has created a black hole of fear and deception: “If you don’t like my candidate, you have no right to talk.” Never mind if the candidate is corrupt, incompetent, oppressive, or without vision.
Diehard supporters know better than to demand more from their candidates. The power of choice has slipped from the masses’ hands and become concentrated on the flightless superheroes.
This isn’t the democracy we had hoped for. This isn’t the democracy for which we had fought in the streets twice in our history.
Because after the votes are cast and the numbers are flashed, the real winner is still the same repressive system that has kept the people in chains for so long. Elections will eventually become a nonsolution if the power of the masses stops where the power of the elected leaders begin.
Elected leaders are not messiahs. We must avoid the mistakes of the past and cease believing that the act of voting will single-handedly solve our problems. There is a need to extend the strong electoral force that we have now from the ballot to organizations that will turn the thirst for change into a coherent counterpower. Liberation, after all, is a social act.
As a counterpower, other mechanisms of change will open up without letting our passions die a natural death in existing institutions of power.
True empowerment in a democratic country lies not in the people’s capacity to surrender their future to the lesser evil because they need a leviathan to liberate them from society’s ills. It is in the capacity to control their own destinies, fight for their rights, and refuse to be trapped in other forms of lesser evils.
Elections shall be an awakening, not a dagger that will leave us all wretched in the end. Whoever wins, it shall force us to go out and make a choice, not only for a single day, but even after the ballots are cast.