May 2022 is all of 17 months away, but the politicians are acting as if the elections then were about to take place tomorrow.
They won’t give the electorate a rest from their jockeying for political advantage even in the middle of a pandemic, typhoons, and earthquakes. Politicking is for them a process without beginning and end. It never stops even on election day itself, and continues through the three-year interregnum between elections, the frequency of which hasn’t made Philippine society any more equitable or its poor less destitute.
During that interminable period, the creatures from the foul swamp of Philippine politics seize every opportunity to get into print, broadcast, and online media to keep their names in the public mind so they’ll be remembered come election day. Together with who has the most money, name recall — rather than what a candidate stands for — has always been, and still is, among the factors that decide the results of the elite game called Philippine politics.
Dismissing her low trust and approval ratings as of no concern for her administration, a former President once said that governance is not a popularity contest. True enough: doing what is right for the country may not always be popular. But getting elected too often depends on how much of a crowd-pleaser a candidate is. Focused on their perpetual campaign for whatever office they’re eyeing, presenting even an outline or just the bare bones of a coherent program of government is the farthest from the typical Filipino politician’s mind. What isn’t is pandering to the worst instincts of the populace by telling vulgar and sexist jokes during campaign sorties, talking like murderous thugs, entertaining audiences by singing and dancing, or just looking pretty on stage. Rather than add to the sum of human knowledge, Philippine elections subtract from it.
That is exactly what happened in the 2016 and 2019 campaigns, after the distressing results of which the usual dynasts, their allies, their publicists, and their underlings immediately began preparing for the 2022 presidential elections.
“Premature campaigning,” or vying for votes before the official start of the campaign period, is “disgusting,” says the Commission on Elections (Comelec), but is not illegal. That same body has also ruled that plastering a would-be candidate’s face on a billboard on EDSA, or any other act no matter how obviously calculated to solicit votes, doesn’t qualify as such as long as the perpetrator has not yet filed a certificate of candidacy, and/or doesn’t publicly say “vote for me.” Campaigning months and even years before an election has thus become a fact of political life in this law-rich but lawless country.
It is blatantly there on the tarpaulins and posters splashed with the faces of creatures who use every disaster as an opportunity to be photographed while distributing bags of relief goods stamped with their names. It is there in their weighing in on the side of any issue they deem popular, such as, for example, condemning a policeman’s murder of a mother and son and using it as an excuse to advance their mindless advocacy of the death penalty. And it is there as well in their reinvention of themselves from murderous torturers during the Marcos kleptocracy into seemingly astute, anti-corruption statesmen committed to honesty in governance today.
As reprehensible as early campaigning may be, human rights and democracy defenders, press freedom advocates, political, economic, and social reformers, and everyone else aware of the desperate straits this country has fallen into and of the urgent need to rescue it from perdition should construct their own principled version of it in preparation for 2022.
If the politicians are already in the midst of their self-aggrandizing campaign for the 2022 elections, so can the citizenry make ready for it. What is needed is an information program to combat the lies of the mercenaries of disinformation who have made reasoned discourse almost impossible in this broken democracy. By educating the electorate into voting for those candidates who can put an end to the corruption and incompetence that have made this country the development laggard and the political and economic basket case of Southeast Asia, such a program can thwart the conspiracy to keep things as they are and even make them worse through disinformation.
To reach and truly benefit the majority, any information program requires the unwavering allegiance of responsible journalists to the imperatives of truth-telling and accuracy, to the investigative enterprise, to news analysis, and the interpretation of issues and events in behalf of the making of the informed citizenry democracy needs to survive and flourish. Some of this is already happening. Driven by the need to help their audiences navigate the turbulent waters of the Philippine crisis of information that has poisoned public discourse, the more perceptive among the country’s media practitioners have gone beyond merely reporting what this or that official source says. They consult experts in various fields, ordinary citizens, civic leaders and others, and provide background, context, and, in addition to the who, what, where, when, why and how of the news, also its meaning and implications on the people’s lives.
These practitioners have been truer to the ethical and professional standards of journalism than those whose claims to “objectivity” rest on merely repeating what the powerful say.
But they and other advocates of change and democratization must do more. In consultation and coordination with each other, they must also craft an agenda of government that as part of the information program can help reverse the poverty, corruption, abuse of power, and injustice that plague this country and its long-suffering people.
Such a plan can do two things: it can be the standard against which aspirants for public office can be measured, while at the same time being the shared advocacy of the various groups and individuals committed to the making of an alternative to the awful present. In the process, they can convince would-be candidates for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency, for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and for every other elective post to support and adopt it or parts of it as their own platform of government for 2022 and even beyond.
What the resistance to Spanish colonial rule, the American occupation, the Japanese invasion, and the Marcos kleptocracy demonstrates is that only critical citizen engagement can make the difference between enslavement and independence, stagnation and change. Active citizen involvement in the resolution of the country’s most pressing problems has never been more urgent than today, this time in the form of, among others, developing a program of government that the more knowledgeable and honest aspirants for public office can accept, adopt, and pledge to implement as part of an information drive that can make reasoned, fact-based discourse on public issues the rule rather than the exception.
Without the informed participation of the stakeholders in governance, the 2022 elections could make the brazen despotism, the unremitting brutality, the shameless corruption and the gross incompetence that reign in officialdom permanent.
What passes for leadership in these isles of illusions will then condemn millions more to the poverty, hunger, and injustice that are already of epidemic proportions among vast segments of the population.
As uncertain and as bleak as the future of the Philippines has become under the rule of the political dynasties, its people can still make a better tomorrow possible. But that can happen only if they act today.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).