Tuesday, February 27, 2007

There is a Season

The mid-term election season in the Philippines is this May and the topic once again turns to the supposed dearth of inspiring or even qualified candidates for the Philippine Senate and other offices. This tri-annual exercise of wailing and gnashing of teeth normally revolves around the following themes:

  • Nationally known but unqualified candidates
  • Traditional politicians and their relatives
  • Political turncoats.

The common conclusions after griping about any or all of these points are:

  • The country is destined to be run by fools who were voted in by imbeciles
  • The elections are a waste of time for any thinking individual because they are dominated by unthinking ones
  • One should leave the country for somewhere else, preferably where they appreciate critical thinking.

I can understand those conclusions from someone who was not able to receive a quality life in the Philippines, like access to housing, food, education, employment, media such as TV and newspapers, and so on. To get those reactions from someone who went to the same or a similar university to where I graduated from is simply embarrassing.

The university I attended was comparatively heavy on liberal arts courses, such as theology, philosophy, and history. The focus was on providing the students with the tools for critical thinking, to equip them not only with knowledge but also with a reasoned faith. The university was also the third most expensive in the country, increasing the likelihood that the best learning resources – cable TV, personal computers, internet connections, trips to other provinces or other countries – were available to the students.

For one to come to the conclusions listed above is to forget all about history and political theory, critical reflection and reasoning.

To avoid limiting officials to members of a particular class, our constitution requires pretty much only citizenship, residency, and literacy to qualify for an elected position. It's simply insensible to bitch about traditional politicians and actors at the same time, since that would imply espousing two opposing ideas.

Besides, what makes Manny Pacquiao, one who worked his way through national and international ranks to become one of the best and most profitable in his profession, any less eligible than a lawyer or a doctor? And we’re hardly unique, with the USA’s former actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger), wrestlers (Jesse Ventura), and, yes, basketball players (Bill Bradley). A notable example is Italy’s Ilona Staller, a former porn star.

Any reasonable evaluation of our previous elected officials would have to be done on their actions once they assumed office. For example, Ferdinand Marcos graduated from the prestigious University of the Philippines College of Law and topped the bar exam.

The essence of politics and governance, especially in a democracy, is to compromise between diverse and in many cases, opposing, interests. These interests may be any or a combination of class, sex, ideology, religion, or region. Shifting alliances and goals are an indivisible part of this activity, especially over decades. This was true with Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmena, and Jose Laurel, who plotted with and against one another constantly and yet they are all accounted as among our greatest leaders. This twisting and turning are certainly true and no less valid in our own time, if one cares to note the careers of Jose De Venecia, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Blas Ople.

Furthermore, the unending dominance of political families tends to decrease or is absent in economically progressive areas. Compare Surigao del Norte, with brothers for governor and congressman, and Dinagat, with the related governor, congressman, and mayor of the capital. In Batangas, the governor, four congressmen, and mayors of the three chartered cities don't share any last names.

Perceived performance is also a factor. Closer to home, in the 2004 elections for the mayoralty of Quezon City, the first term incumbent, Sonny Belmonte, crushed the previous mayor, Mel Mathay. This was attributed to the difference in the city's delivered services and collected revenues during Belmonte's first term and Mathay's prior three terms. The same is said for the Fernando's dominance of Marikina City.

Why should we think that the pace of improvement is unacceptably slow? Elections are aptly described as a political exercise. PE is a worthy subject if only to teach us there is incremental progress after numerous and regular repetition. What can you expect if you go to the gym once every three years? We’ve been at it only since 1945, and we’ve had our limits on our membership between 1972 and 1986. Put it another way, Americans has been at it every four years since 1789, and they’d be the first to say that they don’t always get it right.

What is sad is that all this information is available for us to see and we have been instructed of how to use this information to come up with reasoned conclusions. What gives us the right to deplore the decisions and abilities of our less affluent and educated countrymen when we ourselves, with all our access to knowledge and opportunity, so easily retreat to mourning and weeping in our valley of tears?