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In the Philippines: The Build-up to May 14th Elections

May 2, 2007

By Steven Rood

On May 14th, Filipinos will make their way to over 250,000 precincts across the country in “mid-term” elections (that is, in the middle of the term for President).  Though the highest office in the land is not on the ballot, citizens will vote for 17,889 different positions at different levels:  Senators (twelve elected nationwide), Members of Congress (both district and party list), provincial governors, vice governors, and board members, and city or municipal mayors, vice mayors, and councilors.  Given that the ballot is entirely write-in, voters will laboriously write dozens of names (or officially recognized nicknames). The ballots are then, even more laboriously, tallied at the precinct level before being transported to over 1,500 city and municipal halls to be aggregated before being transmitted upward for final tallies.

The 2004 Presidential Elections revealed serious deficiencies in the current electoral process, and highlighted setbacks in the ongoing process of democratization in the country. Confusion, inefficiency, corruption, and cheating damaged the credibility of elections, and cast doubt on the democratic legitimacy of elected officials.  In the wake of the “Hello, Garci” scandal (named after the tape recording allegedly of the President calling Election Commissioner Garcillano), election protests, and other events, public trust in the institutions and individuals charged with running elections, in particular the election commission, reached new lows.  Some observers fear that these events could lead to further political instability, societal breakdown, or a return to authoritarianism.

Although this trend is worrying, it is not irreversible.  The Philippines is blessed with a vibrant and powerful civil society, strong democratic traditions, and competent lower-level election officials.  More than a decade of attempts at reform was capped in January 2007 by the passage of a new law, “Amending the Election Modernization Act.” The purpose of the act was to bring the law up to date, but the four months that remained before the May 14th election were insufficient to implement the new law.

Still, the current election process, while flawed, can be made to work.

The Asia Foundation is working with the Commission on Elections, the Department of Education (since teachers are the precinct-level election workers), the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, and non-government organizations ” including Muslim organizations in Mindanao ” to strengthen those elements in Filipino society that are struggling to turn back the tide.  Twenty-one observers from six Asian countries (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) will be deployed in Mindanao in cooperation with the Asian Network for Free Elections.

Media coverage of Filipino elections tends to focus, as it does all over the world, on immediate issues, such as which candidate is ahead in the “horse race.”  Another issue dominating the media is election violence. So far, 25 candidates and their supporters have been killed in assassinations or shoot-outs between rival groups (most recently the Mayor of San Carlos City, in Pangasinan).  One view is that this is a normal, historical, reality for the Philippines: violence is always more or less present in elections. 148 died in the 2004 presidential elections and 111 in the 2001 midterm elections.  But a new reality has intruded in recent years ” the upsurge in extra-judicial killings of leftist activists and members of the local media.  Investigations have been launched by the independent Philippine Commission on Human Rights, the Presidentially-appointed Melo Commission, and Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. However, little progress has been made.   In this context, the upsurge of violence is part and parcel of the general impunity with which violations of human rights are committed in the Philippines.

The overarching issue, though, is the credibility of the elections’ results. This is not an issue of recent vintage. In 1995 there was an alleged “dagdag-bawas” (add-subtract) scheme, where votes for some Senatorial candidates were padded using votes from others (so that the totals remained the same).  Both elite opinion and citizen survey results showed a widespread belief that this affected who won election to the Senate.  This year, in 2007, the Philippines once again faces a hotly contested Senatorial election.

It is to be hoped that both the renewed vigor of the official Commission on Elections and the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations’ efforts will produce enough safeguarding of the electoral processes to ensure a result that is more acceptable to the citizenry.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Elections

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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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