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In the Philippines: May 14th Elections – “Too Soon to Tell”

May 30, 2007

In the 1970s, Chou En-lai famously responded to a question about the impact of the French Revolution, “Too soon to tell.”  Now, more than two weeks after the May 14 Elections in the Philippines, we might well want to say the same thing since two of the three races I mentioned in the May 9th edition of In Asia are certainly undecided, and the meaning of the third is not yet clear.

Much attention focuses on the nationwide Senatorial races, often styled as a “referendum” on the presidency of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which has not yet been resolved.  After 14 days of “canvassing” (aggregating totals from provinces and municipalities) the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and the parallel count by the citizens’ group, National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) have the same results ” 8 from the Genuine Opposition, 2 from Team Unity (supporting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), and 2 Independents.  Those at the top of the list of 12 may be officially proclaimed winners in the next few days, but at the bottom of the rankings less than two hundred thousand votes separate those in 11th and 12th places from those in 13th and 14th.  Given that there were special elections in Mindanao over this last weekend, in places where elections failed on May 14, and that there are some vote-rich provinces that have yet to be canvassed, it may be a couple of weeks yet before all 12 winners are designated.

As for the “race” for credibility of the COMELEC, it certainly is too soon to tell.  There are competing trends here ” despite the slow canvassing for the nationwide senatorial elections, most local elections (whether for Mayors or governors, councilors, or members of Congress) have been settled.  While there was often chaos and confusion at voting precincts, verified claims of massive disenfranchisement of voters have yet to surface.  And while many losing candidates are claiming that they were cheated, the Philippine public is likely to discount such protestations since few candidates in the Philippines concede ” rather they take their objections to the COMELEC and to the Courts.  The fact of the matter is that despite the froth of headlines and TV news stories, we do yet not know what the average citizen thinks of the performance of the COMELEC.  In the second half of June, after the election period is over, The Asia Foundation will sponsor probability-sample survey questions on the topic of the elections in order to discern indeed what the voters think.

In the third race, for the House of Representatives, it may seem that the results are in ” not only did the Administration win an overwhelming majority but it seems that President Arroyo’s allies have even picked up between 5 and 10 seats, resulting in well over a two-thirds majority.  Yet even here the meaning of the results are not yet clear, since the factionalism among Administration candidates has carried over to the winners.  House Speaker Jose de Venecia handily won his local election, and hopes that his leadership of the Lakas party will carry him to an unprecedented fifth term as Speaker.  But he has been challenged by a faction including Kampi President Luis Villafuerte (remember, also a staunch ally of President Arroyo), who plan to put up a rival candidate (putatively Cebuano Pablo Garcia).  Interestingly enough, the phrase used by Villafuerte was that what was needed was “Chamber change, not Charter change” ” leadership change in the House, not constitutional amendments.  Thus, what might appear to be purely factional struggle also touches on one of the live issues of current Philippine politics ” whether to amend the Constitution into a unicameral parliamentary system (from the current bicameral presidential system).  The House leadership struggle will thus have substantive implications, but won’t be finalized until Congress convenes in July.

While waiting for clarity in these races, it is useful to reflect on past elections for the light they shed on the present.  One lesson is how all Philippine governments rely on elections for their legitimacy, and care a great deal about foreign opinion about those elections.

The first election I experienced in the Philippines was the June 1981 Presidential Election between President Ferdinand Marcos and former Congressman and Defense Secretary Alejo Santos (who had been lured out of retirement to serve as an “opposition” candidate).  Marcos won over 90 percent of the vote, and at his inauguration then-Vice President George Bush declared, “We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic process.”  Whatever one might make of that quote (it was bannered in the press ” then controlled by the government — while being decried by anti-Marcos forces), what was extraordinary was the importance placed on the opinion of a foreigner.  It has often been remarked that Filipinos tend to place too much emphasis on what others think ” embodied this time in a Mindanao newspaper headline just before the May 14 polls: “Don’t cheat, Foreign Poll Observers are Around.”

A lesson on the fundamental importance of the list of voters comes from the 1984 Batasan Pambansa (parliamentary) elections.  As a research exercise, my political science students attempted to undertake in Baguio City a probability sample survey of voter attitudes.  For such a sample, there needs to be a way to randomly (in the statistical sense) choose who to question.  We went to the local COMELEC office to get the voters list, and planned to use a random number table from the back of a statistics book to select respondents.  The COMELEC was very cooperative, and allowed the students to sit in the office pouring through the books selecting voters and copying out identifying information and addresses.  However, when we took the resulting list out into the neighborhoods, it turned out that over two-thirds of the “voters” were non-existent:  having moved, died, or been created out of thin air.  We had to give up the exercise.  Of course, in those elections, “turnout” was reported as “high” ” so most of those nonexistent voters must have somehow “voted.”

Luckily for the Philippines in 2007, considerable effort has been exercised to cleanse the voters list, and it was made electronically available so that citizens and independent groups could help during election day.  Still, doubts remain about the voters list, with Lanao del Sur (where elections failed on May 14 and so where special elections happened over the weekend) having a 44% increase in registered voters in only the three years between 2004 and 2007.  A valid voters list is the foundation for a clean and meaningful election.  Much of the controversy in Bangladesh that led to the cancellation of the January 2007 elections revolved around the voters list there ” but that is a different story entirely.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines; he has witnessed every Philippine election since 1981. Dr. Rood will be speaking about the May 14 Elections in San Francisco on June 13th, click here for more information.

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