Friday, June 18, 2010

Slightly deadly and completely mad

Iloilo City

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is the new Philippine president, or at least he will be by the end of June. The final tally from May 10’s election has been confirmed and the losing candidates have sufficiently expressed their outrage at being cheated out of the position.

Elections in the Philippines are, from this foreigner’s point of view, wild. Campaigns are based on personality, not platform; name- and face-recognition are hugely important and issues are not. Fame trumps all: Aquino was not even considered a candidate for the election until his mother, former president Corazon Aquino, passed away last July. Her front-page death catapulted Noynoy to the forefront of the election despite widespread reservations about his lack of practical political experience.

Other leading candidates included former president and convicted criminal Joseph Estrada and super-rich businessman Manny Villar (the latter of which, apparently in a break from tradition, ceded to Aquino’s victory without any face-saving fuss). Government positions went to Imelda Marcos, the eccentric widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, to Imelda’s son Bongbong, and to ultra-famous boxer Manny Pacquiao. And to exiting president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), who has secured a House of Representatives seat in her home province of Pampanga.

This election has been hailed as the safest since 2007, which is a dubious endorsement. According to reports soon after Election Day, eighteen people had been killed in election violence. Five of these deaths occurred on my island, though none was in my province. My town itself was quiet as death (but in a good way), from what I saw, although there were rampant reports (including one from a coworker at my center) of attempts to buy votes.

The whole thing seems surreal. I’ve often seen the Philippines’ political system called a “vibrant democracy,” and perhaps that’s true by Southeast Asian standards – voter turnout is quite high, and citizens of the country have, after all, staged two successful movements (EDSA Revolutions I and II) in the past twenty-five years to oust bad leaders. (The first was Ferdinand Marcos, the long-term “strongman” who held the Philippines hostage via martial law. The second was… Joseph Estrada. Who ended up second in the latest presidential poll.) But those “People Power” movements, however justified, highlight just how unstable the Philippine system is. Filipinos can oust a president, but they can’t as easily scour clean a political machine that has been corroded by corruption for decades.

One of the agents of this corrosion is a lack of transparency. Right now there’s a fight going on in the legislative system over a Freedom of Information act that would make details of government transactions and decisions open to public scrutiny. Opposed legislators scuttled the act, at least for the time being, simply by absenting themselves: not enough officials showed up to work on the day of the vote to allow for its passage. With luck the bill will be passed in a future legislative session, but who really knows what will happen? And it’s clear from past evidence that the government is able to do what it wants without real accountability.

With all of that said… the presidential elections did in fact run smoother than in past years. Aquino was the clear winner; GMA has in fact already vacated Malacañang, the presidential palace, and the transfer of authority should be completed in just a couple weeks.

I have to say this, though: the international media reaction to Philippine elections has been disappointing at best. They’re portrayed as being big nationwide parties, filled with celebrities, glamour and frivolous festivities. But people die because of these elections. People are murdered for daring to run against a powerful candidate or for voting against the current political wisdom. It would be lovely for the outside world to actually try and understand the implications of the situation – here and in many other countries – and start to take it seriously. Because the bodies will keep stacking up.

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