Infusing Dignity in Politics through Electoral Reform

Will there ever come a time when being a politician in our country can be considered an honorable profession? Will there come a time when being in public service serves as a testament of one's integrity and credibility and not a proof of one's connections and wealth? Will there ever be dignity in our politics? Or is this too much to ask, too naive a desire?

These are questions that come to mind whenever electoral period approaches. Every time elections knock at our doorsteps, those in politics -- would-be candidates, parties, political operators, political groups, organizers, citizens and groups that one way or another are involved in politics -- scramble like hungry animals, one going after the neck of the other, jockeying up for opportunities to earn money, betraying bonds, lying, manipulating or deceiving themselves and others that everything they do (including the despicable ones) are justified for they serve a higher purpose. Public space becomes a jungle filled with wild animals ready to kill and be killed.

There are a few who struggle to do electoral politics differently, but they are a handful. These few can do something, but in the larger schema of things, what they can do rarely matters. There is a multitude who could help make a difference, but they mostly believe that change is impossible and hence do nothing.

Sick Politics

Our politics is sick. Philippine electoral politics continues to decay. Politics that is meant to be our means to collectively address our common problems and achieve our common ends has turned into the fall of each of us, continuing to drag us into the deepest ends of our collective doom. 

Politics is a contestation of diverse ideas. We must contest and argue which of the ideas being championed is the best and who among us is best fit to lead. We can't be the same and be united like we are similar. We should be - as we are - diverse and therefore we should contest. That is how we grow and build a strong nation. 

But this does not mean we should act like unthinking beings ruled by instincts and lust for power, unable to agree and unite on some common grounds. We can agree on how we can honorably contest power; how out of our diversity, the most meritorious ideas, propositions, candidates wins; how we can ensure that how we do politics will lead to why we do politics in the first place: as a means to collectively address our common problems and achieve our common ends. 

This agreement on how we can honorably contest power is what we call "party and electoral system." This needs fixing. Big time! 

Weakest on Electoral Reform

Fixing our party and electoral system is a chance for those who are in politics to have a shot at honor and dignity. Only when there's honor and dignity in politics that we can reclaim public service and turn it into something potent enough to cure deeply-rooted common ills and woes such as poverty and inequality. 

Yet, despite of its importance, no administration, not even the administration of President Noynoy Aquino that is predisposed to pursuing reforms, has shown a strong commitment to electoral reform. 

While, arguably, we have advanced on so many governance reforms under the current administration, the reform of the most basic requirement of democracy, elections, continues to lag behind. 

The July 2013 report of the Official Gazette of the Philippine Government, despite alluding to political reform, has no account of any substantive achievement on electoral reform. 

The political party reform bill filed in Congress, which is supportive of the formation of real programmatic parties and party coalitions and aims to promote a more effective and accountable campaign finance regulation in the country, is not one of the priority pieces legislation of this administration.

Our electoral laws continue to be outdated. Comelec is persevering to strengthen itself, but it remains weak and vulnerable vis-a-vis the powers that it is supposed to discipline and regulate. 

Comelec does a lot of things, but it can do very little about things that matter most in ensuring democratic elections: 

  • keeping the influence of money at a minimum, 
  • preventing vote-buying/ vote-selling,
  • getting candidates and parties with substantive platform and solid track record to run and have an equal chance of winning and 
  • stopping election-related violence. 

These things are brought about by factors way beyond what Comelec can address. The causes of these (and effects) are deeply-rooted in our history and society, which preserves the status quo.

This only means that unless we, as a people, do something about our electoral system, our politics will remain the same. It will continue to decay. The reforms in governance that we see will easily be washed away by the dirt we end up piling as we engage in elections and transition to the next administration. 

What Can be Done?

We can do something about this. We know this. The solutions are not rocket science and this has been told many times.

For policy-makers, enact the party, campaign finance and electoral reform bills.

For Comelec, continue building our electoral management capacity and work with partners from civil society for the tasks that would require solid political support (to withstand pressures from political monopolies): election-related violence, campaign finance regulation, promotion of platform-oriented/ issue-based campaigning.

For politicians and parties, this is a long shot, but consider talking among yourselves. Determine minimum terms of engagement -
at the very least, on how and when to discuss common issues confronting you during elections. Consider laying down common commitments on how to contribute in stopping election-related violence and vote-buying, on how to make elections less expensive and less like a popularity contest. 

For the academe, media and civil society organizations, focus and help disseminate information on the platforms and track record of candidates and parties. Find ways that this becomes a major consideration of citizens, instead of what determine their votes now: favors, popularity, immediate gratification. Be involved on monitoring beyond the casting of votes. Help Comelec and advocates push for electoral and party reform measures in Congress.

For citizens, look at the track record and platform of candidates in considering who to support and vote. Be informed on issues and demand more from candidates, parties and election officials. You will be entrusting powers to these people that will determine, to a large extent, if you and your children will live a peaceful and comfortable life. Organize collectively and engage those who want to win your support. 

Left to business-as-usual as it is now, elections conducted without integrity will keep the change that our country needs to improve the lives of millions of poor and disempowered Filipinos elusive. Like in the past, any reform momentum will be nothing but a fleeting reality possibly camouflaging an enduring state of changelessness. 

There can be another story to that, which we can collectively weave as a nation. With our consorted effort as a people, we can have a better chance at bringing back integrity in our elections. Integrity in elections will give us a fair chance at having honorable politicians, at bringing back dignity in public service. It will give us a shot at that ever-elusive change that will last enough to actually make a difference.