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Bring Back the Sense in Philippine Elections

If previous elections were to be taken as a benchmark, the coming elections promise to be more farcical

By Jigger S. Latoza

The campaign period turns the Philippine scene into a mad circus. Candidates will, during this period, do whatever their audience bids them to do—in sharp contrast to their deafness to the same people’s cries for attention once they are in office. They will dance, clown, kick-box, sing, use gutter language—anything to sell themselves and heighten ‘name recall.’ In short, they do everything except educate the electorate on issues. They hire expensive advertising agencies to polish up their image, often without regard for the truth, and to produce sound bites and one-liners that will go over well in political rallies and quick interviews on radio and television. All of which only serve to worsen our personality-oriented brand of politics."(From the CBCP Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Politics)

This vivid description of the country’s pre-election political culture by the Catholic bishops of the Philippines comes alive as the campaign period for the May 11, 1998 elections unfolds. If previous elections were to be taken as a benchmark, the coming elections promise to be more farcical.

A case in point is the Commission on Elections (Comelec) report stating that a total of 81 persons filed certificates of candidacy for the presidency, while 20 are running for vice-president, and 180 are vying for 12 senatorial seats. Deducing from the rise in the number of candidates as compared to that of the 1992 elections, columnist Amando Doronila of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, one of the most astute political opinion makers in the country, sees in these figures an indicator of the people’s lack of good choices. This observation echoes the views expressed by the Catholic bishops who earlier stated that none of the top contenders for the country’s top post is good enough to qualify as the best man or woman for the job. "The number of candidates throwing their hats into the ring could mean that the Philippine presidency has been so devalued that any entertainer, illiterate ex-actor, policeman, village idiot or political operator thinks he could be president of the Philippines," Doronila said.

Hence, we now witness the entry of persons from various points of the spectrum of idiosyncrasy who see in themselves or who claim their supporters behold them as the better alternative. For sure, many of the aspirants, particularly for the presidency and vice-presidency, will soon be dismissed as "nuisance candidates." However, even the peculiarities of this type of aspirants, political analysts note, could be reflective of the utter lack of seriousness by which the citizenry takes a supposedly critical political exercise as elections in a democratic society. It seems that these comical circumstances surrounding the filing of candidacy are in themselves an integral part of this lavish entertainment hoopla that is the Philippine elections.

Over several electoral exercises in this country, the campaign trail has never failed to be amusing. According to Eric Gamalinda of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (1992)—who reviewed the dynamics of political image-building and other election campaign strategies since the 1935 Commonwealth presidential elections—campaigns in the Philippines have "a tinge of a B-movie about them." He noted that since the first nationwide presidential elections in the country, Filipinos "had already learned the trappings—indeed the prevarications—of the campaign ritual, and had refined them to an art that would put the obsolescent bodabil (vaudeville) actors to shame."


Elections Equals Entertainment

Images make the entertainment world go round. The entertainer is his or her projected image. Professional public relations firms package an entertainer as they would package a product like detergent or toothpaste or underwear.

Politics in this country, being personality-oriented, works the same way. Politicians hire the services of PR consultants who design their public images and transform them into icons. Thus, Joseph Estrada is "pang masa;" Miriam Defensor-Santiago is "graft buster" and lately, "Princess Leia" of the Star Wars movie; Imelda Marcos is "the patroness of beauty" and "Ina ng Bayan;" Alfredo Lim is "crime-fighter," etc. If these are not yet illustrative, senatorial candidate Loren Legarda is touted as "Princess Diana incarnate".

In this world where reality is constructed, mainly by the mass media, the concept of authenticity loses value. In the words of communications scholar Neil Postman, when entertainment clobbers the arenas of serious public discourse, the concepts of "integrity" and "credibility" are equated with how image-projections are perceived. Consequently, the demarcation line between what is real and what is constructed reality is obscured. It then takes keen minds to note the disparities between the image and the person behind the image, unless of course the contrast between the two is so striking like the case of Loren Legarda donning the image of Princess Diana.

Unfortunately, this overemphasis on projections has taken its toll on the political sphere. More and more, political exercises have conspicuously centered on personalities rather than on policy issues. This personality-orientation, a paradigm that is borrowed from the entertainment world, has one underlying intent: to engage the audience in an experience of diversion amusement. Thus, candidates would rather strut on stage than discuss their platforms of government, or at the very least, invite struggling actors and actresses, comedians, and singers, to glue audiences to their places. In the PICC proclamation rally of the LAKAS-NUCD on Feb. 10, for example, the candidates sang, danced and clowned. To amuse the public some more, President Fidel Ramos took center-stage, combed his hair before the audience and passed on the comb to De Venecia who mimicked the pathetic act. In that same gathering, entertainment idols Bobby Andrews, Angelu de Leon, April Boy Regino, and Bong Revilla among others, added color to the rally that could be more aptly called an entertainment concert. Reports have it that Lakas-NUCD has appropriated P50 million for the talent fees of the moviedom characters who would draw crowds for its slate on the campaign trail. The same showcase was staged in Rene de Villa’s proclamation rally at the Araneta Coliseum in the early afternoon of the same day, where Carmi Martin, Leo Martinez and the rest of their crew electrified the crowd. Needless to say, LAMMP, the opposition party, boasts of "superstar" Nora Aunor and, of course, its standard bearer.

Interestingly, this raises the question of motives on the part of the crowd that flock to campaign rallies. What spurs them to attend these assemblies that are supposed to be venues of intelligent discourses on social issues that affect the very life of the state and its people? Aside from the usual "hakot" factor, the sight of actor-senatorial candidate Ramon Revilla signing autographs on so many hands while his lesser-known fellow senatorial candidates desperately look for persons who would want their signatures may provide the answers. That same answer is implied in the report that the crowd that attended LAMMP’s rally in Laguna, instead of shaking hands with the senatorial candidates right before them, restlessly asked where basketball star Robert "Jawo" Jaworski was and bluntly expressed their dissatisfaction before media people when they learned their idol was not around. It is also evidenced by television cameras showing rapidly thinning rally crowds once entertainers turn over the microphones to the candidates.

The fact that running the affairs of the state is not on the same plane as belting out "Dahil sa Iyo" has been seemingly shrouded by a political culture that has developed blind selective attention and addiction to whatever that amuses. Much sadder and alarming in this metamorphosis of governance into entertainment form is the entry in the elections of persons who bank only on their popularity as actors, singers, or basketball players as their main qualification for public office. It appears that entertainers are no longer contented with just executing intermission numbers; they now want the major, juicy part. Already, such celebrity names like Rudy Fernandez, Edu Manzano, Amay Bisaya, Dan Fernandez, and Anjo Yllana are set to join the election fray in May. While we are not arguing that an entertainer cannot be an effective public official, we are also wanting in evidence to prove the contrary. Certainly, one cannot turn the economy around, neither solve criminality, nor effect necessary social reforms by tickling citizens with dances, songs, and jokes. Empirical evidence has yet to prove that the ability to act, sing, dance, or clown around is positively related to the ability to govern. Indeed, for several elections now, voters have given entertainers like Joseph Estrada, Ramon Revilla, Freddie Webb, Lito Lapid, Dennis Roldan, Joey Marquez, Rey Malonzo, and Bong Carreon among others, the chance to prove their worth in the august halls of political leadership. Yet, sadly, a review of their performances would reveal that many, if not all, of them are simply not meant for a field that requires more of critical, cerebral thinking and expressing, and less of autograph signing and winking. Tracing the track record of entertainers-turned legislators in the Senate will validate this.

There are two major, opposing views regarding the election of entertainers to public office, particularly voiced out during the May 1992 elections––when entertainers Vicente "Tito" Sotto and Ramon Revilla led the batch of victorious senators while highly-qualified candidates like Butch Abad and Alran Bengzon bit the dust. Some scorn the situation and infer from it a degradation of the level of Filipino voters’ political maturity. On the other hand, others justify it by arguing that there’s nothing wrong with showbiz personalities getting elected to public office as long as they serve the public interest. Besides, they add, we have seen a number of educated and experienced politicians contributing nothing but more troubles to Philippine society. This latter notion seems to have the upper hand, as evident in a pre-1992 elections survey conducted by the Social Weather Station, which revealed that more Filipino voters are "in favor" of a candidate who is an actor or actress.

We can certainly take these developments lightheartedly and simply laugh at them the way we do when we watch television sitcoms. Or we can cynically take these as a form of relief from the socio-economic pressures that have bombarded us for so long. The tragedy is this "fiesta, circus, spectator sport" feature of the elections will not last beyond Election Day as our experiences would attest. Just like the real short-lived circus or fiesta that elections imitate. On the contrary, this reduction of the elections into an entertainment extravaganza poses grave implications to the ideal of an intelligent selection of state leaders, a process that can only be possible when the campaign is held in an arena where issues rather than personalities matter, where reasoning rather than dancing and singing is highlighted, where substance is more primordial than form.









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Christian Action for Peaceful and Meaningful Elections
Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City
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