Democracy Takes a Step: Philippine Elections
It's been a strange election, even by Philippine standards.
The candidate list started out with a dozen serious contenders vying with 100 not-so-serious contenders, including a transvestite diva, a candidate who painted his name on local dogs, and a movie star with a history of womanizing, gambling, and heavy drinking. Thankfully, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) exercised its legal right to declare some candidates "nuisance candidates" and strike them from the ballot, and fortunately, they did so with great vigor. The diva didn't make it. The movie star won.
He is Vice President Jose Estrada, head of the Struggle of the Nationalist Filipino Masses, and he has claimed victory, with a government-sanctioned poll-watching group giving him 37% of the vote. Although the results aren't yet official as of this writing, several other candidates have already conceded the race. Estrada (known popularly as "Erap") has already lodged a formal complaint about the long delay in announcing an official winner, and warned of voter fraud, making him possibly the first electoral winner ever to contest the election.
He wants to ensure that the results are perfectly accurate, and has good reason for doing so. The current administration, headed by President Fidel Ramos, was backing House Speaker Jose de Venecia, who looks to have lost fairly badly, coming in third with only about 18% of the vote. But Ramos, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second six-year term, still holds out hope that his candidate may have won, and claims that it is too early to know the final result, despite the capitulation of most of the rest of the field. Given a deep historical memory in the Philippines of governments nullifying elections, that alone is enough to make Estrada nervous. There are no indications that Ramos would take such action, but the unfortunate historical precedent is hard to erase from memory.
Most others have conceded defeat. Fellow candidate Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense secretary, announced that he was "personally convinced of the irreversible and overwhelming victory" for Estrada. Influential Roman Catholic leader Jaime de Sin, who called Estrada "morally unfit to govern" due to his admitted history of womanizing, drinking, and gambling, also announced his support for the new government.
Estrada is a former movie star, principally of cheap action movies, where he typically played a Robin Hood-like character who stood up for the poor and oppressed in society. A bizarre coalition has opposed him, from moralists like Cardinal Sin to big business leaders who fear that Estrada's lack of economic policy experience is the last thing the embattled Philippine economy needs. Even former president Corazon Aquino joined the fray, saying that Estrada's popularity was "really amazing," a quotation dripping with some sort of undefined normative judgment.
One sociology professor at Ateneo de Manila, an influential Philippine university, summed up Estrada's popularity by saying "We have no more Jesus Christ symbols, we have no more Gandhi symbols. The only symbols left are the movie stars...who play the heroes in the movies. It has come to that."
The election was fairly peaceful this time around, with the official death toll from election-related violence at just 39. Ramos places the army and the police on high alert in an attempt to prevent the violence that has so often marred Philippine elections in the past. But a gun battle in the town of Butig that claimed two lives and a shootout between rival political gangs in Malabang belied the ability of the police to prevent electoral violence. Some sources say that up to 40,000 voters were prevented from casting their ballots due to violence. While that number probably won't affect the final presidential tally, 17,000 other officials, from congressmen to local councilmen, were also scheduled to be elected, and those votes will be far more sensitive to a swing of 40,000 votes.
As in many elections, mud was slung with wild abandon. One presidential candidate, Renato de Villa, claimed that another candidate had freed a murder suspect in de Villa's town to scare people from supporting him. Manila mayor Alfredo Lim accused a Ramos associate of supplying automatic weapons to gangs supporting his rivals. De Venecia voiced rumors of Estrada's ties to drug barons, and urged voters not to vote for candidates "associated with the drug lords and the gambling syndicates...the agents of corruption and the agents of crime."
These were the charges against the mainstream candidates. Several of the charges against former first lady Imelda Marcos, who also ran in the election, are simply unprintable.
The elections in the Philippines may seem like banana-republic democracy to some nations, but the democratic revolution there is still young. Filipinos are eager to participate; out of 34 million registered voters, the turnout was projected at about 80%, despite terribly hot and humid weather, and despite the constant threat of violence. This election may have been strange and violent, but it is a signal, however faint, that the Philippines is headed in the right direction.
Fidel Ramos won the last election with only 22% of the vote, hardly a popular mandate. Estrada's mandate is stronger, despite the relative shallowness of his proclaimed policy plans, which include attending just one Cabinet meeting a month and leaving most decisions to his Cabinet members. The Philippines may be leaving behind the intense factionalism it has been experiencing over the last few years, which would be good for the nation.
Cardinal Sin (typing that is so much fun) wisely said, "It is now time to bind the wounds that have been inflicted on us by the heated campaign...I will give my utmost best to help the new administration succeed." Given a breakdown in Indonesia contributing to a further weight on the economies of Southeast Asia, this new administration will need all the help it can get.
The Manila Standard said in an editorial, "The Philippines needs to be perceived by the outside world as politically stable if it is not to be totally engulfed by the financial crisis battering the region... It is therefore imperative that today's elections are clean and honest." Ramos agreed, saying "It is not only our political maturity that will be put to the test in the coming election. It will also be a gauge of how we truly value our democracy... The eyes of the world will be upon us."
Ramos is right. The world is watching, nervously, as Indonesia self-destructs, to see what its neighbors will do. The Philippines offers hope to Indonesia, as well as other nations, that a democracy, however boisterous, can arise out of repression and depression. After all, the martial law and economic misery of the Marcos years is being echoed on the streets of Jakarta today.
Estrada is clearly not qualified to be an economic or policymaking leader. Yet he may be a step forward, in that a large number of people of the Philippines actually like him. And after all, there have been other movie stars elected to the presidency in other nations. While their policy ideas may have been harmful to the nation in the long run, few would argue that their election in and of itself undermined democracy, or democratic principles. Estrada's election may be a step backward for Filipino policy and a step forward for Filipino democracy.
One Manila businessman, Jose Concepcion, asked Ramos if democracy could survive in the Philippines. In its own strange way, the Philippines has answered yes. The question that remains is whether Estrada can actually use the mandate he has been given to better his nation. The eyes of the world are upon him.