Why we elect bad leaders

Every new government is a reminder of old mistakes.  We fail to retain even the plainest lessons. That a popular leader is not necessarily a good leader.  That we cannot expect honest people who join government to ultimately prevail over a corrupt system.  That there are no shortcuts to good governance; that we must work hard at establishing durable institutions and creating a culture of honesty before we can feel entitled to have competent and honest politicians.

Our readiness to go back to Edsa each time we want to get rid of bad leaders attests to our failure to learn these lessons well.  Edsa was a rare moment of recuperation of national self-esteem.  We seek in its memory the values that give us reason to hope that we can still be a great nation.  To advocate an Edsa-style solution  every time we have problems with the leaders we elected would be to trivialize an extraordinary event.

The normalization of political life after an upheaval like Edsa is never an easy process.  The revolutionary fever usually subsides with the writing of a new constitution.  After that, people must exert their imagination to find the romance in the everyday routines of government.  No one can expect a nation to be on a permanent state of mobilization.  It is not healthy.  Yet, it is during the dull period after the thirst for blood has been initially quenched that the remnants of the old order quietly make their way back.

First they attach themselves to the new leaders, advising them on the many uses of power.  They do everything to protect themselves against the residual anger of those they oppressed in the past regime. They patiently wait for the euphoria to finally dissipate, and for the frustration and disaffection to set in.  Then, in anticipation of a call for elections, they recruit their own front men from among those who can best champion the voice of the disenchanted.  Thus, almost overnight, the same people we thought we had overthrown are fully restored to their former positions.

Why do we keep electing bad leaders?  We do so because our attention is focused on changing persons rather than institutions.  The system by which we recruit the leaders of our nation is deeply flawed. This is immediately evident in the premium we place on the personal popularity of candidates rather than on their capacity to articulate and defend a national plan.  We place little value on debate and on educational campaigns to create intelligent voters.   By our failure to stop vote-buying and electoral fraud, we allow politicians to prey upon the hunger of impoverished voters and the vulnerability of election workers.  We permit candidates to raise unlimited amounts of campaign contributions from undisclosed sources, unmindful of the graft and corruption that follows when politicians start paying back every peso they received from expectant financiers.

Because we have made elections expensive and celebrity-oriented, public office has become the preserve of the very rich or the very popular.  Political parties no longer look at their candidates’ fitness for office or inclination to public service.  Their sole concern is “winnability.”

On the other hand, those who know better and should be criticizing the system often become its cynical operators.  They first convince themselves that this is the way of all politics.  They then hire themselves out as technicians to the most stupid politicians, and ease their consciences by believing that they can somehow be a positive influence on them.

The rest of us ordinary citizens are usually content to grumble and to avenge our victimization by resorting to jokes about our elected leaders.  We sit it out till the next election, hoping that the nation will suddenly wake up from its illusions.  Yet we seldom form new political parties that can endure beyond a single election.  The bolder ones among us may issue a call for a coup d’etat or a repeat of Edsa.  Yet even in the rare chance that any of these should ever succeed, the important question remains: What do we do the morning after?

How do we begin to construct a society in which the good in government are encouraged to do better, and public service is valued as the highest vocation of a citizen?  What kind of rules do we need so that the merely popular do not get the power to decide for the entire nation?

I believe the starting point has got to be the formation of politicized citizens and their organization into self-reliant groups. Such citizens’ groups are the natural constituency for reform.  We saw the flourishing of these in the years leading up to the snap election and Edsa.  But their transformation into an alternative electoral force was never consummated.

I think the reason for this is that we remain fixated on the redemptive power of charismatic leaders to secure the future.   In contrast, we have so little faith in ordinary people’s capacity to create the nation by their sustained collective effort.

Many years ago, the late senator Jose W. Diokno, who formed the group known as “Kaakbay” shortly after his release from the Marcos jails, stressed the importance to democracy of autonomous people’s organizations.  Such groups are ultimately the only checks on power we can rely on, he said.  After his appointment to the Aquino Cabinet as Human Rights Commissioner, he told us that civil society groups must continue to hold public officials accountable to the nation, even when, or precisely because, these public officials used to be our comrades in the streets.

Pepe Diokno, the best president our country never had, was an exceptional politician who re-invented himself.  Alas, many of the ones we have today are beyond repair.


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