If the function of elections were solely to elect leaders, we might be better off not having elections. Elections are not only very expensive and often violent, they are also not the most efficient way to choose leaders.
We expect our leaders to be skilled and knowledgeable in statecraft, yet elections yield the merely popular. And often popularity is inversely related to administrative competence. We want our leaders to be incorruptible, yet every step of the process of electing them prompts them to be dishonest. We want them to be committed to the public good, but the enormous personal debts they incur on their way to becoming public officials commit them to a repayment system that is detrimental to the public good.
No wonder the German sociologist Max Weber believed that the most rational type of human organization is one where occupants of offices are appointed rather than elected — a regime of experts, where officeholders are chosen for their capability rather than for their popularity.
But in a democracy it is unthinkable not to have elections. The essence of democracy, we say, is the right to freely choose the leaders who will govern us. Never mind if, to our dismay, we sometimes elect the unfit, the stupid, and the dishonest. The important thing is that they are the choice of the majority.
To think of elections solely in these terms is to miss the kernel of democratic politics. We hold elections in a democracy not just to pick leaders, but also to debate the direction of our collective life. Elections provide us the opportunity to identify the key problems of society and to define the most effective ways of dealing with them. Elections are society’s principal mechanism for mobilizing support for new goals, and for renewing social consensus.
Ideally we should be creating constituencies around various platforms of government during elections. The individuals we elect to public office must embody alternative visions of government. We should be choosing people not for who they are but for the direction they represent. That is the real function of elections. In this manner alone do we strengthen the legitimacy of the social order.
Therefore, to hold elections without meaningful debate is to mock the democratic process. Voters are then left with no choice but to select individuals for their personal qualities rather than for the quality of their approach to the problems of society. Image rather than political substance becomes the currency of this type of politics. And the monitors of personal popularity and appeal, the survey organizations, become the principal arbiters of suitability for public office.
It is sad when a very highly qualified politician like former senator Raul Roco says that he would make himself available for the presidency in 2004 only if he scores high in the surveys. Making his presidential bid dependent upon the surveys is precisely to perpetuate the politics of popularity.
If Roco is serious about reforming Philippine society, as I believe he is, he should begin reorganizing his political party, recruiting new members, and recasting the whole agenda of our national life. He should even now gather the best minds of the land, prepare an alternative analysis of our problems and a vision for our country, and draw the key protagonists of 2004 into a debate on perspectives and solutions. In that manner alone can we break the spell on our political life that has made the leadership of the country the exclusive terrain of traditional politicians, celebrities, and entertainers.
It is clear that politics has remained like this in our country because of our failure to develop mature political parties that can attract and form enduring constituencies. Because of poverty, the majority of our people have been unable to exercise their political rights with some degree of autonomy. Their hunger has made them the captives of a system of patronage that is antagonistic to political democracy. Their cultural innocence, on the other hand, has made them the easy prey of populist politicians and celebrities who promise them utopia.
Ours is a divided country in more ways than one. Economic growth alone will not cure the great disparities that have excluded more than half of our people from any meaningful participation in the nation’s life. The persistence of these disparities will always be a threat to social order. This is the soil in which many insurgencies are nurtured. Increasingly, the social order is unable to maintain its legitimacy. Its fabric is torn by the repeated failure of successive governments to address the basic needs of the majority who are forced to live in abject poverty and hopelessness. The old order is dying but, in the absence of genuine debate, the new cannot be born. Without parties to debate political purposes and alternatives, we are doomed to repeat the rituals of an obsolete political culture that has only given us corrupt and incompetent leaders every election.
It is absurd that we worry about Fernando Poe Jr. but not about the system that makes his candidacy the most logical. We should look to a day when the charisma of politicians will no longer be as crucial to their election as their political vision, when money will not be able to talk, because political discourse will be the domain of the wise, the organized, and the informed. Then we need not be afraid of FPJ.
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