A surge of volunteerism

It is bad enough that we are being made to pick our leaders from what is, by any reckoning, a dismaying list of candidates.  What is worse is that the whole electoral process is being supervised by a Commission on Elections whose top officials have just been effectively pronounced untrustworthy by the highest court of the land. This turn of events can only affirm our darkest thoughts about our future, and makes us want to give up.  But if we do, where will that leave us?

The question we must quickly resolve is whether we should demand the resignation or impeachment of all the Comelec commissioners in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.  Or whether it is better to proceed with the elections as scheduled, going back to manual counting, and dealing with the negligence and culpability of the Comelec officials only after the elections.  I submit that the better course of action to take is the latter. But I will also hasten to say that this will work only if attended by public volunteerism and vigilance.

The reasons are pragmatic in the best sense of the word.  It will not mean compromising our principles.  It only means staying focused on the task at hand and choosing the best means available to achieve it given the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The cause of justice will not be undermined.  The commissioners will sooner or later be made to answer for their actions.  While the automation contract has been nullified, the criminal liability of the electoral officials has not been proven. We must presume them innocent until a court of law finds them guilty, but we are not letting them off the hook.

The problem, of course, is that in allowing the elections to proceed under the direction of a Comelec leadership that is widely believed to be undeserving of public trust, we run the risk of producing electoral results that are especially vulnerable to any challenge.  In a sense, it is like retaining vampires to guard the blood bank.  In its present state, the country may not be able to weather another political crisis that this could trigger.

But what choices do we have?  If persistent public clamor compels the Comelec commissioners to resign, or if impeachment proceedings are initiated against them before the May elections, it is inevitable that the elections will be postponed until the new commissioners have settled on the job.  This will almost certainly mean that by June 30, when incumbents end their terms and must transfer their offices to the winners of the elections, the results won’t be ready. The framers of the 1987 Constitution did not foresee this situation.

The crux of the problem is the adverse public perception of the Comelec, especially in the light of the recent Supreme Court decision. The sentiment of many thoughtful people is that the Court’s latest decision is fatal to the legitimacy of the current Comelec commissioners.  I do not share that view. The Comelec is more than its commissioners.  And, though it may sound cynical, I think the public has seen too much incompetence and corruption in the recent past to demand unassailable performance and character from the commissioners as a requirement for keeping their posts. I also think the public may be inclined to forgive the Comelec’s countless lapses if the 2004 elections turn out, against all expectations, to be relatively peaceful, efficient, and honest.

Some good may in fact emerge from all the setbacks and obstacles that have so far marked our journey to political maturity. There is enough apprehension in the air today about electoral fraud to alert conscientious citizens to the need to protect the integrity of the ballot. The situation reminds me of the public mood during the 1986 snap election.  Nearly everyone expected that election to be so fraudulent that boycott seemed the only principled response to the dictator’s sinister plot. What in fact happened is that the snap election catalyzed unprecedented citizen action.  This surge of activism not only prevented fraud in many places but also awakened Filipinos to the lesson that democracy, if it is to be deserved, must be continuously fought for and defended.

Many of us have tended to think that if only we adopt the right laws and the right technology, everything would fall into place.  But that is not how democracy is built.  Every nation actually gropes its way to democracy, whose final form no one can predict because of the many contingencies that shape it.  It is better to think of democracy as an experiment whose outcomes are ultimately dependent on the quality and tenacity of public participation.

Saddled by deeply flawed institutions, how does a nation begin to achieve its collective purposes?  It would be tempting to start by apportioning blame and determining culpability for the current state of affairs.  That is a function the courts need to address in the name of justice, and there is surely time for that.  But a nation has other needs more pressing than seeking closure of its past.  Foremost of these is the survival of the people and their growth under a legitimate leadership. “Men make history,” said Marx, “but they must do so under circumstances not chosen by themselves.”  Worthy leaders are seldom deterred by defective institutions.  When everything seems not to work, they humbly accept their shortcomings and earnestly call on the people to help save the situation.

If such a call is made now, I have a feeling there will be a surge of volunteerism to save the 2004 election.


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