The making of the masa vote

By “masa,” I refer to the class of voters that pollsters identify with the so-called “E” and the middle and lower rungs of the “D” strata.  They constitute roughly about 60 to 75% of the nation’s voting population. The existence of such huge numbers at the bottom of the social ladder attests to the gravity and persistence of poverty in our country. It also gives us an idea of the kind of forces that drive Philippine elections in our time.

Joseph Estrada rode to the presidency in 1998 on the wings of the masa vote.  Fernando Poe Jr. is likely to follow the same route if his detractors fail to stop his candidacy.  And President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is pulling out all stops in a frenzied effort to buy the gratitude of the poor, hoping to split their vote.  What she lacks in charisma she is determined to make up for by acts of patronage.  She has a long way to go.  No matter how one looks at it, this is going to be the most expensive election in the nation’s political history.

The masa or the poor have not always played such a decisive role in our elections.  Up to the time of Marcos, their numbers were part of what analysts call “command” votes. These are votes that ward leaders, stewards of bailiwicks, political parties, and other interest groups confidently promise and deliver to their principals.  Command votes have diminished over time, mainly, I think, as a result of the political emancipation of the poor from their traditional patrons and handlers.  Political strategists are now more interested in the socalled “market” votes, voters without permanent loyalties, who respond to a broad range of messages and enticements.

In the past, the poor did not have political opinions of their own.  They trusted and relied on the judgment of those whom they respected or feared in their communities, those who wielded moral and economic power over them.  These were the landlords, religious leaders, the few respected professionals in their communities, and the active movers and shakers of local electoral contests.  That era has passed without our realizing it.

Thirteen years of Martial Law killed the traditional political parties and made elections meaningless exercises.  But more importantly, with the advent of overseas contract employment in the mid-70s, many were freed from the circuits of the feudal system.  Because of workers’ remittances, cash began to circulate in the countryside, permitting the country’s poor to enjoy modern conveniences that until then had been the exclusive privilege of the rich and the middle classes.  Access to television exemplified this limited form of democratization.

The phenomenal spread of television broke the isolation of the masa from the national life.  Television networks had to adjust to the new reality that the bulk of their viewers were no longer the middle and upper classes.  The first adjustment was in the language used. They began airing more programs in Filipino, although these were at first mainly sitcoms and variety shows.  Until1986, news and public affairs programs were broadcast entirely in English, mirroring the print media’s bias for English as a medium of serious political discourse. Things changed very fast after the Edsa People Power uprising.  The democratization of television viewership compelled the use of Filipino as the language of public opinion.  It produced the unintended but salutary effect of awakening the poor to their political rights.

Unlike in the past when the masa felt so estranged from public affairs that they had to turn to their moral elders and political overseers for advice on national issues, today they confidently express their views on nearly everything.  We can say that because serious opinion need no longer be made in English, the masa have recovered the power of public speech.

Of course, the information they need to be able to make sound judgments on the weighty issues of the national life may not always be adequate.  What is important is they now believe they know enough about the workings of government to feel entitled to trust their own political instincts.  The spread of television has also had the effect of demystifying politicians, and removing the awe with which the poor used to regard personalities in public life.  It is the political class that has suffered most from this sea change in consciousness. Professional politicians, with only a few exceptions, are no longer regarded as a noble breed, but as a class of opportunists and dishonest persons.  This revulsion partly explains why the masa are turning to popular non-politicians for leadership.

It is unfortunate that the disgust for professional politicians has also encouraged among the poor a dangerous anti-intellectualism. Betrayed by the educated, they now tend to disparage the importance of solid education as a condition for effective leadership in a complex world. What is crucial to them is sincerity above all, and we can hardly blame them.

To have leaders our people can trust is a good beginning.  It will bring to our society the unity it so badly needs. But it is not enough.  Much work lies ahead.  We need to reinvent our institutions so they can draw strength from the instincts of our people.  We have to rebuild our communities from the ruins in which the haphazard march to modernity has left them.  That is how a nation is built.