Why not a boycott?

If anyone had suggested in July 2005 that the correct response to the political crisis spawned by the Garci Tapes would be to wait for the 2007 midterm elections, that person would have been denounced as an agent of Malacanang.  Half of the members of the Arroyo Cabinet resigned that month, calling on the president they had served to spare the country and step down.  The streets and the corridors of public opinion reverberated with a single call: “Resign, or face ouster!”

Even former President Fidel Ramos, who had refused to join the call for resignation, proposed an exit scheme that would allow Ms Arroyo to gracefully leave the presidency in 2007, and pave the way for a parliamentary government under a new head of state.  But Malacanang’s illegal occupant would not be shamed or booted out. After reading an ambivalent apology for her “lapse in judgment” on national TV, she took the offensive and never looked back.

She did everything within her power to bury the Hello Garci scandal. Her paid assassins in the House of Representatives killed the two impeachment cases against her even before the substantive charges could be heard.  The military and police officers who figured in the tapes as having facilitated the rigging of the canvassing process in Mindanao on her behalf were either cleared or not investigated at all. All of them were rewarded with cushy positions.  The election officials identified in the tapes as among the Garci operatives who fabricated Ms Arroyo’s winning margins were subsequently promoted.  The police general, who is alleged to have harbored Virgilio Garcillano when the latter went into hiding to avoid a congressional investigation, is now defense secretary.

How the odds have shifted in just one year!  Today, hardly anyone in the political opposition remembers the crackling sound of “Resign or Face Ouster.”  This has been replaced by the insipid call to make the 2007 election a referendum on Ms Arroyo.

Boycott would be more sensible.  If we believe that tinkering with the Constitution is suicidal as long as the country is run by an illegitimate president, how could we possibly think that elections conducted by the same regime would be different?  Plain commonsense should tell us that the methods of wholesale fraud tested and crudely carried out in 2004 would have been quickly debugged by now, to be applied again in 2007.

What makes us pin our hopes then on the 2007 elections?  Has the Abalos-led Comelec suddenly become a reformed institution?  Are there new and credible faces in the agency at the provincial and municipal levels that would warrant our renewed confidence in the integrity of the electoral system?  Are there new fraud-proof technologies in place that might neutralize any attempt to doctor the results?  Are the opposition candidates so popular they can override any attempt at wholesale cheating?  Do we sense a surge of public vigilance of the kind the nation saw in the 1986 snap election?  Are we hoping that the Arroyo government, having survived the crisis, might be gripped by conscience and be more predisposed this time around to ensure a credible vote?

The answer to these questions is a big “NO.”  So why is there no call to boycott?  Why do we appear to embrace this year’s election with willful guilelessness?

In 2006, the opposition in Thailand called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections on the strength of the claim that then Prime Minister Thaksin had rigged the whole process.  They demanded the resignation of Thaksin, and, with him, the whole election commission. They called for a change in the election rules. The stand-off led to the jailing of the election commissioners and eventually to the sacking of Thaksin himself by a military coup.

Boycott, as far as I know, was never seriously considered an option by the present electoral opposition in the Philippines. Why?  There are two main reasons for this state of affairs.  The first is that, even after two people power transitions, our political system continues to be dominated by traditional politicians who view elections as nothing more than the private pursuit of political power.  To them nothing is more basic than their irresistible need to get something for themselves under any circumstances.  No wonder they can switch with great ease from opposition to administration.

The second is the public’s fear that boycott may produce situations that cannot be controlled.  They demand to know where things are likely to go before they commit themselves to any line of action. They do not like Gloria, but they are equally distrustful of many of her possible replacements.  Profoundly affected by the disappointing outcomes of past political ruptures, they now tend to regard any deviation from the beaten path as dangerous and futile adventurism.

There is a third possible reason for the lack of any serious consideration of boycott as an alternative to participation in a manipulated election – the absence of a moral leader who would champion political reform.  After the 2004 election, that role slid into the hands of Susan Roces, FPJ’s brave widow.  Everyone applauded her at Club Filipino for her eloquent rejection of Ms Arroyo’s shallow apology, taking this rare appearance as a signal of her political coming of age. But she either did not want the role, or she felt she was not cut out for it.  In any case, when she did not step up to the plate, it was Erap who came forward.  The deposed leader’s public clout remains amazingly undiminished, but he is not a moral symbol who could lead a boycott or a winning slate.  And the times call for one.


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