Wages of distrust

In a survey conducted shortly before the May 14 election, 40% of the respondents said they expected the administration to cheat, while 56% said they did not believe the administration would do so. It is clear by now that a climate of pernicious distrust attended and shaped the conduct of the last election. This explains the incredible slowness of the canvassing of the votes, and the countless controversies and legal issues that are being spawned in the process.

Advocates of electoral reform would be wrong to think that all this could be prevented by creating more rules and more checks, or by summoning greater public vigilance.  Elections will never become right if the public distrusts the people who run them.  Our election code is already one of the most elaborate in the world: to introduce more regulation may only choke the system.  Similarly, to call on people power to guard every stage of a complex process is to demand too much of citizens.  It is to invite chaos, and to squander a precious resource that should be tapped only for extraordinary situations.  No government is possible if citizens are in a perennial state of mobilization.

The more direct way of curing the existing distrust in our electoral system is to get rid of election officials we cannot trust and to replace them with people of proven integrity.  We fall back on people power – the real sovereign — only when every institution has been compromised, and there is an urgent need to restore faith in government.  We have used it before — to shame and drive away those who have betrayed the public trust.

We cannot afford to remain prisoners of perpetual distrust. Where distrust prevails, every mistake is at once taken as proof of malice. Every action we do not agree with is demonized.  Every delay in the performance of a function is seen as ill-motivated and gives birth to a political scandal.

Yes, we must be vigilant, and we must expose the tricks of deceitful operators.  But, life would ground to a halt if we premised our daily actions on the chronic fear of swindlers and cheats.  We would be bogged down in petty detective work. We have no choice but to trust that the world is generally as we think it is and that people are more or less what they present themselves to be.

But trust grows only where violations and deviations – when discovered – are quickly and uncompromisingly dealt with.  That’s how norms are built, and how people learn to trust the system and follow the law.  Distrust festers when some people are perceived to be beyond the reach of the law because of their power.  Unchecked, it spreads to every institution of society, rendering collective life untenable.  Obviously, this is what happens when citizens intensely distrust their government, yet cannot rely on the normal political process to dislodge its occupants.

On Election Day, I accompanied a small group of foreign observers and local media to various schools in Pampanga where the voting precincts were located.  I noticed that in almost every precinct we visited, the reading of the ballots proceeded rather smoothly.  I was surprised to see that in most of these precincts there were no watchers peering over the shoulders of the teachers.  Many of the socalled poll watchers were doing their own tallies as the votes were being read by the teachers. That, to me, is trust.  And it is obvious that our defective electoral system has managed to function all this time by riding piggyback on the credibility of public school teachers.

In contrast, at the municipal and provincial level, where much of the fraud is expected, the canvassing of Pampanga’s votes has proceeded at a snail’s pace.  Having heard how dagdag-bawas (vote padding and shaving) massively corrupted the results in the 2004 presidential election, lawyers representing the candidates have found it necessary to scrutinize every document presented. At the same time, supporters of major candidates mount day and night vigils to protect the integrity of the count, even as some presumptuous candidates proclaim themselves winners before the first return has even been canvassed.  In the presence of impatient crowds, election officials understandably feel vulnerable when security forces are not around.

At one point of the municipal canvass in Porac, one of the election returns submitted for canvassing was found to be the copy meant for the dominant minority party.  The document caused quite a stir before it was set aside.  The switch could be an honest mistake, and not a sly attempt to rig the process.  But in the current poisoned climate of Pampanga politics, this small event was enough to trigger heightened vigilance to the point of paranoia.  This atmosphere is typical for the rest of the country.

Political trust was at its lowest in 2005, after the discovery of the “Hello Garci” tapes.  Nothing has been done to lift the distrust that has since shrouded our political system. But there are at least three significant steps that could be taken in this direction. First, the administration restrains its operators from further fiddling with the May 2007 election returns. Second, the present Comelec commissioners immediately resign their posts, and, in their place, the president appoints individuals of proven integrity and capability. And lastly, Ms Arroyo affirms a previous statement she made years back in a moment of candor — that her presidency has brought so much divisiveness to the nation’s life, and pledges to completely withdraw from public life at the end of her term in 2010, or sooner.


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