Build with every vote

Electing public officials is the most important act of any citizen in any democracy. Here we choose people who will have the power to make decisions that bind all of us. If we try to do it rationally, we will find that it is also one of the most complex things we can do in life.

At the minimum, voting rationally entails: (1) knowing the issues that matter to the nation at this time, (2) drawing a set of clear criteria based on these issues, and (3) assessing all the candidates on these criteria. This is not an easy task, and it is natural to look for a system that will simplify it. Voting rationally means being able to reflect critically on the criteria we use and the electoral choices that result from them.

Recently, the diocese of Bacolod came under fire for urging Catholics to reject candidates who supported the reproductive health bill and to choose only those who voted against it.  Critics believe, and I agree, that this is an oversimplification that unjustly leaves out of account the record of candidates on many other relevant issues. I would be more interested to know whether a candidate’s vote on the RH bill grew out of a principled and well-reasoned conviction, and was not merely an opportunistic move.

The same applies to those who would instantly eliminate candidates by virtue of their affiliation to political families. Indeed, there are variations of this criterion. Inquirer columnist Winnie Monsod, for example, draws a restrictive line on political dynasties. She would only reject candidates who are spouses, parents or grandparents, children or grandchildren, and siblings of current public officials.

I am sympathetic to the antidynasty cause, but I am open to the idea of voting for someone who might fail this criterion but demonstrates exceptional leadership on other issues. At the same time, I do not fault those who feel so strongly about this issue that they would set it as the bottom line in assessing the suitability of candidates for public office. The American intervention in Vietnam and Iraq at one time dominated the elections in the United States so much that voters were prompted to cast their ballots on the basis of this single issue. What is crucial, I think, is two things: one, that we can explain to others why we shouldn’t compromise on a crucial issue; and two, that we are open to taking a second look at our choices if only to see that they are not unduly impoverished by this criterion.

In truth, these are concerns that trouble basically the middle class and the educated. For the rest of our people, I’m afraid it is the culture of patronage that dictates the choices they make on Election Day. They vote largely in expectation of the accessibility promised by ties of ethnicity, kinship, and other personal connections. Objectionable as this may be, it is a perfectly rational way of simplifying electoral choice in a society with sharp inequalities in wealth, power, and privilege.

Traditional political clans know this culture only too well. Apart from the cash and assorted goods dispensed on voting day, it is the norm of reciprocity activated by agents of this system that carries the greatest weight. These political workers have a way of determining the loyalties of households in any given community.  They give money basically to affirm a household’s relationship to the patron, and not so much to buy its votes.

In view of this, candidates running for national office have little choice but to negotiate with local politicians to have their names included in the sample ballots farmed out on voting day. This costs some money, but more than the cash, it is political influence at the top that is avidly sought here. This is how people with absolutely no qualifications get appointed to government positions. One can only imagine how much local influence is being tapped and tacitly pledged in exchange for future favors when the Vice President, the leading presidential contender in 2016, goes around aggressively pushing for the incredible candidacy of his daughter.

In the modern world, the simplification of political choices is performed for society by the political parties. It is the basic function of these specialized organizations to aggregate a wide range of social interests and integrate these into coherent programs of government. On the basis of these programs, parties recruit and prescreen the candidates they offer to the electorate. Thus, one votes not so much for a person as for a party program. So vital is this function to society that most governments give subsidies to political parties so they can do their work properly.

Because we live in a society that is far from modern, electoral choice has little to do with political programs. The absence of platform-based parties compels the electorate to focus almost wholly on candidates’ personal qualities. In this terrain, it is the familiar names and those who have the money and the political network that have the advantage. Ironically, we tend to be more demanding with the newcomers. We think that, if they are to be the alternative, they should be brilliant, well-informed, and pure.

One of my friends told me the other day that she might opt to skip voting altogether. Her strict standards had left her with no names worth considering. Not even Risa Hontiveros? I asked. Unlike in 2010, she said, she no longer felt enthusiastic about voting for Risa. Her reservations had nothing to do with the social causes Risa champions. But I could sense the frustration in her comment. This is what I told her: We have to build with every vote; we do not vote only when we have the perfect candidates.

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