Simplifying voter judgment

Since I have been filing my income tax in Pampanga for some years now, I feel duty-bound and entitled to cast my vote at my old precinct in Betis, where I spent my childhood. I continue to list our ancestral home in this province as my permanent residence even if I have lived and worked in Metro Manila for much of my adult life. This habit of place has its costs. When one doesn’t follow the local scene and doesn’t know the local candidates, voting responsibly can be quite a challenge.

While I am usually up-to-date on the candidates for governor and congressman, I tend to be clueless when it comes to the names of those vying for the many other local positions. In such a situation, it is almost natural to base one’s choices on what is familiar. This bothers me because, as a sociologist, I am conscious of the tyranny of name recall. I have tried to shield myself from its insidious effects by taking a few hours, before I cast my vote, to review the qualifications of the candidates based on the campaign materials they have distributed. In the absence of any such information, I ask my siblings and neighbors what they think about each candidate. Only then do I proceed to compose my list.

Still, there have been instances when, pressed for time, I ended up voting straight for the candidates belonging to the slate of the mayor or governor I have chosen. This is much simpler, and it is how it is done in societies where political parties take their functions seriously. I also think that any local executive who is worthy of my vote should find it easier to govern if the other officials who got elected with him came from the same party. Governance is so complex it cannot be the work of just one person. We should be electing teams rather than individual politicians.

But, for reasons I have not completely figured out, our political habits tend to favor the election of people who are expected to continually check one another, rather than work together under a common program. Thus, we like electing presidents and vice presidents who come from two opposing parties. We select the nation’s chief executive from one party, and then elect an opposition legislature to stop the former from carrying out his program of government.

We probably think we are being clever that way. But, this formula, based on distrust, is more likely to ensure gridlock and/or horse-trading, rather than promote healthy debate and check and balance. I am hesitant to say if the shift to a parliamentary system could cure this dysfunction, knowing that such a system requires stable political parties and a nonpartisan civil service. But, maybe, the root of the problem goes deeper.

Perhaps it comes from not knowing not only who we are voting for, but also what we are voting them for. Let me explain. I imagine that the average Filipino voter chooses his/her senators in much the same way people who come home only during elections choose their municipal councilors—i.e., blindly or without much thought, or based on simple name recall or first impressions. There is hardly any effort to understand the function of the positions being filled, and no inclination to scrutinize and compare candidates’ qualifications to see who among them can best perform the duties attached to these positions. In this sense, modern politics is just too dense an affair for most of us.

We seek something to help reduce this complexity, and find it in familiarity. A feeling of familiarity stabilizes our expectations and tames our apprehensions about the future. “Familiarity is the precondition for trust as well as distrust,” says the sociologist Niklas Luhmann (Trust and Power, 1979). “In familiar worlds, the past prevails over the present and the future. The past does not contain any ‘other possibilities’; complexity is reduced at the outset.”

In our still undifferentiated world, the figures that loom large on our everyday horizon—sports heroes like Manny Pacquiao and movie heroes like Fernando Poe Jr.—are icons of trust from the outset. Their command over our consciousness easily spills beyond the spheres in which they originally built their fame. As good as they are in their fields of origin, it is almost disrespectful to doubt that they can be good political leaders as well. That is the effect of trust.

It is what Grace Poe is banking on as she makes her bid for the presidency. Her greatest source of strength is the past, where her father’s memory resides. She says she is running to continue what her father began. It is almost sacrilegious to ask what her father began, or how she herself will govern if elected president. Trust simply does not deal with such questions.

It is the same thing with Pacquiao: Despite his professed religiosity, the champ seems to be incapable of seeing into himself. Elected representative of his province, he cannot understand why his legislative duties should take precedence over his boxing commitments. Of 70 sessions in which his presence was required in the current Congress, he had time to attend only four, and now he plans to be senator! The wonder is how the various political parties are falling all over themselves in vying for the honor to have him in their tickets.

Name recall, familiarity, emotional connection, iconic stature—these are the basic elements that shape voter judgment in our kind of elections. That is why so much time and resources are spent constructing these in the mass media, while only a few bother to ask what kind of future awaits the country in the next few years and what kind of leaders we need to ensure the nation’s continued progress.

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