May 08, 2016

Electoral quick fix

The rags-to-riches story line never fails to hook people onto sappy movies and telenovelas; to dream of better times amidst everyday misery.  Similarly, the get-rich-quick mentality drives many to endure long queues to get into "easy-money" game shows where thousands of pesos are won through plain luck; and, oh yes, to spend their last peso on that lotto ticket.  Both also  never fail to reinforce the illusion that the system works; that there is a chance (yeah, maybe one-in-a-million but a chance nonetheless) for the impossible dream to become a reality.

Periodic electoral exercises carry the same inspirational cum delusional line in politics.  Let’s do a run down of the line that we are made to swallow hook-line-and-sinker. To wit:

Elections are proof of democracy at work; each person — young and old, rich or poor, educated and illiterate, hero or heel — gets the chance to choose the country’s next leaders.
Through elections, at minimum, the electorate gets the chance to bring about a new government, better than the outgoing, usually discredited, one. Maximally, we get the chance to bring about big changes in government, politics and society.
The results of the elections, no matter how flawed, bloody and fraudulent, is the expression of the sovereign will of the people.

In truth, bourgeois elections, whether in the Philippines or in touted “mature democracies” in Western Europe and North America, are nothing more than a quick fix. Elections in elite-dominated democracies are systematically designed and upgraded to serve that purpose and has little to do with reflecting the will of the people nor reforming government and society.

The Free Dictionary defines a quick fix as “an expedient temporary solution, especially one that merely postpones coping with an overall problem.”  The Urban Dictionary defines it as “a shabby attempt at correcting a problem, which usually leads to bigger problems that could have been easily avoided by doing the job right the first time.” Google pops up this answer: “an easy remedy or solution, especially a temporary one which fails to address underlying problems.“

Elections act as a quick fix by design and by default.  The repeated ritual of elections is supposed to be a democratic system’s way of renewing itself.  The country’s leaders get a new mandate from the people in the tradition of the touted “social contract” between the rulers and the ruled.

But the way election campaigning and its coverage goes, most everyone’s preoccupation is with the candidates’ character traits, personality quirks, and supposed “track record”. (The latter usually falls into the public relations trap; i.e. how well the candidate has been able to build his or her public image. In this regard, more credence is given to those who have won a previous election by hook or crook.)

The focus on the candidate’s so-called qualifications as a measure of competence also tends to give undue weight to academic and professional credentials that favor the well-heeled and/or fortunate.

The emphasis on character and personality is consistent with the notion that the problem to be fixed is the leader’s brand of leadership.  Honest vs dishonest.  Compassionate vs indifferent.  Decisive vs namby pamby.  Action man vs all talk.  Experienced versus newbie.  Competent vs unqualified.  Refined vs boorish.

In the end, the change of regime brought about amounts to a mere change in the style of leadership.  In other words, the manner of exploiting and oppressing the people offered by different factions of the elite, with political power continuing to be dominated and controlled by the same set of oligarchs.

When attention is given to issues and problems, there is the tendency to highlight the superficial or the obvious or the concerns of the urban population. Most often cited are poverty, corruption, criminality, traffic, broken-down public infrastructure and lack of social services.

Problems that strike closer to underlying socio-economic and political-cultural maladies are often overlooked or set aside as too serious, incomprehensible and untranslatable to catchy sound bytes.  These include landlessness and rural poverty; the backward, preindustrial economy and chronic unemployment and underemployment; flawed economic policies and rising inequality; intractable armed conflicts and failed counterinsurgency programs; violations of the entire range of human rights by supposedly democratic regimes; and surrender of national and economic sovereignty amidst patriotic drumbeating.

Digging deeper into the root causes of long-standing social ills is still not the norm even during an election period when political discourse becomes a national pastime.

It follows that solutions offered are palliative and temporary rather than long-term: piece-meal rather than comprehensive; populist rather than substantive.  The electoral exercise is institutionalized not to provide real solutions; rather, these are designed to retain and maintain the unjust status quo while giving an appearance of being an avenue for change, for “fixing” things.

Elections also serve as a quick fix in the sense of providing a safety valve for a system straining under constant, in fact growing, pressure due to internal and external contradictions.

But no matter how noisy, how heated and polarizing; how bombastic and filled with exposés; how brimming with motherhood or feel-good rhetoric; or replete with curses, thinly-veiled or in-your-face — such are merely embellishments on an otherwise undemocratic exercise that portends more of the same.  Periodic elections cannot and have never been the source of wide-ranging and deep-going changes in Philippine society and governance.

In fact it is a pillar of elite rule.  All factions of the ruling elite of big landlords and big comprador capitalists and the myriad groupings of bureaucrat capitalists, whether elected or appointed, are one in upholding elections as sacrosanct democratic exercises that are the panacea to all of societal and government ills.  This is the magic potion that is sold by their slick propaganda machinery that is supposed to be the last recourse of a disgruntled citizenry in a democracy. (Even when liberal democratic principles and constitutions uphold the right of the people to rise up against unjust rule.)

Ergo the real work of the Commission on Elections under any administration is to ensure that every electoral exercise has a modicum or a semblance of “fairness, honesty and credibility” to preserve the status quo.  This, even as it facilitates and covers up the maneuvers of the different factions of the ruling classes vying to hold the reins of power (foremost of which are those of the ruling faction and the foreign interests behind it, especially the US).

Elections as quick fixes, no matter how ingrained the mantra of democracy, can only go so far in covering up the problems of a society in convulsive crisis and in pretending to provide the solutions — the “change” — that a people groaning under intolerable exploitative and oppressive conditions so desperately seek. #

Published in Business World
9 May 2016