The May 10 elections: Unique – But the Same

THE May 10 elections had certain unique characteristics. Overall, however, they were no different from past Philippine elections.

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Monopoly of the Elite

From 1947 to 1969 Philippine elections had been the monopoly of the Philippine elite, whose political parties were basically committed to the same policies of governance, but which differed from each other only in name and the personalities that dominated them.

It has even been argued that these parties do not have platforms, and therefore do not consciously adopt policies once in power. This is a simplification. Policies do exist. But, as if carved in stone, they have basically remained the same.

For over fifty years those policies have faithfully followed the demands of international funding agencies and other instrumentalities of US economic and financial interests through which the neo-colonial status of the Philippines is perpetuated. Those policies have also served to keep intact the dominant economic and social relations, such as the feudal system of land tenancy, despite tremendous pressures to address the poverty that is their consequence.

Given those policies’ remaining in force no matter what the regime, Philippine elections have basically been waged over who will wield power for the sake of personal and familial interests, rather than over the adoption of alternative programs of government.

Fraudulent and violent since Marcos

Because the economic spoils have been huge– even gargantuan, as was the case of Ferdinand Marcos, whose illegally acquired assets run into billions of dollars– the contention for political power among the elite is often fierce. From the very first post-“independence” elections in 1947, the contest for power among the elite has been characterized by violence, fraud and the corruption of the electorate.

All Philippine elections that followed were similarly flawed, giving rise to such descriptions of the process as “the politics of money,” “patronage politics,” the dominance of “guns, goons and gold,” and more recently, “traditional (trapo) politics.”

However, the “reelection” of Ferdinand Marcos to a second term in 1969 was different in that it marked one of the lowest points of the electoral process, the 1969 exercise being characterized by large-scale vote-buying, systematic fraud through the corruption of the supposedly independent Commission on Elections, collusion between the ruling group and other election officials, and wide-spread violence among warring political dynasties including those allied with Marcos. The May 10 elections is in the same category of difference in that it was the worst since 1992.

Marcos realized that the democratic façade of Philippine elections had become a hindrance to his remaining in power beyond 1973, given the prohibition on more than two presidential terms in the 1937 Constitution. In addition, Marcos also faced increasing resistance to the corruption of his rule from other elite factions, and even more importantly, from the people themselves.

Martial law: response to the growth of authentic democracy

In 1972 Marcos’ intention to remain in power was in danger of being thwarted primarily by the growth of authentic democracy through the people’s organizations that were demanding accountability from government as well as the participation in policy and decision making of the professionals, workers and peasants, urban poor and indigenous communities who had been denied a voice in their own governance in the three decades after “independence.”

The declaration of martial law in 1972 was, among others, an attempt by the bureaucrat-capitalist wing of the Philippine ruling elite to monopolize political power at the expense of other elite sectors. But it was also intended to quell the demands for the reform and democratization of Philippine society from its dis-empowered sectors.

As the leading representative of the bureaucrat-capitalist wing of the elite, Marcos succeeded in keeping himself in power and in suppressing the demand for democratization and social revolution only temporarily.

Progressive strides

As a result of the martial law experience, conditions in the aftermath of People Power 1 in 1986 made it possible for progressives to participate in the making of the 1987 Constitution. Because of their efforts, that Constitution included attempts not only to create a multi-party system, but also to prevent the return of authoritarian rule, among other progressive and nationalist provisions.

The ban on the President’s seeking a second term and his or her being limited to one six-year term was obviously meant to prevent the president’s use of government resources in campaigning for another term while providing him or her enough time to implement his or her program of government. But it also serves another purpose: that of preventing a president’s entrenching himself in power long enough for him or her to remain in power permanently.

On the other hand, a multi-party system rather than the so-called “two party system” was thought to be an antidote to elite monopoly over political power.

Towards this same end, and to encourage the development of program-based political parties, the Constitution also mandated the party-list system of representation, in which the parties of such under-represented sectors as labor, the peasantry, women, the urban poor, indigenous communities, professionals, etc.—the sectors that actually comprise the majority of the population– rather than individuals running by district would compete for 51 seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite these efforts to encourage democratic representation and efficient governance, however, the very first elections held under the auspices of the new Constitution, those of 1987, were characterized by the return of traditional politics and of many of its expert practitioners from the traditional power elite.

This was inevitable under the circumstances. The so-called “EDSA revolution” was a “revolution” limited to the ouster of Marcos and his cohorts, its leading lights having seen to it that it did not develop into an authentic revolution, and that it remained focused on restoring the power and privileges of the sectors of the elite Marcos had expelled from the political system.

The EDSA “revolution” thus lacked the social base that would have permitted the vast majority to take power, since the social relations dominant in Philippine society—such as the tenancy system, for example—were untouched due to the failure of the Aquino presidency to abolish it, despite the urging of even US counter-insurgency experts who saw tenancy as the seed-bed of revolution in the Philippines.

The return to traditional elite politics

In the elections that followed the Aquino transitional presidency as in those held before the martial law period, the result was the widespread use of money and influence, and even terrorism, by the political families including Marcos’ associates and kin.

During the Ramos presidency these families gained added strength, to the extent of permitting the return to the country of the Marcoses themselves. This led to the election of Marcos’ heirs to Congress and to other positions including governorships, even as his former associates, among them Eduardo Danding Cojuangco, regained their economic power and political influence through political parties supposedly established, ironically enough, in furtherance of the multi-party system sanctioned by the 1987 Constitution. Joseph Estrada was the front man of these Marcos heirs.

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