Most Filipinos, especially the educated ones, have always blamed the poor for the kind of leaders they elect. To them, that we have corrupt leaders is the fault of those who willingly sell their votes to elect these people. As if bribery and vote-buying were legitimate while the poor who accept money in exchange for their votes are guilty as hell.
Thus, the dumbing of the electorate, majority of whom are poor, is the voters’ fault and not the handiwork of powerful and rich politicians. Why this upside-down view of reality?
We need to review our political history as a nation to fully understand why we have this skewed perspective of who we are.
In 1902, then U.S. Governor General of the Philippines William Howard Taft wrote a book, Political Parties in the Philippines, where he examined the historical development of Philippine political parties and analyzed the level of political maturity of Filipinos. Taft wrote that Filipino politicians have yet to learn the idea of individual liberty and the practical elements of a popular government. He recommended the establishment of a popular assembly, to be composed of affluent Filipino politicians, to serve as a training ground for self-government. This assembly became the Congress of the Philippines, and the Jones Act of 1916 created the Senate replacing the Philippine Commission.
The membership of the Philippine Congress then was oligarchic at the time, which makes the present-day Congress not that all different. A representative democracy that draws upon all classes in society did not develop and it was partly the fault of the American colonial rulers. The Americans did not change the Filipino social structure. They merely imposed a political system that allowed the existing social structure to gain political power. Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute Congress resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuated their hold on political offices.
An oligarchic and elitist social structure was allowed to flourish by the American colonial rulers. In an article, “The Philippine Muddle,” for Harper’s Magazine in 1926, William Howard Gardiner, who also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Navy and State Departments, wrote that mostly Chinese and Spanish mestizos were able to absorb the new emphasis on English, academics and American political history in the school curriculum at the time. The great masses, the common tao, who were children of peasants, virtually were left out uneducated and uninstructed in anything that would help them live their peasant lives more effectively.
The mestizo politicos, otherwise known as ilustrados, would eventually lord over the wretched millions of ordinary people who were ruthlessly exploited and forced to be absolutely subservient. Assisted by politically-appointed justices of the peace and fiscals, or magistrates and prosecuting attorneys, these mestizo politicos would hold the common folk in servile bondage, while the chief politico in each barrio would tell them how to vote. While it was the result of natural mestizo cupidity, Gardiner wrote that “it has been possible only because of the political incapacity of the tao millions and because of American neglect and ignorance of Philippine conditions. But as the power to prevent or to correct is ours, we Americans and not the natives, whether politicos or taos, are at fault.” Instead of presiding over the evolution of a sound popular self-government, American colonial rule established the foundation for patronage politics which engendered the formation of oligarchic elites.
Now, to blame the poor or the “taos” for the corruption, bribery and vote-buying we have at present does not comport well with our political history. It is the elitist contempt of the uneducated poor that the self-denying educated classes propagate whenever they blame the masses for their political and economic misery, as if this condition is self-inflicted and there is no one to blame but themselves. On the balance of power, the perpetrator of corruption or the one who bribes and buys votes has all the necessary means to exploit the poor. The poor never get elected and the corrupt politicians maintain their stranglehold of power, which in turn they abuse to recoup the money spent for their election and to amass their illegal wealth.
Corruption in politics is not endemic to the Philippines. On a much larger scale, corruption is also prevalent in the U.S., the Philippines’ role model for governance since colonial times. It is even more worrisome in the U.S. because its Supreme Court has ruled that corporations in Citizens United are also people and have a right to free speech. This led one American writer to comment that “the Supreme Court has defined democracy as a branch of capitalism, right up to the point of actual vote-buying. And actual vote-buying is a pretty low-rent form of corruption anyway.”
Citizens United struck down certain restrictions on political spending by corporations, which according to the U.S. Supreme Court, more particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. What this means is that corporations are no longer restrained in spending millions in supporting the election of their candidates and their political programs as they are only exercising corporate speech which ought not to be censored.
In effect, Citizens United amounts to massive vote-buying, measured in millions of dollars spent by corporations in television advertisements and political contributions with the end in view of influencing the results of the elections. This gives corporations a very big right of speech while giving others a very small right. As a result, it damages equal citizenship, making corporations more equal than others. Worse, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, this is democracy at work.
Vote-buying in the Philippines thus pales in comparison to the limitless ability of American corporations to influence the electoral process. What has been made legal by a court decision, the other one is blameable to the poor for accepting the bribe. Both ways, they make a mockery of democracy.
Since accepting a bribe in exchange for a vote is illegal under Philippine law, it is interesting to find out how many have been actually charged and prosecuted in court. The height of hypocrisy is when there is a bigger number of people charged for accepting bribes than those politicians and their followers for bribing voters.
The common denominator between Citizens United and vote-buying in the Philippines is who has the money, the most amount of wealth that can be used to influence the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United affirms that those who have economic power, i.e., large private corporations, will always have the upper hand over the small citizen whose right of free speech is no match to that of the corporation in determining the result of the election. On the other hand, the oligarchy and wealthy families have more access to political power in the Philippines because they have the means to buy votes or even rig the electoral process in their favour. The poor have been made the scapegoat of the rich for the election of corrupt leaders as if they have a choice, their lack of discernment equated to their class status and lack of education.
Filipinos need to put a stop to this blaming game. It’s not the poor who are responsible for vote-buying and corruption. We need to build a foundation for a strong idea of democratic citizenship, one that is not just based on who has the money or wealth to buy votes to influence the elections. Otherwise, we will always get the kind of democracy we pay for, which is not much democracy at all.