Elections Are Like Water

Manuel Quezon III


Elections are like water, missed only in its absence

For the overwhelming majority of Filipinos who have no recollection of life before martial law, elections are like water – a requisite for political life, as essential for the body politic as water is for the human body. For the older generation, too, elections are like water – but as they view the arid desert that is our current political culture, they yearn for a time when the political landscape was lush, abloom with idealism, fragrant with the virtue of the leaders and the led, far, far removed from the horrifying sight of a nation tearing itself apart at the polls and beyond.

Elections are like water – a means of cleansing the body politic, a roaring torrent of votes channeled, like a river, to clean out the Augean stables every administration seems to become

In 1935, when the country had its first national election, fully a third of the voters didn’t bother to cast their ballots. We had a million and a half registered voters then, all male, all literate. We were looking forward to self-rule preparatory to full independence; it would seem logical that the voters would be interested in participating in the creation of the foundations of their future nation state. But a significant number were not, and the reason they were not should come as no surprise. The choices at the time were limited: three candidates for president, and of that limited number, one was the overwhelming favorite. The result was a foregone conclusion, and at a time when all seemed to be going well, a third of the electorate found no reason even to bother. Manuel L. Quezon won by a landslide, with 68 percent of the vote, against Emilio Aguinaldo and Gregorio Aglipay, neither of whom managed to get even 18 percent. In 1941, with women added to the roster of qualified voters, the turnout remained about the same, that is, a third continued to find it pointless to vote, even though the incumbent, Quezon, this time got 81 percent of the vote.

In the democracies we Filipinos like to envy, a turnout of 66 percent of registered voters would be phenomenal; the United States regularly involves a far smaller percentage of its population in elections that not only determine the direction of their country, but profoundly affect the rest of the world as well. The turnout of voters in the supposedly halcyon days of Philippine democracy before the war points to a defining characteristic of our democracy: that a sizeable majority of Filipinos have put, and continue to put, great stock in the voting process. The difference is that the predictable nature of our political and national development before the war was ended by a series of shocks and disappointments in the national trauma that was World War II.

Between 1941 and 1946, the Philippines went through six heads of government: Manuel L. Quezon, Jorge Vargas, Jose P. Laurel, Sergio Osmeña, and Manuel Roxas. Within that five-year period, two leaders contested the title of legitimate president of the Philippines (Laurel sponsored by the Japanese at home; Quezon, then Osmeña, sponsored by the Americans in exile). Taking sides was no longer a political business, it was a bloody business. There were collaborators and guerrillas, officials-in-exile and officials in the hills, officials in Manila who claimed to be secret guerrillas and officials who were overtly pro-Japanese.

The end of World War II and the first national elections held after the wartime trauma set the stage for elections as we know them today. The pretense of political virtue, so carefully nurtured prior to the war, was difficult to sustain in a nation for which voting had become a life-or-death matter. Before World War II, elections were like water – they had a sacramental aspect, the anointing of a leader by his people. After World War II, elections were like water – they were viewed not only as a means to cleanse away filth, but as a fundamental requirement for survival. Voters torn and divided, guerrillas, fake guerrillas, genuine collaborators and the unfairly accused, landlords who had fled their estates to seek refuge behind Japanese bayonets (and who now clung to America for dear life), disgruntled peasants – whatever their circumstances, survivors all – now had a desperate stake in the outcome of elections.

In the elections of 1946, genuine guerrillas, radicals, and leaders who had been ruthlessly defeated during the two decades of Quezon’s ascendance in national life fought desperately for their time in the sun. Behind Roxas rallied the orphaned apparatus of Quezon’s party machine, both guerrillas and collaborators, but most importantly those accused of collaboration for whom political survival offered their only prospect for rehabilitation and escape from disgrace. Both sides courted a destitute nation that viewed independence with mixed excitement and dread, conditioned to think of 1946 as the year in which the carefully-built-up development of the prewar years would find fruition, only to find that independence would be a flag waving over ruins emanating the stench of death and decay.

A nation literally parched, its infrastructure in ruins, its population decimated, its ideals proven woefully hollow by the war, viewed elections like water – and like the fight of parched people for water, the fight for the elections was desperate. 1946 saw no landslide, but a simple majority. It also saw vote buying, allegations of vote rigging, and election-related violence on a scale previously inconceivable. It would only get worse in 1949, when Elpidio Quirino won in an election that achieved shocking notoriety around the world for raising the dead and even drafting flora and fauna to cast votes. Yet in 1953, the much-anticipated deluge came, when the charasmatic Ramon Magsaysay beat Quezon’s 1935 record with 68.9 percent of the vote.

But by 1957 Magsaysay was dead. His successor, Carlos P. Garcia, in a field of seven candidates, was elected with just 41.3 percent of the vote. With the election of the first president by plurality, the Philippine political system of today was born. A nation doesn’t always have leaders with flair and charisma who, by hard work and ruthless plotting, like Quezon, or sheer flair and even greater charisma, like Magsaysay, dominate national life. The overwhelming majority of politicians are humdrum, devious, but not outstandingly cunning people, and it is impossible for someone always to shine.

Add to this the weaning of the electorate from an era in which politicians were expected to be reserved and to view appealing to the masses as a vulgarity not to be indulged. Furthermore, add the natural shift in tastes and expectations from those of the jaded and, in a sense, morally bankrupt generation of politicians active from before the war, to those of the young, brash generation that actually fought in the war or had grown up since. And add, further, the steady erosion of presidential power and institutional mechanisms, such as block voting, that Quezon had carefully put in place and that Magsaysay had wielded by sheer force of character. The following was the result:

Garcia was a president shorn of many of the basic levers of control that his predecessors had taken for granted. A president born and bred by the party machine, whose partymates had eliminated block voting, a bulwark of party-oriented voting. A president who inherited the steady removal of local government appointments from the perogative of the presidency, a process begun in response to the domineering nature but weak political gifts of Quirino. An old-style politician at a time after Magsaysay had eroded the ability of old-style politicians to achieve majorities by simply commanding their surrogates to issue instructions to voters. A man who spoke Spanish and who was inaugurated in an old fashioned cutaway, when the electorate far preferred the rustic, barong Tagalog-wearing style of the late Magsaysay. This was an electorate poised to raise to the Senate Rogelio de la Rosa, whose only qualification was as a matinee idol. Garcia was a president occupying an office that voters expected to be wielded with the aplomb and color of a Quezon or Magsaysay.

The problem was, Garcia was like neither of these men. What Garcia was, as he himself said, “was not stupid,” and for a time he and his successors proved that they were clever enough to grasp the remaining levers of power to make it to the presidency.

The popular vision of the presidency – both among voters and among politicians aspiring to the position – thus suffered from the larger-than-life personas of past presidents at a time when contemporary presidents could not (though try, they did) wield the powers of the executive with the same overarching authority and effectiveness. The means, under the law and under the system, simply wasn’t there. But expectations on the part of voters remained the same; the ambition afflicting politicians remained the same; and the intensity of popular interest in elections remained at the fever pitch it had been at since 1946, especially after the brief, meteoric rise of Magsaysay. Garcia was turned out by Diosdado Macapagal for much the same reasons Quirino had lost to Magsaysay, but Macapagal proved woefully ill-equipped to wield executive power. He was duly thrust aside in 1965 by Ferdinand E. Marcos, who eventually saw no other way to achieve the power he craved, and retain the position he had no intention of relinquishing, than by scrapping the system altogether.

In 1969 Marcos received 61 percent of the vote, giving him the fourth-highest percentage of votes in a national election and making him the only president to achieve a second full term. Just as Quezon had set out to change the system to make it more conducive to executive control, so did Marcos set the stage for something even more daring. This infrastructure-minded president would view elections as a dam – a means to channel political control, allowing him to irrigate the fields of his cronies, leave parched the lands of his opponents, and present to the people a pharaoh-like image of irresistible and indomitable will that could change the course of nature.The water in the vast manmade lake of Marcos’s New Society proved muddy, shallow, polluted, and foul. In 1986 the dam was breached and a more natural course of water flow restored. Corazon Aquino lost the official count but won where it counted, a moral victory in the eyes of her people and the world. From the start, she shed the reluctance of a shy widow for the increasingly confident role of a revolutionary restorer, accomplishing what her husband had set out to do – restoring elections, bringing back water, so to speak, to a nation parched for elections.

Cory Aquino was brought to power by election, indeed, by referendum, and she used elections-as-plebiscites as her key to maintaining legitimacy.

But the stage of development – or underdevelopment – of the political system that had emerged with the election of Garcia came back with a vengeance under Fidel Ramos, who holds the unenviable record of winning the smallest plurality (28 percent) in our electoral history. His success had a baleful influence on the idea of elections as legitimation for presidential governance. What was important in the post-Edsa [ed: 1986 People Power revolution] scheme of things was neither popularity nor machinery (his opponents had both), but tactical supremacy: doing the most with less. After the strange rise to power of Ramos, rejected by an overwhelming number of his countrymen, but esconced in the presidency anyway because he proved less unpopular than his opponents, it was no surprise that Joseph Estrada’s election six years later took on the characteristics of a landslide, although in fact, it wasn’t even a plurality as healthy as Garcia’s. Both Ramos and Estrada were minority presidents occupying an office burdened with expectations institutionally impossible to fulfill. At the same time, the electorate was increasingly polarized, desperate, and despairing; a change in popular tastes and mass communications made Joseph Estrada the heir of Rogelio de la Rosa.

Without Ramos’s tactical cunning and long experience at handling subordinates, Estrada proved inept at maintaining himself in power. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the other hand, had achieved a post-Edsa first: a near-majority [ed: Filipinos cast separate votes for president and vice-president]. This armed her with the ability to invoke a mandate of her own as putative successor to Estrada. When Estrada fled Malacañang Palace, Arroyo deftly moved in (to cut a long story short), but under circumstances so unique as to be denied the natural advantages a successor-president historically enjoyed as heir apparent, keeper of the flame, inheritor of legitimacy.

The 2004 presidential campaign was a quest for legitimacy – legitimacy lost by Estrada’s anointed candidate, not yet earned by the incumbent. A quest for legitimacy by other candidates who were dependent on neither the discredited leader in jail nor the incumbent grievously wounded by allegations that she deserved to be in jail as well. Both candidates and the electoral contest itself were overshadowed by the maturing of a political culture born in the 1960s, made ruthless in the 1970s, and morally bankrupted in the 1990s – yet which both leaders and led view through the rose-tinted spectacles of the struggle to restore credible elections in the 1980s. We have elections, just as we have water – not as the result of a rational, well thought-out plan of national action, but because of fits and starts by leaders who view voting as they view water – as handouts to inculcate gratitude among a mendicant populace.

The day must come when fully one-third of the electorate can decide to sit home and not vote, because whatever the results of the elections, nothing fundamental is at stake. Since 1946, the stakes have always been fundamental, which is why graft and corruption have always been fundamental national issues in those elections. What is at stake, for so many people, is the very hope of a life in which water, quite literally, can be theirs to drink and to bathe in, a life that isn’t measured in one faucet per barangay [neighborhood] and by garbage-infested canals.

Elections are like water – essential to the parched, a source of power to those who control it or even own it. Elections are like water – possessing different meanings for different people. Elections are like water – for us, at least, in a country where each upper-class swimming pool represents scorn for the many barangays that must line up hours for something murky and foul to drink.

Manuel Quezon III

Manuel L. Quezon III is a columnist and contributing editor at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and History Curator at the Ayala Museum.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6 (March 2005). Elections and Statesmen