We end up electing the wrong people

I could see that similar feeling and thinking in Rappler’s recent Twitter conversation discussing elections in the Philippines. “Culture” is the easiest explanation and justification for anything that’s gone wrong in our society.

But why, really, are we underdeveloped? Why do we keep on electing the same people? Why are we not disciplined? Is it because of culture?

Culture is basically the “character of a people.” There’s a need to distinguish it from “behavior,” which is only a representation of culture. We often attribute to culture why we do what we do, but we are actually referring more to behavior. Behavior is what actions we take or decisions we make in response to certain stimuli. They can, in general, be anticipated.

Countries around the world, for example, while inhabited by different peoples with different cultures, share common reasons why politics and governance are better or worse. Politics and governance are determined primarily by the existence and extent of fair play, where everyone has the same opportunity to compete whether in business or for public office. 

Fair play is determined by the existence of institutions, established processes, and objective implementation of rules and regulations and a functioning bureaucracy and policy-making institutions. All in all, these may be considered a “system”—each part and the whole serve as a collation of social, political, and economic stimuli, or simply one big stimulus that people respond to.

Many names have been used to described our political system: clientelistic, patron-client, traditional, booty capitalist, to name a few. There’s a common explanation to all of these—the symbiotic relationship of a protective (supposedly nationalist) economy (best explained by Gerry Sicat) and a personalistic political system.

We have yet to develop our economy because of limited capital. We have limited capital because there are only a few families who have capital. And because of the economic restrictions in the Constitution, we’re stuck with the same families in practically all industries. The result is limited competition, if at all there is.

Limited competition means limited opportunities. And this is the link between economics and politics. Because running for office requires substantial amounts of money under our current system of personalistic politics, you have the same dominant names in business, which are also dominant names in public office. 

This is seen especially at the local level, where the mayor or representative to Congress probably would be the owner of the big hacienda or plantation or grocery store, public works contractor, or simply the main business in the area. So regardless of the name or title we use, the vicious circle we are in is due to the dynamics of economics and politics in the country.

The persistence of this personalistic system of politics is due in part to our economic system. Doing away with this political system would require the willingness of our leaders (who are mostly from the elite class) to change the rules of the political game.  The question is whether the elite will even consider changing the rules of the game, since the political system supports their economic dominance.

Elected monarchy

But the political system has to be changed. As it is now, we elect personalities (that’s why we say “personalistic”) because we don’t have real political parties to push policies and programs.

We don’t have real political parties, because most people don’t see any need for them. There are no incentives for real political parties. Political parties in the country are nothing but vehicles for campaign and election, so political leaders are part of a party in name, not necessarily in terms of the same policy or program direction. This is the presidential system that is more like a system of an elected monarchy, a winner-take-all system. 

Many studies—from Fred Riggs to Arturo Valenzuela and Juan Linz, to Arend Lijphart—show that parliamentary democracies are more successful than presidential democracies. The point of these studies is that political systems matter, more than the culture that purportedly explains how people behave.

In our current presidential system, regardless of the number of stakeholders (competitors in politics), only one is expected to win. But we are a very diverse country that has about 80 ethno-linguistic groups plus different socio-economic classes. Representation would have to be inclusive and not zero-sum like the presidential system.

Inclusive representation in a plural, multi-ethnic society like ours is possible only in a parliamentary system, which was espoused by no less than our founding fathers in the Malolos Constitution (as shown in the substantive debate between Apolinario Mabini and Felipe Calderon) and revisited by the statesman Claro M. Recto in a 1965 article in The Manila Times.

We elect the same politicians because in most instances, especially at the local level, there is not much of a choice. In instances where there are options, the choice could only be between personalities and not policies. The choice is only between personalities because there are no political parties, which we have tried to explain in the foregoing. This also explains why the public seems to not understand issues and end up making the wrong choice, electing the wrong person. 

There is no chance for the public to understand issues because issues (policies and programs) are not discussed sufficiently in public. More often, our leaders will even claim that there’s no use discussing issues or explaining policies and programs to the public because they will not understand in the first place. How can the public understand when there is nothing offered to the public to understand?

There are instances when we elect the right person for the job, but this happens in about one in 10 instances. The reason, again, is personalistic politics; the choice is about individuals. Each individual running for office will, of course, present his best side. Deciding which candidate is the best candidate therefore is limited to the individual characteristics that are promoted in the process.

Uncertainty in choices

This promotion of one’s characteristics also leads to downplaying the opponents’ personal characteristics, thus candidates resort to name-calling and dirt digging.  We often choose the wrong candidate or end up choosing the same politicians because there is not enough means to determine the candidate’s capacity as a leader and or policy-maker.

Other than how one looks, whether he is God-fearing or pro-environment and other motherhood claims, there could be not much to consider in choosing who one should vote for.

Of course, the traditional explanation of money, guns, and goons politics are already part of the equation. This is again explained by a political competition between politicians and not about policies and programs.

In the end, any choice does not and cannot have any certainty.

Why do we end up electing even those names that in history has brought us only poverty and misery?

The only explanation is that those who replaced the old set of leaders (including those who left government in infamy) are not that different and have failed to get us to where we have always been dreaming to be. We end up recycling politicians because there’s not much to choose from. Those who are qualified would rather not run, as it is expensive to run for office. So those who end up running are the ones who have always been running.

The civil society and the academe are already convinced of the need to change the political and economic system. Unfortunately, policy makers—the ones who can move to make the change—are the ones preventing it.

It will require enormous public pressure for a new system to be put in place. If there is considerable public pressure, similar to Edsa, then changing the system may be possible.

The alternative to this is short of a miracle. A leader who has enormous political capital that he can expend to bring about systemic-institutional change, however a difficult or divisive it might be. - Rappler.com

(Edmund S. Tayao is a professor at the University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science, and is executive director of the Local Government Development Foundation.)