Aquino's Challenge: Electoral Reform

THE world's most devastating volcanic eruption in a century is only the latest of a series of natural and man-made challenges to the Philippines' new democracy. Having survived Mt. Pinatubo and seven coup attempts against her government, President Corazon Aquino admitted, in her sixth and final State of the Union address, that poverty and instability have humbled her. "Cory" still received two dozen ovations for a speech that spoke of "the glory of democracy that its most solemn moment should be the peaceful transfer of power." But in recent votes, the old "oligarchy" has won most elective positions, and opinion polls by the Ateneo de Manila University show that the public still expects "goons, guns and gold" to influence elections. Producing fair elections next May will be no simple task, and President Aquino must move to improve the electoral code, which still poses obstacles to political parties seeking to verify the vote tallies. One hopeful sign was Aquino's nomination last March of Christian Monsod to become chairman of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) last March. The resulting flurry of protests was ironic; Mr. Monsod developed the civic electoral monitoring organization used in Chile and parts of Eastern Europe in recent elections, a system that ought to be used in all new democracies. In the 1987 legislative elections, the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) - which exposed President Ferdinand Marcos's attempts to rig the 1986 elections - did not contest the election of many traditional politicians, derogatorily called trapos (Tagalog for "dirty rag"). They had used the "ward system" similar to the American use of patronage offered to those who could deliver votes. In the Philippines, because of the relative ease of cheating and the ability to bribe poor voters, the ward sy stem has been widely used in place of debates on issues. A study by the University of the Philippines condemned the 1987 work of NAMFREL and COMELEC, but the sad truth is that there was no cheating by these organizations: Elections simply have failed to elicit new politicians who are as interested in the welfare of the majority as they are in their own power. AGRARIAN countries around the world are discovering, as in the Philippines, that once a dictator has been removed, tenant farmers are not as likely to vote for dramatic change. Instead, the old power structures have reemerged, dominated by landlords from large families. Persistent problems go unsolved because the same kind of people are still in charge. Nevertheless, the crucial role of electoral commissions and citizens' monitoring committees has been overlooked during the era of dictators seeking simply to alter the vote counts. To reduce the influence of "power brokers," poor citizens must work for accurate voter registration lists, improve the vote counts on a local level, and insist on automated control over all electoral documents to prevent substitution by officials. The dozen presidential candidates actively campaigning in the Philippines are dominated by traditional politicians, including a former movie star, Sen. Joseph "Erap" Estrada, and former Agrarian Reform Commissioner Miriam Defensor Santiago. It will take time before less elitist candidates emerge in Philippine politics and take up the cause of poverty reduction more seriously. However, the window for the evolution must and can be kept open if the cause of electoral reform continues. The momentum of the "people power" revolution can be continued in the Philippines and those countries inspired by it if traditional politics can also be replaced with a worldwide campaign for enlightened politics advocating honest politicians interested in the public welfare. That trite statement can change policies which have too often prevented economic competition and lower prices that the oligarchy have traditionally fought. A different kind of politician could help farmers get their fair share of revenues and lower prices for consumers by ending the privileges of protected monopolists that have dominated the Philippines for centuries.

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