What makes people vote? This has to be one of the most pressing questions frequently tackled in political science and government discourse with regards to voter turnout, although little attention has been paid as to why large numbers of Filipino electorates often refuse to take it to the polls. Official data from the National Anti-Poverty Commission indicates that roughly 70% to 80% of eligible voters aged 17 to 21, who comprise a significant bulk of the country’s population, either have little interest in politics or refuse to participate in electoral procedures.
Analyzing voting behavior and political perceptions, especially in new electoral democracies and postcolonial societies, may be a daunting task as it opens up a wide range of debates and discussions. Voter participation in the Philippines is generally low but a much lower participation rate from the youth sector could have serious implications to the country’s future electoral process. This is a given reality in many developing countries plagued by a highly bureaucratic colonial legacy that continues to haunt the present-day political system.
The spectacle of public participation in a relatively young democratic system is an interesting case study given the complicated dynamics of Philippine politics, a country with a long tradition of partisan politics, electoral fraud and violence which, since its independence, has led to meager electoral participation rates. Close observers also cite the lack of public awareness and knowledge on electoral procedures coupled by an established culture of pessimism and indifference towards political affairs. For a country in the verge of social and economic change, it is yet to be seen as to whether or not a mature voting population would emerge in the future to sustain the election of reform-oriented and responsive leaders into public office.
For today’s generation, political apathy has become the norm. Many do not take elections seriously. The mere thought of going to the polls is often perceived as toxic and mediocre. These people are literally allergic to politics. They often speak of it with negativity and would rather not want to get involved in it. More worrying is the fact that many of them also belong to the middle and upper classes, often some of the most able and educated individuals you will ever meet. So, what exactly discourages them from voting?
- Long Registration Process – Nobody would willingly stand in long queues, especially if it takes hours until one finally gets attended to by the few registration officials amidst the scorching heat. Providing identification documents and verification for the encoding of every registrant could take quite a while. After all, not many local precincts in the country are air-conditioned or properly ventilated, which can tests the patience of many individuals who later end up questioning whether the whole process was even worth it or not.
- Guilt and Self-Loathing – Many believe that their participation alone already sustains the prevailing system as the same kind of politicians gets elected into office every election. They view their own involvement as a major form of promoting corruption thinking they are not capable of choosing the right leaders while many of their electoral counterparts would give in to selling their votes anyway. Many often feel ashamed and only have themselves to blame every time a scandal breaks out on an official they have elected in the polls.
- Association to Fraud and Violence – The Philippines, just like many politically unstable postcolonial countries today, has a long history of violence associated to elections. For a long time, voting methods as well as counting and tally procedures were done manually. Prior to the era of automated polls, violence and wanton fraud was the norm as ballot boxes (containing the votes) were often replaced or stolen. This was done either under the table or by force. Oftentimes, many election officials, observers, voters and innocent civilians were killed in the process. Hence, voting precincts have been long perceived as inherent “danger zones” in the Filipino conscience. The thought of voting itself has long discouraged many citizens to participate in elections due to these monstrosities.
- Connotations of Mediocrity – They are all the same. Nothing will ever change. Qualification-wise, there is no law that requires a politician to be highly educated. A few years of high school or college would already do. It is obviously popularity and financial influence that matter. With this comes the notion that many elected officials do not have the academic background or experience since it is only money connections that determine an individual’s election into public office. The majority of our electorates choose actors, entertainers, basketball players, boxers and the offspring of old politicians instead of social workers, academicians, human rights advocates, scientists and environmentalists. Alternative politicians who are pro-poor and development-oriented are rare. Those that do have the qualification are either in the private sector or out of the country. If there are any, they only constitute an acute minority.
- False Hopes – They refuse to live up on false hopes in a ‘dysfunctional system’. This pessimism comes from the one dark truth that most of the country’s leaders are members of political dynasties, often landed and monopolistic elites that have clung to power for generations to secure their interests. They are the main reason why the struggle for genuine agrarian land reform, social security and a fairer distribution of wealth were never realized. A new breed of politicians consisting of celebrities who used their fame to reap votes has emerged in recent decades. Most of them rarely have the qualifications or leadership skills to serve efficiently. In other words, politics was a means to ensure their personal safety nets upon retirement. It is virtually impossible for a commoner to enter politics without the financial and social means to manoeuvre campaigns and garner votes for a position in government.
- Negative Media Publicity – A lot of public negativity associated to elections and politics per se is largely influenced by mass media. We apparently have a “free media” that exposes virtually everything about the government and its “private” affairs – even the negative and the scandalous. The more controversial, the better. The negative always gets the headline article or breaking announcement. Our press is “freer” than many of our neighbors that foreign commentators hail us for having the “freest” press in Asia, which by default also makes us one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Unlike many of our neighbors, our press culture is sadly not tailored to accompany national growth or development. It rather goes against it and scares investors away. Above all, it gives our own electorates very negative image of our government.
- They’re only after a Voters I.D. – Magkakaroon ba kami ng Voters ID? Many eligible voters will tell you frankly that their main intention of visiting their precinct is that small piece of documentation they put so much value on, nothing else. It is a valid government identification card accepted in banks and government offices issued gratis to registrants by statute, although no existing law requires them to vote. But most of them won’t even bother to vote anyway. They would go as far as harassing the registration officials – who often have nothing to do with its processing – if they do not receive their card as if it were the only thing that mattered about the elections. It is basically the only thing they want from the whole registration process, which makes them full-blown free riders.
- They can live without it – They don’t even think it concerns them in the first place. Whether they vote or not will not affect them in any way. Not many are quite enlightened about the fact that the laws and policies enacted by officials govern us from womb to tomb: From the rights of the fetus upon conception, parental obligations upon birth, to the taxes they impose on us, policies on education, labor and civil matters, and up to the time of death when corpses need to be registered and laid to rest. Apparently, even the dead have rights. They are not quite aware that politics literally covers every aspect of their daily lives in some way or another. Others think they are doing the country a favor by refusing to engage in a “corrupt political system” not realizing that they too have become part of the problem by choosing not to elect the right leaders into office.
- It is not required by law – Our constitutional right to suffrage is not even mandatory. Many people often throw this argument against advocates of electoral participation. In Article 5 of the Philippine Constitution, “suffrage may be exercised by all citizens of the Philippines not otherwise disqualified by law…” It may be a “right” and an “obligation” but the constitution itself provides no specifications on mandatory voting. There is no mention of any punishment or legal action against those who fail to register and vote. It is also often argued that in a democratic setting, citizens should also be given the freedom to choose not to vote if they wish so.
The current political system has failed to attract young voters as statistical figures often indicate an emerging trend of indifference among young Filipinos. As a new generation of Filipinos become exposed to social media and start drawing comparisons with other countries, the more disintegrated they become form their own society. Many young professionals of today grow up carrying with them the same pessimism instilled by their parents. Many view their non-participation as a form of protest against the broken promises of many elected officials, a protest that essentially also leads to nowhere. By withdrawing from politics, you literally give up on your confidence as an individual to shape the country’s future. The credibility of one eligible voter constitutes a powerful voice out of 100 million Filipinos who have to fight for the survival of their country on the global stage of increased competition and uncertainty.
Following Robert Kaplan’s words citing a Manila-based economist in his book Asia’s Cauldron, the Philippines is bleakly described as “still a bad Latin American economy, not an Asian one” in response to its slow economic reforms and dysfunctional bureaucracy plaguing the country’s competitiveness amidst high economic growth. The comparison to South America specifically points out to a common colonizer but as well as a similar colonial legacy of cronyism, indifference and fatalism fed by a common legacy of a corrupted values that continue to plague our own conscience up to this day. These issues may be hard to fathom but they are very real, hard-pressing truths that need to be confronted if we wish to see genuine change in our electoral system.