A first-time voter’s notes on the illusion of democracy and the revival of hope

May 15, 2019 – Jem Juan Espina

I’m the type of person who would laze off for about 20 minutes before getting up to face the day. But today was different. The calendar showed May 13. The clock’s hands pointed at quarter to six in the morning. My mom had just woken me up to get ready so that we could arrive at the polling precinct at the earliest possible time. The polling booths are only 15 minutes on foot from our house, so I wasn’t in much of a rush to get out the door. But there was a certain excitement creeping up within me: Today would be the first time I cast a vote in a national election.

The previous elections had the cynic in me bottle up a ton of negativity and pessimism. So I was actually surprised with the optimism I woke up with. Finally, after a delay of three years, I could make my voice heard in a democratic platform. I wanted my vote to be a voice vetoing the current system—an expression of dissent against the depravity, immorality, and selfishness of those in the position of power.

More than an hour has passed since the election started when we finally lined up to vote. We spent half an hour at a standstill under the sweltering heat. And in the idleness of the past two hours, I spotted sample ballots in the hands of many voters among us. Printed on it were the names of a drug lord, a murderer, and a thief. I suddenly felt my optimism beginning to fade.

To make matters worse, my mom and I were surprised when a lady in white came out of nowhere to cast her vote, suddenly skipping the hundreds of people who have patiently waited for their turn. It turned out to be a known lady councilor who was running for reelection for Quezon City’s District VI. What else can be expected from someone running under the Hugpo ng Pagbabago slate, I thought.

My turn to vote finally came. I placed extra caution in shading my ballot as I was afraid of making a mindless mistake by over-voting or shading the wrong candidate. I feared that if I wasn’t careful enough, I would render my vote useless. I then fed the PCOS machine my ballot and it didn’t encounter any problems as it was being processed—that was, until I checked my receipt.

To my horror, it didn’t acknowledge my choice for the partylist! I went home dejected because my partylist vote would not be considered even after filing a complaint. The remainder of the little optimism left in me that day was lost completely when I logged on to social media and news websites.

Many reports of ballots not being accepted by the PCOS machines surfaced. There was rampant vote buying and fake news on the disqualification of the Kabataan partylist started circulating. My illusions of triumphantly raising my voice in a democracy were dashed, a far cry from the idealism of a young kid who looked forward to vote 15 years ago. 

As far as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with local politics. I can’t deny that it’s because of my dedicated interest in history. The earliest historic event I can remember was Edsa Dos, and that was when I felt the people’s rage against the corruption and incompetence of then President Erap Estrada.

The Filipinos were quick to forget, of course. Come the 2004 election, it surprised me that in just three years another tough and macho action star would lead the polls—Fernando Poe Jr. I remember my Tatay lamenting over an FPJ win due to his lack of credentials and ties with Erap, who was finally in jail facing charges of plunder.

I was excited when Tatay brought me with him when cast his vote at Flora A. Ylagan High School. Following the elections results then became an exciting tradition for us. From then on, I looked forward to every election season. 

For the successive elections where I was a minor, I would watch the nightly news religiously for updates, devour reading the newspapers or anything related to the elections just to find out the history and credentials of the candidates. I would even accompany relatives as they cast their ballots, inserting some last-minute unsolicited advice along the way.

A few months after I turned 18, I registered to vote for the 2016 election. It was only the year 2014 and I felt an overwhelming amount of satisfaction for beating the long lines produced by the crammers who often waited until the last minute to register. I have always viewed  elections as a big event in democracy. It also serves as a turning point in our history—in participating in elections, I become a part of history.

But as fate would have it, I wasn’t able to vote during the 2016 Presidential election. It didn’t matter that I skipped the long lines by registering as a voter early. It didn’t matter that I devoted a chunk of my time to get to know the candidates. Election day in the Philippines conflicted with my one year exchange program in Tokyo.

I pled with the election officials at the Quezon City Comelec office and even in the Philippine Embassy, asking if there was a way that I could still vote abroad. Unfortunately, the Comelec office told me that my period of residency abroad was not long enough, while the Embassy told me that there is no available ballot for me given the limited number sent from the Philippines. 

To compensate, I campaigned vigorously for the candidates I wanted in and out of the government. This, however, didn’t dissipate my disappointment. For the first time, I found it very frustrating to discuss politics on social media, especially when I see posts from blind supporters who are given overwhelming evidence to vote against the incompetence, corruption, and depravity of the candidates presented before them. 

One can just imagine the heartbreak I felt that year. It was the 2016 election that brought out the strongest of emotions from my generation. I shed tears after learning results, dismayed that I missed the opportunity to cast my vote, to have a say in the future of the country I love.

Three years later, I shed tears still, angry that my freedom of expression has been compromised. My frustrations after the outcome of the 2016 election haven’t disappeared until this day and I don’t think it ever will.

In reading contemporaneous accounts of previous elections, the lament is always the same: This year is the dirtiest elections the country has ever experienced. Since the beginning of the use of automated elections, one positive aspect is that the “dagdag-bawas” scheme was seemingly eradicated. Unfortunately, for this election, we have seen the proliferation of more forms of cheating, mudslinging, and disinformation. 

It has also been very frustrating to see documented plunderers running for office once more. There are also incompetent fakes with made-up credentials and degrees, while so-called influential leaders have the audacity to say that public officials need not be honest.

The stances of many of the leading senatoriables were—to sugarcoat it—very problematic. It was astounding to see their favor for the lowering the age of criminal liability, the drug war (and extrajudicial deaths), federalism, Martial Law in Mindanao, death penalty, and TRAIN Law. 

They also took weak stances against the encroachment of China in our territory and the influx of Chinese workers in our nation—problems which threaten the very fabric of our nation. We have reached a new level of depravity, and I shudder to think what new lows we can achieve in the next years.

But even so, one thing that has never changed is my perception on voting: A vote will always be an expression of assent to the current status quo, or a voice of dissent against the system. Our vote must always be guided by our personal moral standards. What may have changed would be my depth of understanding of what our vote means, because the decision of the majority, whether harmful or beneficial, will greatly affect our country.

Democracy is supposed to give voice to the people, assuming that the majority are deciding for what is best for society. To quote that famous line from Bojack Horseman, “After all, a democracy is only as strong as its populace is informed.” Our society has developed yet another arsenal to silence the people: The spread of disinformation. 

With the rise of the internet and social media, it has become easier to share information— whether they are verified facts or blatant lies. It doesn’t help that there are many Filipinos who are prone not to verify the truth—a fact confirmed by a study showing the Philippines as the most ignorant when it comes to issues. 

To make matters worse, investigations have shown that Facebook’s new algorithms are problematic, showing content tailored to your beliefs and biases. The staggering spread of disinformation has been reflected in the survey results of the preferred senatoriables, which have shown plunderers, murderers, and traditional politicians leading the surveys. 

During the campaign season, I tried to share credible sources and facts about the election in order to spread awareness and fight disinformation. There were some victories, with more than a handful of friends and relatives who were convinced to vote for the candidates I believed in. I saw that they best represented the ideals and stances which would benefit the community and the nation. 

Seeing the degeneration of society, I viewed the election period as a time where we can express and act out on our desire for change. We hope that the people who had our vote would deliver and make do with their promises of prosperity and a better Philippines. However, I realized later on that voting for your preferred candidate is not the end to working for the betterment of our society. It is only the beginning. As responsible citizens, we need to be vigilant to ensure that our leaders get the job done.

Now that I have been doused hard by reality, I know now that there is so much left to do in order to have a better, well-informed democracy. This year’s election has given me a better grasp of Rizal’s advocacy of education, and his initial opposition to the Revolution. After all these years, it’s sad to see that the Philippines is not ready to govern itself towards progress—not if we continue to be divided with such a divisive administration.

Those who see themselves as “educated” need to work twice as hard in enlightening those who are not so privileged enough to discern the knowledge and wisdom imparted by history and ethics. It is time we step out of our comfort zones in order to better understand the perspective of those outside our circles.

Personally, I am blessed that my work on human rights is giving me an avenue to help to shed light on historical revisionism, to debunk the lies and false notions our society continues to believe. I hope that many more like me would be generous enough to impart what they know to others. I know it’s no easy task, given the stubbornness of many. 

That being said, I realize that there is a need to awaken the historical consciousness of our people. We need to destroy the notion that studying history is useless because it is “all in the past” and that—according to the Marcoses—“we need to move on.” We need to understand that remembering and reflecting on our history will guide us in our present to help take us to a better future. We should stop going around in circles. I believe that imbibing a collective historical consciousness in our populace would contribute greatly for voters in making  informed choices.

This election remains as a testament to how quick Filipinos to forget our history. We forget that we were plundered. We forget that we were cheated. We forget that we were lied to. We forget that most of our politicians look out only for themselves—they align with the strong majority then dump their alliances as soon as soon as the tide changes.

Our resolves are only dictated by the spur of the moment, or whether whose selfie has gone viral, whose posters can be found everywhere,  whose TV show had the highest ratings, or whose dance has become the talk of the town. Clearly, these idiot-tactics show that these candidates do not think much of us, insulting our intelligence to the highest degree.

But we must press on, in the hope that the generations to come would benefit from the lessons of today, as they greet the dawn breaking on our country. To quote the late but not-so-great Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, “I have realized why corrupt politicians do nothing to improve the quality of public education. They are terrified of educated voters.”

Art by Pearl Antoinette Sevilla