Expanding questions

There is widespread belief that the common Filipino voter is an irrational voter; that he votes with the guidance of emotion rather than reason.


A view of the Monumento area in Caloocan City, Philippines

In his latest column, The ‘satisfied’ in surveys, Randy David corners a critical thought many of us have probably realized at some point regarding public “approval” or “satisfaction” surveys. On these polls, which are regularly performed in this country by Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia Research:

Unfortunately, it is not awareness of the public official’s performance of his or her duties that is explicitly being probed here, but mere awareness of the official’s presence in the media. Let us imagine ourselves being asked the same question with regard to Vice President Binay’s performance in the last three months…

…it makes little sense to rate the performance of a vice president as vice president, given that the function of this position is largely that of a spare tire. In VP Binay’s case, it would make more sense to assess him in his role as presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers’ affairs or as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC). In this regard, it might be worth probing, for instance, how much the public knows of Binay’s duties as HUDCC chair. My guess is: not much…

What, then, does this artifact of public opinion represent? In all probability, it represents a general emotional predisposition toward a person or an institution.

David avoids making the connection, yet one cannot help but think that the same conclusion might apply to that most important of polls, the one with true legal and social consequences: the election of government officials.

At least, with the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys there is a clear question. Our official ballots do not even have as much as a “Who among these candidates do you think is most fit for the government position?”, a question which, like the question of “How satisfied are you with VP Binay’s performance of his duties?”, is open to so many ways of answering. Never mind if there is an official legal criteria defining “fitness for an elected position,” if it exists, enshrined anywhere from the Constitution to various laws or perhaps even unofficial job descriptions for these posts: the secrecy of the ballot assures a citizen that she has complete freedom over how she chooses to answer the question.

There is widespread belief that the common Filipino voter is an irrational voter; that he votes with the guidance of emotion rather than reason. There is some proof to this. In the run-ups to an election, I once watched a citizen asked on television about his basis for choosing a president. He cited, as a matter of fact, that a president should be someone dependable and trustworthy, and possess other qualities that could never be determined objectively.

Hence the circus of our elections campaigns, the endless parading of celebrities, the advertising shows that make our politicians-to-be look more like sales agents than statesmen. All this, while the proud intelligentsia cringes and asks for more discussions of platforms and policies instead. It is perhaps from the latter sector where that radical suggestion came from of limiting voting rights to those with college diplomas. (Certainly an insulting suggestion that ironically dismisses notions of discrimination, thereby disrespecting the history of suffrage.)

Care must be taken to avoid concluding that the Filipino voter, then, is an ignorant voter. The irrational choice is not necessarily a wrong choice. It may even be contrived to be the correct choice, following the school of thought that Filipino society is stuck in feudalism, where power manifests through personal relationships and not through institutions (hence our padrino system, etc.).

It all points back to a common diagnosis of what ails Philippine society: cultural baggage. That Filipino culture is intrinsically too flawed, too backwards, when compared to other progressive, contemporary societies. For those who recognize this, they can either despair, or subscribe to what David has advocated on other occasions: a focus on modernity, an effort to aid this difficult transition of Philippine society.

In practical terms, how is that done? I believe it translates to a focus on better education. Not just in schools (at least in this respect, the Filipino government is most certainly going in the right direction, by appropriating the largest budget annually to the Department of Education), but in all places where learning and constructive discussions can take place, which is everywhere—even here, online.

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