I was one of the thousands of Lianga residents who trooped to the Lianga Central Elementary grounds last May 10 and who were eagerly waiting for the chance to vote in this country's first automated elections. Sad to say it was not the exciting or uplifting experience I had anticipated.
First, the weather had been rainy since the previous day and as can be expected whenever that happens the area around the polling precincts was already flooded up to almost knee deep in some spots when I got there at about 10 pm in the morning. Nothing dampens the spirit more than getting sopping wet in the chilling rain and sloshing through dirty flood waters only to find out that when you get to your destination that you have to stand in line for hours and get soaked a little more before you can accomplish what you expected you could breeze through in just a couple of minutes.
Despite the issuance of priority numbers in order to impose some order into the crush of humanity that had descended on the voting precincts, the board of election inspectors in my voting precinct could simply not efficiently accommodate the large turnout of voters eager to try out the new PCOS machines. The fact that the old number of voting precincts have been reduced and "clustered" into fewer units with several hundred voters assigned to it instead of the traditional hundred fifty or so also taxed the capabilities of the new voting system.
As it turned out, I had to return in the afternoon and battle once more the rain, floods and long queues in order to finally get in and vote. In what was a anticlimactic end to a half day ordeal, I got my ballot, made the proper marks on it, fed it to the PCOS machine (which accepted and tallied it with coldblooded efficiency) and got my right forefinger marked with indelible ink in a whole process that just took ten minutes.
I left my voting precinct and the long queues of impatient voters with no small degree of guilt at the fact that I was finished and that those in line would have to wait amidst the rain and inclement weather before they too could get in and vote. Thankfully however, I learned later from one of the teachers manning the polling center that they did manage to process the last voters before 7 PM which was the closing time set by the Commission on Elections.
What was made clear now from hindsight since May 10 is the fact that motivating the electorate in Lianga and all over the country to go to the polling centers and vote, at least in the last elections, was not a problem. Turnout was relatively high (in many precincts up to more than 70 percent) and the long lines at the polling places even in the midst of the uncooperative weather proved that fact. Motivating most of them to vote for the right reasons, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.
Even I who thought I was already a jaded witness to incidents of vote buying and other forms of electoral fraud in previous elections was taken aback by the alacrity and openness with which many local candidates distributed money and consumer goods in return for the votes of many of their constituents. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, many of these politicians and their supporters went about this town and the outlying villages like mendicant peddlers in vehicles (marked conspicuously with campaign streamers and banners) and trading money and goods for votes in the full light of day and right under the noses of election officials.
Far more than the reports of voter intimidation and even unconfirmed allegations of electoral cheating (through tampered compact flash cards for the PCOS machines), it is the apparent institutionalization of overt vote buying in the last elections as a major component of the corrupt political culture that predominates among the electorate in this country that really worries me. That together with the predominance of political dynasties and powerful political clans that precisely use these unscrupulous methods to win and hold on to political power.
The results of the last elections have pointed out to the fact that these local politicos guilty of massive vote buying were precisely those who ultimately won in the ballot count. This means that many of the voters here have been more than willing to sell and prostitute their right to suffrage and that they have done so with little or no regret or great degree of remorse except for those who have complained that they have not been paid enough for the votes they had delivered.
This does not bode well for the future of democratic elections and democratic institutions in this country. Together with a national constituency who does not care much about their civic responsibilities and who prefer to stand idly by while their country goes to the dogs, there is no greater and more serious danger to democracy than a citizenry who themselves knowingly connive in the very process that subverts and undermines the very institutions on which their fragile democracy depends for its very survival.
When people began thinking and considering their votes as commodities to sell and bargain for in return for money and goods and not as the primary means by which they can effect political change and exercise their fundamental power as the source of all government authority and accountability then this country's hope hope for a truly democratic and representative government in the future will be truly and irreparably lost.