Voting and Elections

Philippines Table of Contents

Elections in the Philippines are the arena in which the country's elite families compete for political power. The wealthiest clans contest national and provincial offices. Families of lesser wealth compete for municipal offices. In the barangays, where most people are equally poor, election confers social prestige but no real power or money.

Voting rates have generally been high (approximately 80 to 85 percent in national elections), despite obstacles such as difficult transportation, the need to write out the names of all candidates in longhand, and, occasionally, the threat of violence. Filipinos enjoy and expect elections so much that even Ferdinand Marcos dared not completely deny them this outlet. Instead, he changed the rules to rig the elections in his favor.

Until 1972 Philippine elections were comparable to those in United States cities during early industrialization: flawed, perhaps, by instances of vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing, or miscounts, but generally transmitting the will of the people. A certain amount of election-related violence was considered normal. Marcos overturned this system with innovations such as asking voters to indicate by a show of hands if they wanted him to remain in office. In the snap election of 1986, Marcos supporters tried every trick they knew but lost anyway. The heroism of the democratic forces at that time inspired many Filipinos.

The 1987 constitution establishes a new system of elections. The terms of representatives are reduced from four years to three, and the presidential term is lengthened from four years to six. Senators also serve a six-year term. The Constitution's transitory provisions are scheduled to expire in 1992, after which there is to be a three-year election cycle. Suffrage is universal at age eighteen. The constitution established a Commission on Elections that is empowered to supervise every aspect of campaigns and elections. It is composed of a chairperson and six commissioners, who cannot have been candidates for any position in the immediately preceding elections. A majority of the commissioners must be lawyers, and all must be college-educated. They are appointed by the president with the consent of the Commission on Appointments and serve a single seven-year term. The Commission on Elections enforces and administers all election laws and regulations and has original jurisdiction over all legal disputes arising from disputed results. To counter the unwholesome influence occasionally exercised by soldiers and other armed groups, the commission may depute law enforcement agencies, including the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In dire situations, the commission can take entire municipalities and provinces under its control, or order new elections.

The constitution also empowers the commission to "accredit citizens' arms of the Commission on Elections." This refers to the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), a private group established in the 1950s, with advice and assistance from the United States, to keep elections honest. NAMFREL was instrumental in the election of President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, and played a minor role in subsequent presidential elections. It lapsed into inactivity during the martial law years, then played an important role in Aquino's 1986 victory. NAMFREL recruited public-spirited citizens (320,000 volunteers in 104,000 precincts in the 1987 congressional elections) to watch the voting and monitor ballot-counting, and it prepared a "quick count," based mostly on urban returns, to publicize the results immediately. Because the Commission on Elections can take weeks or even months to certify official returns, the National Movement for Free Elections makes it harder for unscrupulous politicians to distort the results. NAMFREL itself has sometimes been denounced by election losers as being a tool of United States intervention and has not always been impartial. In 1986 it favored Aquino, and its chairman, Jose Concepcion, was subsequently named Aquino's minister of trade and industry.

The final decision on all legislative elections rests with the electoral tribunals of the Senate and House of Representatives. Each electoral tribunal is composed of nine members, three of whom are members of the Supreme Court designated by the chief justice. The remaining six are members of the Senate or the House, chosen on the basis of proportional representation from parties in the chamber.

The first congressional elections under the 1987 constitution were held on May 11, 1987. Political parties had not really coalesced. Seventy-nine separate parties registered with the Commission on Elections, and voters had a wide range of candidates to choose from: 84 candidates ran for 24 Senate seats, and 1,899 candidates ran for 200 House seats. The elections were considered relatively clean, even though the secretary of local government ordered all governors and mayors to campaign for Aquino-endorsed candidates. There were sixty-three electionrelated killings. Some of these deaths were attributable to small-town family vendettas, whereas others may have had ideological motives. The armed forces charged that communists used strong-arm tactics in areas they controlled, and the communists in turn claimed that nineteen of their election workers had been murdered. Election results showed a virtual clean sweep for candidates endorsed by Aquino.

The next step in redemocratization was to hold local elections for the first time since 1980. When Aquino took office, she dismissed all previously elected officials and replaced them with people she believed to be loyal to her. Local elections were originally scheduled for August 1987, but because many May 1987 congressional results were disputed and defeated candidates wanted a chance to run for local positions, the Commission on Elections postponed local elections first to November 1987 and then to January 18, 1988. More than 150,000 candidates ran for 16,000 positions as governor, vice governor, provincial board member, mayor, vice mayor, and town council member, nationwide.

More than a hundred people were killed in election-related violence in 1988. Elections had to be postponed in six Muslim provinces, two Ilocano provinces, two New People's Army-dominated provinces, and Ifugao because of unsettled conditions. The Commission on Elections assumed direct control of many towns, including some parts of Manila. The formerly unwritten rule of Filipino politics that political killings be confined to followers and henchmen and not to the candidates themselves now seemed to have been broken: Thirty-nine local candidates were killed in the 1988 campaign. Aquino remained aloof from the 1988 local elections, but many candidates claimed her backing. Personalities and clan rivalries seemed to take precedence over ideological issues.

The final step in redemocratization was the thrice-postponed March 1989 election for barangay officials. Some 42,000 barangay captains were elected. At this level of neighborhood politics, no real money or power was involved, the stakes were small, and election violence was rare. The Commission on Elections prohibited political parties from becoming involved.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress