Updated: February 15, 2019 03:38 AM GMT
An activist with placards urging voters not to vote for traditional parties in the coming mid-term elections in May during a demonstration in Manila on Feb. 12. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
"Let us look for heroes among our candidates, heroes who place nation before self. Vote with wisdom, with God in your heart."
This was the appeal of Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, as election campaigning started for mid-term and local elections in May.
The prelate released a six-minute video that aims to guide the country's 55 million Catholic voters on issues like violence, corruption, disinformation and abusive behavior during the polls.
It urges resistance to the spoils of patronage — most of the time baskets of groceries and cash distributed during campaigning.
Election watchdogs have reported that the going rate for vote buying ranges between US$50 and US$300, depending on the level of competition.
"Stand fast," said the prelate. "No matter the outcome, your vote will be a victory."
The campaigns for mid-term elections are often framed by unfinished business.
President Rodrigo Duterte, nearing at the halfway mark of his six-year term, has made his agenda clear: The institutionalization of his bloody war on drugs, an end to insurgency and turning over the economy to big business.
The lynchpin of all these goals is constitutional change: a shift to federalism that will sweep away provisions on human rights and social justice and allows foreign ownership of land and control of key industries.
As he coasts to the end of his third year in office, the president enjoys high popularity and trust ratings even if Filipinos oppose controversial policies like the proposed charter changes, the return of the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal responsibility.
No wonder Duterte's beleaguered critics couch messages in existentialist terms.
"Filipinos stand on blood-drenched ground," lamented the Ecumenical Bishops Forum. "The hands who commit death-dealing atrocities lurk unrestrained in our midst," added the church leaders.
There is no mention of Duterte in Archbishop Villegas' video message.
The prelate spoke of the miasma of death and violence blanketing the nation and called for support for candidates who put a premium on rights and the welfare of the poor.
Catholics comprise 90 percent of the 61 million registered voters in the coming elections, but despite Duterte’s scathing tirades against Catholic Church leaders, survey results show the president's favored bets and allies are ahead in pre-election polls.
Bishops and priests lament the loss of conscience, the turning away from God while Duterte’s more secular critics heap scorn on the "stupid voters" and wail of a "damaged culture."
In 1987, just after the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, American journalist, James Fallows, wrote an essay that talked about a "damaged culture," presenting it as among the roots of poverty in a naturally rich country.
He was critical of Marcos but underscored that before martial law and all the way back to colonial times, people were already discussing "grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, land-ownership disputes, monopolistic industries in cozy, corrupt cahoots with the government."
Fallows wasn’t optimistic about the country’s prospects, describing the 1986 "people power" revolution that brought down the dictator "as the restoration of the old order."
More than three decades after that essay, Marcos’ daughter is running for the Senate and his son contested a closely fought 2016 vice presidential vote.
The electoral landscape is a petri dish of bacteria splitting or morphing into new entities to accommodate the scions of prominent clans.
It is not culture but the country’s electoral system that perpetuates the cycle of corruption, injustice and conflict, according to an international group of political scientists.
"Patronage is neither culturally determined nor immutable," wrote Paul Hutchcroft, an Australian academic in "Strong Patronage, Weak Parties," a public lecture on the Philippine electoral system.
A multi-member plurality electoral system elects 14,000 of 18,000 officials in the Senate, and provincial and town and city councils. The country has separate elections for president and vice president. A party-list system, created to allow the margins a voice, placed a ceiling on seats.
All these "skew service delivery to narrow electoral considerations rather than broader development objectives," wrote Hutchcroft.
And so political campaigns center on giveaways rather than issues, glamor and name recall rather than ideological debate.
Hutchcroft suggested a closed-list proportional representation where parties choose and rank the candidates of their party list and thus exercise considerable discipline, a zipper system alternating men and women candidates for greater gender equality, and the lifting of ceilings if the party-list system remains.
Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, warned against "overreaching" that could lead to unintended risks.
He suggested "less risky, but no less impactful" reforms, including legislation banning political dynasties, which the current constitution already mandates.
"You don’t expect politicians who won under this system to undermine it," added political analyst Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.
But Duterte himself has defended a system that benefits his daughter, heir to their Davao City fiefdom, and son, Paolo, who is running for the House of Representatives.
It sounds like a chicken or egg situation.
While the Church braces for another divisive national exercise, clergy and religious at the grassroots say only sustained growth of a mass movement can stave off disaster for the country.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.