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Election in the Philippines Exposes Shallow Roots of Democracy in ASEAN
15th May, 2007

As the counting of as many as 45 million votes continues in the Philippines, the death toll of 110 killed as a result of electioneering shows the dangers to democracy in ASEAN. Throughout the country, there are accusations of rampant vote-buying, corruption and intimidation – and this is one of the more democratic and accountable countries in the region. Military governments dominate Burma and Thailand, Laos and Vietnam remain under monolithic Communist control, Brunei is managed and the democracies of Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia all have their critics. Even when elections are peacefully concluded, there is rarely any significant change, since economically and politically powerful elites are very influential in determining who gets which seat and which position. In the Philippines, voters seeking to choose any of the 87,000 candidates have to write in the names of their choices. Name recognition not political affiliation is crucial to winning votes and there is a queue of celebrities lining up to get a place in office and the benefits that offers without any clear political ideology. Politics without competing ideologies is little more than an opportunities to put snouts in the trough.

Yet the benefits of a functioning democracy are well-known. As the Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen observed, no famine has ever occurred under a democratic government, although global climate change may alter this in the future. Research regularly shows people living in democratic societies have, on average, healthier and happier lives. There are more opportunities and they are more fairly distributed, while the accountability enforced upon government institutions helps, albeit slowly, to decrease inefficiencies. Governments become more transparent and economic and social policies more transparent and rational – not perfect, of course and it is quite possible for people to vote for an ideologically-motivated government which turns out to be disastrous for a country.

Nevertheless, democracy offers clear benefits and those benefits go disproportionately to the majority poor rather than the minority rich. So why are the masses unable to organise themselves to create political parties which represent their interests and vote for them? There are of course several factors. The first is lack of education, since many ASEAN countries seem quite happy to maintain only a lightly-educated working class who do not known enough about their own political system to understand what it means for them. Second, the powerful elites maintain a grip on important media, not just in terms of denying the poor the right to be heard but in promoting the sense of national unity and nationalism that characterizes any meaningful debate as divisive and unpatriotic. Third, the money required to operate in a money-based political system effectively freezes out any newly-organised parties without such resources. Those who have power are reluctant to yield any of it and will maintain a firm grip. And when things do get out of hand, there is always the threat of violence.

The mood among the voters of provincial Philippines appears to be one of weary resignation. They realise that few of the people for whom they might vote have made commitments which they might support and to which they can be held accountable. In common with the poor around the world, it is hardly surprising if their thoughts turn to short-term self-interest.

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