What America has learned from the elections
The Philippines became a colony of the United States after Spain was defeated during the Spanish-American war of 1898. American rule lasted until 1946. All of our Constitutions (1935, 1973 and 1987) were patterned after its American counterpart. The 1935 Constitution was written under the watchful eyes of the country’s benefactors at that time.
Except for not adopting a federal system and the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), the essential features are similar. The Philippines set up a tripartite unitary system of government – a strong executive, a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary with a robust Bill of Rights that protects the individual. It also subscribed to the interrelated concepts of separation of powers and check and balance among the three powers of government. Indeed, the Philippines was the showcase of American democracy in Asia. Until martial law was declared by president Ferdinand Marcos in 1972.
Lifeblood of democracy
Elections are indispensable. Soul is to body as an election is to a democracy. Otherwise stated, if taxes are the lifeblood of government, then elections are the lifeblood of a democracy. Tarnish elections and you indelibly impact democracy.
During the Spanish colonial period, elections were few, local and far between. The first national election for the elected half of the bicameral Philippine Assembly occurred in 1907. The Department of Interior was in charge of running elections. Since the department secretary was an alter ego of the President, there was a real danger of the former favoring administration candidates. Hence, an independent Commission on Elections (Comelec) was statutorily created in 1940 to primarily enforce all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of elections in the country.
Electoral bad habits
Philippine elections are traditionally fierce and hard-fought. Presumably, many of our election practices were inherited from the Americans. What comes to mind are the droves of “flying voters” brought in by Tammany Hall operatives to New York or the Daley machine in Chicago where the dead were resurrected to vote. But while Filipinos copied certain bad electoral habits, they also “innovated” and “improved” upon them. Traveling around some battleground states in the 2020 US elections, I noticed some of these Philippine adaptations on full display.
For example, I saw billboards of infrastructure projects funded by the federal government proclaiming that they were being constructed “under the administration of President Donald J. Trump.” While they fell short of the blatant “brought to you by Congressman X” language found in Philippine signs, seeing them triggered an oddly familiar feeling of inappropriateness.
As an initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress passed in March 2020 the CARES Act stimulus package which, among others, provided assistance of up to $1,200 to roughly 160 million Americans affected by the pandemic. In implementing the law, the Treasury Department issued checks but which, for the first time, contained the President’s signature as well, giving the voter an idea where the assistance was coming from. Perhaps more sophisticated but no more subtle than the Philippine practice of handing out relief goods, cell phones and other merchandise bearing the candidate’s name.
An uncle residing in Georgia who turned 80 in October was elated to receive a White House birthday card signed by the President and the First Lady. The printing and administrative cost plus postage were clearly paid by American taxpayers. This sweet communication is reminiscent of certain cities in Metro Manila sending birthday cakes to a celebrating senior resident.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, called the elections in Philadelphia “crooked as a snake” without presenting proof, manifesting a lack of brotherly love. Yet, four years ago, Graham tweeted his thoughts on a “rigged” presidential election, claiming that a baseless allegation (made by then candidate Trump) does a great disservice to party and country. Concocting wild conspiracy theories or spreading malicious gossip has been a staple of past Philippine elections.
The allegations of rigging by the President and his allies are serious and dangerous – that votes for Trump have been electronically deleted or worse, switched by the election software for Biden. This claim is similar to what was hurled against the Comelec in our 2016 vice presidential race, which has since been soundly disproven. The manual recount in the state of Georgia in respect of votes cast in the US presidential contest should hopefully dispel these rumors once and for all.
In the US, notwithstanding a bitter electoral fight, a defeated candidate phones to congratulate the winner, accompanied by a call to his or her supporters to unite behind the latter. In the Philippines, a losing candidate’s concession is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, it is not unusual for the loser to cry “fraud.” This gracious American tradition seems to have been abandoned in the 2020 elections.
Sadly, the US seems to be returning to a form of identity politics. In the Philippines there are many political parties but its members are butterflies who freely transfer to the party which is blooming. Parties gravitate towards the persona of the candidate instead of the other way around. This direction towards a person rather than a principle is certainly not what the founding fathers envisioned.
Humpty Dumpty moment
Indeed, America’s democracy is currently undergoing a political stress test. It is facing a Humpty Dumpty moment. The recent election has magnified a deep polarization, perhaps a fracture not seen since the days of the 19th century Civil War. Amidst a barrage of populist tactics taken from an authoritarian’s play book to undermine its elections, America’s independent institutions need to push back and uphold not just the rule of law but a cherished rule of civility. Political healing is needed more than ever. Otherwise, America may turn out like its former colony which, after close to 50 years, is still trying to put its democracy back together again.
The author served as chairman of the Commission on Elections from 2015 to 2017.