I’m here in Manila with the NLG component of the People’s International Observers Mission (not as a lawyer, but a fellow traveler). The PIOM is a coordinating group for international election observers, and they are getting us up to speed before sending the 80+ internationals out in teams to various parts of the country on Sunday. (Mine is Mindanao in the south.)
We’re on day 2 of our orientation, and yesterday we got a rundown on Philippine politics and what’s at stake in this election. Two things that need to be established right off the bat: (A) The Philippines is terribly unequal and poor (ranked 105 in the Human Development Index), with a plantation based agricultural sector and a nascent foreign-owned service economy. (B) The government’s policy options all waft out from a noxious cauldron of repression, foreign debt service, and corruption.
The standard academic story (which is probably right) is that Philippine politics is a Frankenstein of local clans and patronage networks welded into political machines by national politicians. Local landowners use their economic (and paramilitary) power to secure votes, in the classic Latin American fashion, and then combine these vote banks across clans and coalitions to form national electoral blocs. The result is that virtually all of Congress is landlord (either urban or rural) controlled, and all the presidential candidates come from the same landowning elite.
Need proof? Imelda Marcos is running for the Congress in her family stronghold of Ilocos Norte, in northern Luzon. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is running for the Senate, which is elected at-large. Meanwhile, the likely winner of the presidential poll, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino (son of former president Cory Aquino), is not just the owner of any plantation in Central Luzon ... he is the owner of the Hacienda Lucita, the site of a 2004 massacre of striking workers.
The incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA as the acronym-loving population has dubbed her), has epitomized the worse features of Philippine politics, being cartoonishly kleptocratic and corrupt. She is also very good at the Philippine political game. She has faced down impeachment proceedings and coup attempts.
GMA managed to get the Philippines branded the most corrupt country in Asia, and her the most corrupt president in Philippine history. (I would still give that title to Ferdinand Marcos.) In addition, she has stacked the electoral body and the Supreme Court with her allies and used the military to persecute the only source of political innovation permitted by the existing institutions: the left-wing party-lists, which contest the 20% of House seats that are open to “marginalized sectors” and elected at large.
In other words, the job of the election observers is cut out for us. Observers are no panacea for the underlying inequality and weak institutions that are the Philippine colonial inheritance. That said, independent electoral observers can improve the electoral process in the face of repression and widespread fraud. While it is a small contribution towards changing the balance of power between elites and citizens in the Philippines ... it is a small contribution towards the only thing that will ultimately allow badly needed reforms to occur.
More reports to come.