One thing remains clearly evident today: elections remain an emotional exercise. As such, it is unlikely that the outcome of this year’s election will be an intellectual one. Whilst “debates” have become a more normal feature of campaigns in Philippine elections in the last several years, it still remains to be seen whether these exercises have succeeded in uplifting the quality of the public chatter. The sorts of debates seen so far and, certainly, the ones exhibited of late came across more like sabongs (cockfights) than duels between deep minds. To be fair, wit was on exhibit but it was not applied to addressing important points using logic.
The wit (in varying levels of quality) Filipinos see on TV “debates” is applied more to rousing an audience out for blood than inducing careful thinking. Here we see again the conflict in the perceived goals of an election and the campaign lead up to these. The lofty aspiration of a “democracy”, we are told, is to serve as a system to ensure that a government represents the interests of the governed. We see now that this is a merely shallow play on words as there is a deeper meaning to this aspiration that the words fail to capture. The “interests of the governed” are not necessarily in line with how the governed are “represented”. Democracy succeeds when it results in leaders who represent the character of the people. However, it fails when this representation is inconsistent with their interests — what is good for them.
In short, what Philippine democracy revealed thus far is that the character of Filipinos is incompatible with what is good for them.
Elected Filipino leaders are emotional choices. Unfortunately, achieving sustainable national progress is an intellectual journey. In the film The Martian, marooned astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) was faced with a choice: think his way through his predicament or perish. The most important aspect of the challenged ahead was that survival was up to him. This is not too different from the journey the late great Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew guided his people through. Singapore, at the time of its forced independence, was alone. History was to show that much of what the Singaporean people achieved is owed to their resolve to help themselves and overcome emotional responses to their challenges.
The trouble with Filipinos is that they are an emotional people as many studies and surveys have revealed. This is not good news considering that much of the challenges that lie ahead are technical problems. Poverty, the single biggest problem that plagues the Philippines and the epicentre of much of the emotionalism that clouds the National “Debate” is one such technical problem. But rather than approach the problem with a technical mind, the Philippines’ foremost “thought leaders” prefer to engage in shrill sloganeering.
Recent debates between Opposition and administration-backed candidates demonstrate this national character flaw. Having long taunted the administration camp to stepping up to their challenge to a debate, the Opposition all but set themselves up for failure when the occasion finally presented itself. They brought to the table the same tired old references to “tyranny”, the “Marcos dictatorship”, and, their greatest hit, the “Martial Law Era”. This is not surprising considering much of the Opposition rhetoric remains built around their inability to move on from these old “activist” relics much the same way that their communist comrades remain stuck in Cold War rhetoric. The Opposition led by the so-called “Otso Diretso” coalition (though they are a coalition of seven and not eight) were, as a result, soundly-beaten as far as popular opinion goes. The administration only needed to respond with equally-emotional sound bytes to the tiresome crybabyism tabled by the Otso Diretso candidates.
This year’s administration candidates only needed to lean on a rock-solid defensive position thanks to the backing of a government that remains popular with the majority of Filipinos. The onus was on the Opposition to mount a clever campaign to overcome the formidable challenge presented by that reality to convert voters in the audience. The Opposition failed to step up to that challenge and their candidates, instead, chose to remain within their comfort zones of Martial Law Crybabyism and old narratives of freedom-fighting “martyrs”. The really big failure of the Opposition is their inability to come to grips with what is real — that there is an election to be won, and, to win an election, you need to capture the popular sentiment.
The Opposition need to read the memo. Elections are emotional exercises. Filipinos need to get above their emotions in order to build a truly thinking society that applies intelligent solutions to their problems. But, for now, winning an election is the only legal means to acquire the power to change the Filipino Condition. The Opposition have, so far, failed to appreciate that fact.
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