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The Manila Times
Rep. Edcel C. Lagman’s
Weekly Thursday Column

EIGHTY-ONE days from today, on May 9, 2022, millions of enfranchised Filipinos will troop to the polls to elect their leaders and representatives from the president to the last municipal councilor. The efficacy of democratic elections in the Philippines will again be put to the test against the backdrop of the 2021 Democratic Index Report of the UK-based research group Economist Intelligence Unit classifying the country as a “flawed democracy” and ranked it 54th out of 167 countries, trailing Malaysia (39th); Timor Leste (43rd); and Indonesia (52nd) in the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The Constitution declares that “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Verily, the sovereign will is expressed through the ballot.

Elections have a three-fold purpose: a) delegate the authority to govern the nation to the electorate’s directly chosen officials with fixed terms and limited powers; b) reject elected officials who have betrayed the people’s mandate; and c) rectify the patent mistakes in past elections when the votes were stolen or sullied by pretenders with the complicity or indifference of a great number of voters.

The concept and practice of elections are not of modern vintage. Elections and their imperfections trace their origins to antiquity.

The first recorded use of voting was in 754 BCE in Sparta. Later, the Athenian lawmaker Solon introduced a new constitution allowing male members of the upper classes to vote. By 500 BCE, most male Athenians had the right to vote – not only to elect leaders but also to decide on matters such as going to war and voting on criminal trials like the one where the people sentenced Socrates to death for “impiety and corrupting the youth”. The Athenians also voted to kick errant leaders out of office or exile undesirable elements of society for 10 years in a process called ostraca, the origin of the word ostracize.

The ancient Romans adopted the Greek system of elections. Other than the absence of secret balloting because voting was open and public, and women were not yet enfranchised, nothing truly substantial has changed in the way candidates campaign and societies hold elections.

For example, historians describe Roman elections as “often brutal and bloody” and from 200 BCE “marred by political violence”. Gangs employed by politicians intimidated voters and vote-buying was rife. Clearly, the use of guns, goons, and gold has ancient moorings.

In Vedic India, clay pots served as ballot boxes and after the voting ended, they were sealed and tied securely by rope supposedly to prevent ballot box snatching.

The campaign strategies of politicians in Ancient Rome were not so different from the ones modern candidates employ. The poet and statesman Quintus Cicero even wrote a book entitled Commentaliorum Petitionis (Little Handbook on Electioneering) purportedly to guide his brother Marcus who was running for consul. He advised Marcus to cultivate friendships with men from the upper classes as they were influential and would be useful in the future, and to “remind everyone in your debt that they should repay you with their support.” Making promises that could not be kept was another strategy since “people would prefer that you give them a gracious lie than an outright refusal.”

In Rome, the campaign period was usually 17 to 25 days. But instead of going house-to-house and staging rallies, the main campaign activity was “canvassing” in the Forum – the center of Roman political and social events. Wearing a toga candida of white cloth, from which we got the term candidate, contenders would enter the Forum with a throng of supporters and shook hands with eligible voters. Some had a nomenclator, a slave trained to memorize the names and faces of the eligible voters, so that the candidate could greet people by name. In lieu of posters, a candidate’s positive attributes were scrawled on walls. Distinct inscriptions lauding one candidate can still be found in the ruins of Pompeii, indicating an ongoing campaign period when the town was buried in ash and lava from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Black propaganda was also commonplace even outside of Rome. For instance, again in Pompeii, we can still see writings on the walls of public buildings attacking the character of certain candidates, describing them as thieves, drunks, and bums.

Corruption was rampant in Roman elections when elective positions became lucrative sources of income for the winners. Elections became extremely competitive so much so that laws were enacted prohibiting voter bribery and restricting election spending. But, like today, creative Roman candidates worked their way around such constraints. They sponsored banquets and gave away tickets for games in the Coliseum to gain votes. This is like the recent giving away of 3-in-1 coffee sachets with the face of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. adorning the packets and his supporters lugging boxes of bread after his rally at the Philippine Arena.

Reading the conduct of elections in the past is like viewing contemporary election practices in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Despite their imperfections, elections still constitute the bedrock of republican democracies. No other mode has been found as a viable and peaceful alternative to elections in expressing the people’s will and mandate. As observed by the Supreme Court in People v. San Juan, “As numerous as they are insidious are long-standing techniques of terror and intimidation that have been conceived by man – in derogation of the right of suffrage – which we have repeatedly and unqualifiedly condemned.”

The challenges to the voters in the 2022 elections are to: a) denounce candidates who wittingly violate election laws; b) actually vote in order to avoid by default the reemergence of an unresponsive government; c) reject candidates who profess to continue the irresponsible and repressive policies of the current administration and those who have ominous linkages to the despotism and pillage of the Marcos martial law regime; and d) elect the candidate for president who has a clear agenda on meaningful change, clean governance, effective pandemic response and economic recovery, solicitousness for the people’s welfare, and upholding Philippine sovereignty, human rights and the rule of law, exemplified by presidential candidate Leni Robredo.


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