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Local Politics in the era of automated elections
by Farland Valera

The recent reshaping of the contours of the political environment in the Philippines is largely attributed to social media. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are household names as platforms for online political participation for many.

The turn of the 21st century has introduced cyberspace as a venue for political action and political activism.

From lambasting Sen. Vicente Sotto’s plagiarism to condemning Cynthia Villar’s comment on nurses, netizens on the one hand have become more active in dealing with societal concerns.

From posting political ads to announcing official stands on current issues, politicians on the other hand now use social media to connect to their constituents. As the days announce the nearing of the May 2013 elections, online communities have metamorphosed into political battlegrounds and netizens have become a new kind of political constituency – a virtual one.

Whether it is a geographic constituency or a “virtual constituency,” the people that constitute them are the electorate that must be wooed.

Whether it is in the busy streets or in cyberspace, connecting to people is a vital means of accumulating votes in the second automated elections. Hence, politicians must work double time to straddle both political spaces.

Notably, the 2010 automated elections has brought a new ray of hope to politicians who believe in fair play and has added a new dish in the menu of political exercise for the people.

Automation was largely seen as a cure to the political ills of blatant vote-buying and rampant cheating that characterized Pinoy elections.

With its long history and awaited arrival, it roused the excited voter to claim a spot in history by having one of his fingers inked in his home precinct in the first automated Philippine elections. To say that this made voting more exhilarating is but an understatement.

Although the automation of the elections has become the epitome of the Commission on Election’s efforts to institutionalize electoral reforms and thereby help deepen our cherished democracy, its effect on local political dynamics is yet to be galvanized.

Whether automation has made the electorate more mature or has purged elections of malpractice by politicians is yet to be proven.

Two queries therefore arise. First, has automation improved the dynamics of local electoral contests? Second, has automation positively modified local voting behavior?

The keen political observer will readily opine that local electoral contests have remained essentially the same even with the bustling social media campaigns added to the traditional print and broadcast advertisement and community activities of candidates.

Local politicians are still engaged in “hunger games.” There is hunger for increased popularity (for name-recall) and desire to take credit (to create a saleable track record) from every bit of project in their locality.

In an early January wedding celebration in Abra, a provincial politician disrupted the festivities by distributing calendars and eyeglasses while moving around to shake hands with the people in blatant violation of the prohibition of early campaigning.

Will those eyeglasses help the recipients see clearly the politician’s name on the ballot on election day?

Along the highway leading to Bolinao, Pangasinan, local politicians still have tarpaulins greeting the people “Happy Valentine’s Day” tucked on posts and fences though it was already March. Does the hearts’ day extend for a month?

A newly constructed barangay hall on the right side of a road in Abra is easily noticed by commuters because a huge tarpaulin announces it was erected through the efforts of an incumbent provincial politician.

There are similar materials in other places too that bannered this politician’s face proudly claiming credit for various construction works paid by taxpayers. This move is cunningly Machiavellian, I assumed. But does this not resurrect Sen. Miriam Santiago’s fiery condemnation of epal politicians who use public funds for obvious political gains?

When I was on my way back to Baguio for summer classes, the man who sat beside me in the bus shared an anecdote about the politics in their town.

The mayor, he said, asked the main challenger for the vice mayoralty race if he had enough money to earn votes because his running mate could afford P3,000 per voter.

The challenger answered he would readily top that amount with P500 more just so he can beat the administration candidate. Should this be true, will it not make vote selling more thrilling and running for office definitely more expensive?

The electoral process, a crucial procedural exercise in a republican nation, is like a blacksmith’s workplace where political accountability is forged.

But if hunger games persist in the electoral landscape, would political accountability not be eroded like the road to Lebeng in Bashoy, Kabayan, Benguet during the rainy months? How can there be conscientious exercise of political power if even before assuming an office, there is already machination and self-serving maneuver among some who aspire to be elected?

Meanwhile, a closer look at the local voting behavior will present a parallel trend. Even with the elections now automated, still, traditional voting patterns endure.

Those who watch local politics will notice that electors still vote for candidates based on blood relations (kabagiyan), ethno-geographic ties (kailiyan), familiarity (am-ammu), and amount given by the candidate (highest bidder politics).

Let me use the term “relative-ism” to describe how candidates trace consanguineous associations during election season. But of course, elections are a perfect season to re-strengthen familial connections and widen a candidate’s clout in the clan while fortifying a political base. Is it not common to hear the words “Agkakabagiyan tayo met ket” these days?

In Baguio, I often hear the phrase “kailiyan vote” from my friends who actively follow the city’s politics. This kind of voting pattern indicates that electors will throw their support to a candidate who hails from their home province or hometown. Parallel to kabagiyan, votes can be channeled to the one who is a kailiyan.

And what about the most celebrated vote-buying practice? Has automation eradicated this mother-of-all-electoral-fraud? Not as many expected.

Just like how social media provided a new political battleground, technology has birthed new methods of ensuring that candidates really get the vote they bought so expensively. One instance that came up during the 2010 automated elections involved the use of mobile phone cameras to capture a photo of the ballot before it was fed to the Precinct Count Optical Scan machine. This way, there is proof that the voter really went for the highest bidder.

The poll automation may have killed pre-automation electoral malpractices like the kontra-senyal used by designated watchers during the manual counting of ballots to detect who voted for their candidate. However, it has given rise to more advanced mechanisms to secure votes. And if one candidate wants to secure votes, he must ensure that his pockets are deep enough to sustain him until proclamation time comes.

While automation has definitely brought a new face to national politics, it has had little impact on local politics.

True, electoral reforms will only reach the grassroots if local politics will transform elections into a platform-based, liberal exercise. The true spirit of democratic elections will only be felt when the electoral process provides genuine opportunity for the people to execute their freewill.

Until then, the domination of the hunger gamers will continue and local politics will remain as the playground of the moneyed and the popular.
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