Democracy goes on

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) has affected the delivery of public services and postponed events that are crucial to maintaining social cohesion, justice, and democracy. The electoral process is one such event under threat. That said, it becomes imperative, not just in spite of the pandemic, but because of it, that an election that truly reflects the will of the people is able to push through.

An election within this new context must possess certain characteristics to be deemed a genuine reflection of public sentiment and political desire. In as much as the electorate delivers the votes, the power of the ballot and sanctity of the vote emanates from the believability of actual results and the credibility of the whole electoral process.

In turn, an election’s believability and credibility is a three-fold task, where government, candidates, and the electorate perform specific and general roles. For the government, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) serves as the institutional anchor under which the electoral playing field is regulated and managed. Contrary to the negative historical image, public perception about the Comelec and our national elections has improved during the past four election cycles.

During a virtual town hall discussion organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute on Elections and electoral continuity during this pandemic, Dr. Ador Torneo of La Salle Institute of Governance, presented empirical evidence showing this trend of improvement. According to Dr. Torneo, election-related issues such as cheating and violence have trended down over the past election cycles. At the same time, he also noted that a vast majority of Filipinos found the results of the automated elections increasingly credible.

Given the momentum and credibility the Comelec has from previous elections, it is now in a vantage point to continue engaging with non-government organizations and institutions like the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), Democracy Watch Philippines, and other civil society groups that work towards transparent and truthful elections in the Philippines. Forging an electoral partnership with these formations and other stakeholders will broaden and strengthen the institutional base of democratic elections.

Notwithstanding, Comelec could go more in-depth by re-evaluating its procedures and internal capacity in order to prepare for the delivery of an accessible, safe and secure election, taking cues from successful elections held in countries like Singapore and South Korea where a combination of technology and health safeguards were used to ensure that elections continue.

With regard to the candidates, their political platforms are proving to be more programmatic and voter-specific as the traditional way of mobilizing and engaging voters through guns, goons, and gold are becoming less effective. Evidently, the ongoing health crisis has adversely affected the socio-economic welfare of the whole country. And it is the long-term societal impact of this health predicament that the 2022 elections must contend with.

In addition to this, however, political parties must also recognize that they have a role to play in ensuring safe and healthy elections. While speaking at the institute’s virtual discussion, Comelec Director James Jimenez said, while Comelec is preparing its own safety measures for the upcoming elections, political parties should also take on their own initiatives to ensure COVID-19 safeguards are in place and followed during campaigning.

For the electorate, continuing electoral education must be sought. Though the electorate is becoming more “intelligent” and cautious about nuisance candidates and programs, we must be able to identify candidates who are most likely to heed and attend to the personal and national concerns of the population.

It is also the electorate who should exhibit vigilance and vibrant citizenship to defend and uphold democratic processes. Aside from responsible voting, the Filipino citizenry should serve as the overseer of our institutions. Only through an active citizenry can we arrest existing undemocratic practices and other attempts that directly undermine well-established procedures.

Considering the spillover effects of the pandemic toward 2022, the idea of postponing the elections due to the “health emergency” will have wide-ranging damaging consequences to our Constitution, institutions, and democracy. Ateneo School of Government Dean Ronald Mendoza emphasized this point as one of our speakers during our virtual discussion on elections, noting that elections are “critical” especially under a pandemic. Credible elections during this pandemic, he said, hold extra special importance because of the power transfers that happen during this period.

Thus, the Comelec must come up with both actual and simulated plans for conducting elections in the post-pandemic period. With a well-thought and well-coordinated election strategy, political continuity could be assured.

And, democracy goes on.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. Image Source: Associated Press via Dhaka Tribune.

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