Countering threats to democracy

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

In our country, pressing dangers to democracy are exemplified by the pandemic response that has been heavily inclined to social control, the specter of the postponement or cancellation of elections, the witch hunt against opposing and critical voices, the repression of civil and political freedoms, the use of emergency powers, and the widespread proliferation of disinformation.

Democracy is under great duress. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems has identified the following threats to democracy: (1) chaotic elections and a decline in trust in electoral outcomes; (2) disruption in the rule of law; (3) erosion of information integrity; (4) looming barriers to political access; (5) abuses of public sector trust and resources; and (6) declines in transparency and accountability.

In all counts, what have been victimized are the public spaces that facilitate assemblies where people can freely discuss and debate the pressing issues of the day. Virtual public spaces have emerged in online platforms as the safe and accessible medium of critical debate and cerebral interaction.

A panel of experts, reformers, and independent thought leaders from government, the academe, and civil society recently imparted their professional perspectives and organizational advocacies in the forum “Democracy Goes On: Upholding a Safe, Free, and Credible 2022 Elections in the New Normal,” where they tackled election issues and the current political and public health environment.

Henry Aguda, trustee of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, vigorously rallied for “free, fair, fraud-free elections,” while James Jimenez, spokesperson of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), reiterated assurances about the Comelec’s readiness to accommodate more than 63 million registered voters and guarantee the safety and credibility of the elections.

Dr. Ador Torneo of the La Salle Institute of Governance, reacting to the concern that there may be low turnout in the Philippines’ May 2022 polls, reported that despite the pandemic, voter turnout increased in 32 out of 90 countries. Well taken was his point that the success of the elections will depend on the COVID-19 situation, the policies of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the progress of the vaccination program, the adequacy of the Comelec preparations, and the stakeholders’ response to all these.

Another critical point raised by the panelists was the subtle but profound impact of disinformation. Rampant false information interspersed with populist promises on TV and social media platforms distorts the people’s democratic values and attitudes. A disinformed and misinformed population becomes easy votes for indecent and incompetent political players.

Since automated elections have purged the fraud-prone manual voting system, voters have had increasing trust in election results. Filipinos expressed “big trust” in the 2016 (74 percent) and 2019 (84 percent) automated election system (AES), according to a Pulse Asia survey commissioned by Stratbase ADRi. The same survey found that 9 out of 10 Filipinos agreed with the continued use of the AES in future elections.

Democratic convergence in the country’s diverse public spaces not only counter the threats to democracy, but also empowers us to choose the right leaders based on integrity, leadership qualities, sincerity, and track record in addressing urgent issues and concerns. All of us need to play an active role in fostering this convergence and ensuring our nation’s democratic renewal in the 2022 electoral challenge. We must learn from the damaging lessons of these times and seize the opportunity to revitalize our nation from the deep scars of the present pandemic and governance crisis.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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