[Message during the Kick-Off Program. 25 Sept. 2021]
To Mr. Alessandro Karlo Torreon, Samahan President, and Youth Leaders of the Ateneo de Davao University:
Congratulations in undertaking to support constructive political and social dialogue among Mindanaoan youth, to encourage high voter turn out esp. among registered voters of ADDU, and to work creatively on engaging citizens in this period of transition. Engaging citizens: meaning turning people’s citizenship on, making citizens aware of their power to make a difference in shaping our national community, empowering citizens to act in responsibility for the shared common good that is ours in belonging to this nation. Committing not only to accompany but to support our Philippine nation as we transition from one set of leaders to another: Samahan ang Pilipinas, samahan ang Pinas!
For today’s Samahan ang Pinas Kick-Off Program, congratulations on being interested in essential topics relating to voter engagement and other pressing social issues. If I understand this correctly, you are interested in the issues, including the social issues that would engage voters, shake them out of their complacency and comfort zones, and move them to respond to these issues in their use of the vote.
I googled “major election issues for 2022.” Google offers three: (1) Covid, (2) China, and (3) Domestic issues. COVID: the manner in which the Administration handled the COVID pandemic in this country. Worldwide, 4,550,000 have died from this virus. Nationwide, 36,018 have died. All nations of the world struggled with this, the richest and the biggest struggling ironically most. How did our elected official do in protecting lives, in managing infections, hospitalizations, hunger, in acquiring and distributing vaccines? This is an election issue. CHINA: the manner in which the Administration handled the relationship to China, including its aggressive and belligerent claims to the West Philippine Sea. The Administration announced an independent foreign policy posture, decoupling itself initially from the USA, its traditional ally; it dealt one-on-one with the Chinese government; it opened up the Chinese market; it invited Chinese investment in the Philippines; it confronted a complex and shrewd and determined giant. How did it do as recently it re-coupled with the USA in defense of its territories, its waters and its interests against China? Then, DOMESTIC ISSUES: How did the Administration do in areas like the state of education in the country today, like the state of free enterprise in the Philippines today, or like the Build! Build! Build! Infrastructure program, whether this helped the poor or mainly the business elite; like the care of the administration for the environment and the recent reopening of largescale mining in the Philippines and in Mindanao; like the regressive taxation system used in the country today, and finally the peace and order situation, like the creation of the BARMM as a contribution to peace in Mindanao, or the withdrawal of the Government of the Philippines from peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDFP in favor of a whole of nation approach to overcome the most protracted communist rebellion among nations in the world today. There are many such issues. Considering them could help guide political choice.
Meanwhile, some would say that in the Philippines the essential determinant in Philippine electoral choice is not the issues but the personality of the candidate you are voting into office. What are the candidate’s virtues and vices? Is the candidate a person of integrity or corrupt, a person of reliable character or volatile and unpredictable, a person who speaks truth or who speaks lies, a person who is credible or is not, a person who genuinely cares for the people and their welfare, or a person who merely constantly refers to two deceptive words “the people” in order to justify authoritative or unconventional or shocking decisions in governance? In political choice, is the assessment of a candidate’s personal life relevant: the quality of his or her spiritual life, the quality of his or her married life, the respect or disrespect he or she has for other genders, the manner in which he or she expresses his or her ideas? Is a candidate’s respect for law relevant to the person who would make decisions to enforce the law, or does the candidate’s zeal to enforce the law especially in difficult situations entitle him or her to break the law for the common good? Is character then the set of virtues by which one makes decisions in unflinching integrity, or the courage to depart from the consolations of integrity when the situation demands that complex evil be overcome? Do you choose a personality whose virtues on earth are heavenly, or one willing – as the song goes – “to march into hell for a heavenly cause”?
These are not easy alternatives. How you decide them, I suggest, indicates the quality of your choice, not immediately right or wrong, but each alternative pushing the nation and its governance into a culture which in daily life makes a difference. For me, in this context, a fundamental consideration is whether you are choosing candidates who would support a democracy or candidates who would drive an autocracy. When the verbiage justifying one or the other of these alternatives is set aside, in a democracy the people really count. The people, all the people without exception, not just the ruling elite, not just the educated class, not just the drivers of the economic system, are respected. The people are served. This means, the people are consulted. And what the people think or want or dream of counts. Therefore in decision making there is time for information dissemination, adequate discussion, consensus building, and for “free, prior, and informed consent” to courses of action. Why? Because in a democracy the people count – more than the economist’s genial programs or more than the businessman’s compulsive gain. Humans count, especially their fundamental human rights, most especially their right to life. In a democracy, elections count; votes are protected, counted and honored. The will of the electorate counts. A democracy, famously, is the rule of the people, by the people and for the people.
A democracy is not the rule of persons who manipulate two deceptive words “the people” or even the word “democratic” to justify their autocratic rule. This is the rule of “the people” as in the People’s Republic of China or in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or in the Federative Republic of Brazil. Autocracies today are even in vogue, with more and more democracies falling in favor of the perceived efficiency of the autocrats. They are governments of persons who think of themselves as the wise leaders of the generally dumb people who need their leadership. Or they are the wise leaders of a wise people whom they must forcibly keep dumb. Because they are wise, they tend to consider criticism dumb, or as a treasonous attack against their authority. Because they are wise, they deal with such critics as dissenters or as rebels; they deal with them not with the force of reason but the overpowering arguments of their guns or the silent screams in their prisons. Autocracies “get things done,” most often through the power of the military or the police, since there is no need for rational dialogue, arduous debates and political discernment – even when what is done serves the political interests of the autocrats more than the welfare of the people. Since they rule for “the people” the human rights of a few are of no consequence, nor are the personal or cultural sensitivities of the people important. Critics can be exiled, imprisoned, tortured by autocrats in the interests of the State; the State can even eliminate whole ethnic groups because they are different from the ethnic majority. They do this through “othering” and hatred, violent genocide or equally pernicious “cultural integration”; they do this to eliminate cultural differences that are inconsistent with their worldview. An autocracy is the rule of the few in the name of “the people.”
Certainly choosing between democracy and autocracy is an issue to engage voters – especially youthful voters. What is the future for the Philippines that you choose in voting? Do you vote to take responsibility for political conduct in the Philippines or do you vote to cede your responsibility to a mother figure or a father figure or a Lolo or Lola figure? After all, you might say: in my real life, what I take responsibility for is not the welfare of all, but just my job and making sure that through that job my family can eat. Kaya, nananahimik lang ako.
So, consider the fundamental choice between democracy and autocracy. It is not just a choice of this or that candidate, but the choice in choosing a candidate to own democratic responsibility for all decisions made in government, or to disown that responsibility and leave public governance to the wisdom or folly of selected politicians.
Finally, but only briefly since my time is running out: truth matters. Samahan ang Pinas in truth, not in lies. The global pandemic today, in my view, is not the Coronavirus. It is a crisis in truth. Many of our big words like democracy, service, commitment, right, wrong, justice, the common good, have been so abused by non truth that they have lost the ring of truth. President Biden says, democracies deliver. But in the face of Afghanistan, in the face of Myanmar, and possibly even in the face of the Philippines, do democracies deliver? Till today, the reputedly greatest democracy in the world cannot seem to withstand a leader who trumps the system just by repeating and repeating lies. When politicians say, “I promise…,” “I will do this, I will do that…” do what they now say ring true. When a political figure bows to his electorate and kisses the flag does this manifest love for the nation or is it a shameless gesture in cynical hypocrisy? That’s what Trump did as he kissed the flag, cried Make America Great Again and then proceeded to undermine its democratic institutions in self interest. So in the Philippines, what is the truth about the poor who are desperate about how to survive? What is the truth about students who are anxious really to learn so that in a better future they might thrive? What is the truth about the poor in our Build! Build! Build! economy? What is the truth about the environment as large-scale open pit mines take down old growth forests, kill bio-diversity, poison river systems and deliver the patrimony of the people to foreigners. What is the truth of the politicians’ concern for the families of drug addicts ravaged by drugs if in a campaign against illegal drugs the most vulnerable victims of the drug trade are killed? What is the truth of peace in the Philippines, if peace is hollow unless built on social justice, and social justice is empty unless respectful of the dignity and rights of human person? What is he truth that your conscience is pointing to?
Dear youth, citizens of the Philippines, these are issues that require serious reflection, true discernment. My plea: upang samahan ang Pinas, accompany, support the Philippines in truth. Vote truth. And when you vote truth, remember you cannot separate truth from the God of Truth.