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Elections and Legitimacy
by Benedict J. Kerkvliet and Resil B Mojares (editors)
Date: 11/17/2009

The essays here* focus on elections, particularly on voting behavior, who voted for whom and why. Nearly all the studies indicate that elections remain a key institution in the patterning of political life. While its power and appeal may have suffered some erosion, the electoral process remains widely regarded in the Philippines as the way through which leaders and holders of public office gain legitimacy and the charter to govern. One notes, for instance, that EDSA was less a denial of the electoral process and more a popular undertaking to affirm it.

At the same time, cynicism about elections and politicians is common. Poor people, as Alex Brillantes’s study of a Metro Manila neighborhood indicates, are often too preoccupied with making ends meet to pay much attention to elections which, in any case, they believe are frequently riddled with cheating. Similarly, a pronounced sentiment is that elections are essentially contests among candidates with little genuine interest in the problems of the poor majority, hence who wins is not terribly important to most people. Finally, they see office holders more often than not using public office for their own purposes rather than for public service.

This negative appraisal helps to explain why people may treat elections in instrumental ways—selling their votes, participating in a nominal way to please a relative or friend who is campaigning, or in other ways “working the system,” as Mojares summarizes this behavior. It also helps to explain the widespread indifference when Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, suspending most elections and disbanding Congress and other elected bodies. People were willing, partly because of the cynicism and partly in expectation of better results from government, to forego elections. As several essays here indicate, Filipinos can tolerate, perhaps even welcome, rulers not legitimated by elections so long as they deliver economic and other material improvements and maintain peace and order.

Marcos promised such a rule—a “new society” that would bring prosperity to the masses through urban and rural land reforms and economic development and that would take political power away from the oligarchy. For a while he succeeded. But by the early 1980s, if not before, a large proportion of people had concluded that he had not only failed but had made conditions much worse.

Marcos contributed further to his downfall by persistently twisting to suit his preferences those few elections that he did allow. By 1986, voters, impelled in part by a disintegrating economy and widening civil war (especially between the NPA and government troops), were determined to make the election a fair one in order to re-establish the role of elections for legitimating and meaningfully reconstituting government. Popular participation in the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which watch-dogged the balloting and counting in much of the nation, was the most obvious manifestation of a sentiment that ran deep.

- From “Themes in the Transition from Marcos to Aquino: An Introduction” by Benedict J. Kerkvliet and Resil B Mojares, in

*From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on Political Transition in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1991).

Source: From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on Political Transition in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1991)


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