published May 10, 2010, Manila Standard Today
A fictional character delivers a genuine plea.
Today is my birthday. I am 20 years old—a grown man, as my father would say. I will celebrate by going to the polling station and exercising my right —and obligation—to vote. That it’s my first time makes it all so special. But I have a problem: I still don’t know whom to vote for, at least for president.
I have spent the last few weeks weighing my options. I really think this election is make or break for this country. Whoever wins the top slot will have a lot on his shoulders. But whose shoulders are most deserving?
This uncertainty has prevented me from signing up as volunteer in any of the campaigns. I would have loved to help out; it feels good to be part of some worthy cause. I know this because I volunteered during relief efforts for Ondoy’s victims last year. My friends and I gathered donations from the families of our schoolmates, brought them over to a warehouse operated by some foundation. We sorted and packed these items and handed them out to families in evacuation centers in Pasig and Marikina.
Unfortunately, we have no idea what has happened to those families. Did they find their missing loved ones? Were they able to move on? Did they rebuild their homes or move into safer ground? More importantly, what are their chances of avoiding a similar fate should another storm come along? Helping out gave us such a high, but now I know that the feeling of doing something meaningful should only be the start of our concern. We have to make sure our good intentions are seen through, to the end.
I’ve studied the profiles of the candidates and I have noted what media say about them, taking into consideration that media outfits may themselves betray some bias. I’ve seen how the candidates conducted themselves during debates, if they showed up at all. I’ve listened to what they propose to do. Two of them, who seem to know what they are talking about, catch my attention. They look like able executives and inspiring figures.
One of them, who has proven his mettle as a local executive, just cannot seem to connect with the masses. The other has the burden of association with the unpopular incumbent president. Worse, he was ditched by numerous local politicians who had conveniently joined the ranks of those leading the surveys, The man is intelligent, firm, decisive—and he is always positive.
But I look at the surveys and neither candidate appears to be within striking distance. Shall I strike them off my list, then?
On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to believe in any one of the three leading candidates. I don’t trust people who bring others down just to boost their own stock. Worse, they act as though they have the copyright to a certain color or to the map of the Philippines. Do they have the monopoly of love of country? They get the most illustrious show business personalities to endorse them—as if these pretty faces and slapstick artists know better. These candidates present themselves as Messiahs. I think that’s being delusional, but the people seem to bite into it. What a tragedy.
One more year, and then I will be done with engineering school. I will graduate, take the board exams, find a job, save for a few years and then ask my girlfriend, who is studying to become a teacher, to marry me. In that order. I don’t think my parents will approve, though. They expect me to seek a high-paying job abroad. The country is going to the dogs, they warn me. While I was growing up, they took turns working in the Middle East. Father as a construction worker, Mother as a nurse. Now they are excited to go to the United States, courtesy of my older sister who has married an American. My parents have their reasons, and they deserve a better life after all they have sacrificed for us. But there is no way I am going with them. I want to stay here.
And so elections have to work. No revolutions, please. People power was good the first time but it becomes an embarrassment if you make it a habit.
Now they are telling us that the automation of the polls is in danger. Machines may malfunction, flash cards may be programmed to yield a desired result, power failures may occur. I am perplexed. My generation knows technology as a friend and enabler. I cannot imagine going about my daily functions without my cellphone, or a computer, or the Internet. Imagine a weekend without cable television or DVDs. The country spent so much money on automation, and so much is expected of it. It is supposed to do away with delay and human error and manipulation.
Most other countries take the election process for granted, focusing instead on the way people decide and hold their elected officials accountable for the promises made during the campaign. I wish we could be at that level, too.
There is something more fundamental than technology issues. Most Filipinos see public officials not as public servants to represent them, enable them to make their own lives better, and be accountable to them. Instead, politicians are seen as power wielders, patrons, and magicians who make the problems of the poor go away.
I was in a jeepney the other night on the way to my dorm. A beggar approached the driver of that jeep for some alms. The driver said he had nothing to give. The beggar tapped the cap of the driver as if to taunt him. On impulse, the driver shoved the beggar’s hand away. The beggar punched the driver on the face.
This is what happens when people expect instant gratification. If you don’t dole out, they strike you, and strike you out. How does one change the mindset of the poor, that feeling of entitlement to doles? Do you give them food on the table and wave a few bills in front of their faces? That’s not empowering the masses. That’s consigning them to a life of dependency. Unfortunately, politicians want the people dependent on them, so the people can express their gratitude by delivering the votes during elections. So whose interests, in the long run, are these self-proclaimed saviors after?
It is easy to get depressed when you think about the country’s problems. Poverty is just one of them. There is corruption. Inadequate infrastructure. Unemployment. Vulnerability to disasters.
Much as we want to say that a country’s direction lies on its entire population and not just one person, I know too that having an uninspiring, wayward or weak chief executive will be detrimental to our progress. He will be too busy putting out fires instead of getting any real work done. He will be watching his back all the time, afraid the people around him will eat him alive, instead of inspiring them and delegating the work efficiently.
On second thought, I now know what I have to do—vote according to my conscience. No poll survey, religion, peer and parental pressure will dictate the name I will shade on my ballot today. The “wasted vote” is a myth. The only way we waste our vote is if we become lazy enough to give it to somebody who does not deserve it.
Today I cast my vote for the first time, and despite the imperfections of our democracy, I remain hopeful. I’ve never felt so proud to be a Filipino.