“Wala akong karapatan bumoto.” (I don’t have a right to vote). I stood in the hot, meeting area in Aplaya, our community by the sea, in the middle of an education seminar, surrounded by 30 women and a few men and stared in disbelief.
In preparation for the 2013 Philippine elections, we prepared a voter education module to teach to our clients in the six community sites that we serve. In our module, we do not endorse any specific candidates but instead talk about what qualities people look for in leaders, the roles and responsibilities the different positions have, and seven of the issues that the Senate has been or will be tackling this year, and the stands of the Senatorial candidates on these topics. (Sin Tax, RH Law, Death Penalty, Divorce, Anti-Political Dynasty, Total Gun Ban and Same Sex Marriage). We urged our clients to think on what issues are important to them, and see which of the Senatorial candidates share their viewpoints. We had just started our session, and when I heard Arlene say she didn’t have a right to vote, I was floored.
I asked her what she meant and she explained that she is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo Church. Members of the church are given sample ballots with all the choices already filled in, and they are instructed to vote for the candidates the church leadership has chosen. I asked if she knew what criteria the Iglesia ni Cristo leadership use to determine who the church members should all vote for. She shook her head.
It’s All About the Money, Money, Money…
It soon became clear that Arlene was not the only woman who wasn’t sure with what criteria candidates should be judged and selected. When we asked what the most important criteria in a leader is, the first answer was, “Pera!” (Money!). The next was, “Basta may pera, boboto ko yan!” (As long as candidate has money, I’ll vote for him/her!)
During the discussion, the ladies actually contradicted themselves quite a bit. Initially, everyone said that they would only vote for the candidates who give them money. But then later on, they said that they would take the money that candidates hand out, but only vote for whichever candidate they really like best, even if that person didn’t give them anything.
Here in Puerto Princesa, the going rate is P300. People go to a political candidate’s rally, listen for a bit, have some merienda (a snack). They are then given cash, (this year everyone is giving P300) and asked to support the candidate. Some candidates gather crowds, then throw tshirts into the crowd. One woman reported that when she unwrapped her shirt, there was P100 tucked into it. In discussing the money that they receive during election season, one woman explained, “Ngayon lang kami nakakatikim ng pera, pag eleksyon.” (It is only during elections that we taste money.)
We asked how they felt about National elections since presumably they only get money from local candidates. One woman bluntly told us that they don’t care about National positions because there’s no money it in for them.
Approachability (For Money, Money, Money…)
During another part of our session, we asked our clients to list the qualities that are important to them in their leaders. The answers? “Kailangan, may puso at madaling malapitan.” (Leaders need to have a heart and be approachable.)
For Mayor, everyone said the important quality is approachability. “Pwedeng malapitan pag may problem at kailangan ng tulong.” (Someone you can approach when you have a problem and need help.) “Pwedeng lapitan pag may sakit at walang pambayad sa hospital.” (Someone you can approach when you are sick and can’t pay hospital bills.)
Give Us Some Eye Candy!
In discussing the traits and qualities that Congressional and Senatorial candidates should have, one woman enthusiastically said, “Basta artista, iboboto ko!” (As long as it is an actor, I’ll vote for him/her.) When we asked why, she said, “Kasi gwapo!” (Because he’ll be handsome.) When we pressed and asked why it was important for someone to be good looking, she explained, “Kasi, sa Senado ngayon, pangit na nga ginagawa nila, pangit pa sila. At least kung artistang gwapo, magandang tignan kahit pangit ang ginagawa.” (Because in the Senate now, the people are doing ugly things, and they are ugly to look at. At least if there’s a handsome actor, he’ll be nice to look at even if what he’s doing is ugly.)
We then asked our clients to list the roles and responsibilities they think each important position has. Almost everyone knew absolutely nothing about what the Congress people and Senators do. They had no idea what a Party List was for. They knew some of the roles for local positions, but listed things that actually happen with our current leadership, rather than what responsibilities the roles actually have.
Interestingly, despite not having any kind of understanding as to what the Congress and Senate do, and what their responsibilities are, the ladies had pretty negative views of the people currently holding these positions. When we discussed their roles, one group of women said, “Lahat sila pangit, walang magandang ginawa.” (They’re all ugly and don’t do anything good.) Other comments included, “mga babaero” (they are womanizers), “mga kurakot” (they are corrupt), “Nangangako na wala” (they make empty promises) and “gumagawa lang ng batas ng mayayaman” (they only make laws for the rich.) One woman thoughtfully noted that the Congress just make the rich richer, and asked what do they do for the poor?
Who Can Blame Them?
While it is pretty awful that the number one criteria for who to vote for seems to be who gives the biggest amount of money, I can’t blame any of these ladies. These are some of the poorest families in our province, with little education and opportunities for work. If candidates are going to hand out money, why shouldn’t they benefit? And really, why should they care about what happens in politics when their main concerns are where to get enough food and resources to simply survive?
How Will Anything Change?
I know that change takes time. And I know that at least the 200 or so people who we’ve provided this voter education to will hopefully think a bit about the issues and qualities that are important to them before they vote. I believe that to them, this has made a difference. Perhaps in the future the Commission on Elections and other groups will run more voter education sessions or require that candidates attend public debates to explain their positions on important issues. Perhaps someday candidates won’t buy votes. There are many things that need to change, but we can only take one step at a time. We’ll continue to provide education to our clients, and encourage critical thinking. This will hopefully spread to our clients’ husbands, families, and friends. Change takes time, but every bit of effort helps. I’m hopeful that someday things will change.