April 6, 2016, by Editor

Philippines 2016: The Political Spectacle and the Frustrated Vote

Written by Anthony Lawrence A. Borja.

In understanding what a political spectacle is I find a brawl as an apt analogy because when one breaks out in the open you will find at least six types of people.  First are those who are in the fight (i.e. representatives and other citizens in the public sphere), second are spectators forming the human cordon around it, and third are those who are passers-by paying marginal or no attention to the spectacle.  Now from the chain of spectators there are those who would either join or try to stop the fight, and those who will simply walk away from the spectacle upon losing interest.  Lastly, there are those who would remain as mere spectators during the entire span of the spectacle.  Electoral Politics usually takes the form of brawls ranging from the verbal and civilized, to the physical and savage, if not deadly encounters.  These engagements are based, not only upon activities ranging from festivities to violence but upon the projection of competing narratives that are meant to attract people who share the sentiments projected via political marketing.  I note that spectators are attached and concerned with the narratives behind and projected by such spectacles, and that this attachment in turn defines and sustain their spectatorship.  However, I note that election in a democratizing state is a curious spectacle since it is based upon both sustained spectatorship and its brief suspension.  Thus, in the context of relatively high voter turnouts averaging at 74.25% from 1992 to 2013, the persistence of a myriad of social problems, we must turn our attention towards the link between frustration and the narratives being projected during the current 2016 elections. 

Behind all political action is rationality, or the capacity to justify and explain an act as a result of both calculation and emotional attachment.  Moreover, it is a process based upon one’s understanding of the political arena.  Simply put, we evaluate, judge, and act as political animals in accordance to our understanding of how the political arena works and our place/role in it.  From this simple schema we can define the frustrated vote as a result of an intense need for social change tied to a clear sense of powerlessness.  It is not irrationality but a result of it.  A frustrated vote, like an emotional outburst is based upon a contraction of perception that can make citizens ignore vital factors surrounding their choices (e.g. civic values, plausible effects).  Thus, the primary beneficiaries of frustrated votes are demagogues who can appeal, amplify, and harness social frustration, and autocrats who can substantiate promises of immediate action by trumpeting simple solutions to complex problems.  This is the kind of vote that gave government offices to dangerous creatures ranging from violent dictators to politicians who can hide their shallow minds, administrative incapacities, and corruption behind empty rhetoric and flattery.  However, we must understand that the character, promises, and ideas behind the probable recipients of frustrated votes are in reality, criticisms poised against the incumbent system.  To be specific, on one hand support for a populist leader is reflective of a need for proper representation and empowerment and the solidification of the populist narrative in the Philippines is indicative of the persistence of patron-client relations as a substitute for weak democratic institutions.  On the other hand support for an autocratic “man of action” emanates from the need for strong leadership that “can get things done”.  It is, in other words, an indirect critique against the perceived inefficacy of government institutions.  Simply put, a frustrated vote can be considered as the following: (1) a product of social problems affecting, shaping, and framing our consciousness and rationality as citizens; (2) the basis of political narratives that can appeal to both the sense of powerlessness of citizens and their need for change.   

A frustrated vote is an act emanating from weak citizenship and a common history of failures characterizing a weak political system.  To elaborate, social frustration is produced by a political system based on political alienation and disempowerment, and collective history constituted by wasted potentials tied to sustained failures in public affairs.  To illustrate, at the national level, Filipinos were promised greatness and public welfare by politicians for decades, and for decades disappointments outweighed actual achievements.  Old, festering problems like corruption, widespread poverty, the ineffective provision of social welfare, a weak armed force, and an underdeveloped economy lingers on while promises of resolution piles up ever higher with each passing election.  Other social problems that politicians tried to sweep under the rug now sticks up like sore thumbs, adding to the overall collective memory of a socio-political gangrene we can call sustained government failure.

Another factor that must be taken into account to complete the picture is the reduction of many of us to the role of disempowered spectators that are regularly unleashed every three years.  Disempowered citizen-spectators are trapped between two rocks like the legendary Bernardo Carpio of Philippine mythology.  On one hand, we are restricted to the act of surrendering public welfare – our welfare as a nation – to an undemocratic system of representation dominated by an incumbent oligarchy who are against each other but are united by the goal to keep the citizens subservient by all means possible.  On the other hand most of us are trapped by the drudgeries of everyday life to an extent that our attachment to the public sphere is reduced to mere creation and sharing of opinions (and yes, this article like many are products of citizens sandwiched between these two boulders).  Thus, the persistence of frustration among Filipino allowed the solidification of the populist narrative and the re-emergence of the autocratic vote.  The former currently has two distinct manifestations embodied by Jejomar Binay and Grace Poe.  The latter on the other hand is embodied by Rodrigo Duterte’s “macho and iron-fisted politics” and Bongbong Marcos’ politics of “reminiscence”.

To conclude, I note that the frustrated vote is the sister of the frustrated non-votepracticed by citizens who either had enough of the system that they descend into apathy, or have enough cynicism in their understanding of politics that though they are keen on observing the political arena, they are unwilling to take part in it.  The frustrated non-voter is a curious entity that is reflective of our over-all condition as a people; we are a nation of frustrated citizens under a leadership that many see as ineffective if not utterly parasitic.  Many of us are reduced by and kept within disempowering conditions by apolitical system based upon the civic castration and disempowerment it created.  Political alienation is a cycle producing a mass of frustrated votes and non-votes. The means to break this vicious cycle, as far as the ideals of a strong democracy is concerned, cannot be found within the electoral process.

Anthony Lawrence A. Borja is a lecturer in the Political Science Department of De La Salle University.  His areas of research and publication are in political philosophy and comparative politics. Image credit: CC by Pixabay. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines.

Posted in Philippines