Hope in the Philippines

phillipinesAt the request of our partner church – the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – and in partnership with the Synod of South Australia, JILL RUZBACKY from the Justice and International Mission unit travelled to the Philippines in April to participate as an International Election Observer for the 2016 Philippine National Elections.

The lead-up to the Philippines general elections on 9 May was everything I expected it to be. It’s a time when the national media becomes obsessed with the celebrity of political figures, when grand promises are trumpeted by the different parties and their candidates, and every possible gimmick is deployed to convince the voting public to cast their ballot for a particular candidate (not much different to the recently-held Australian elections!).

One of the most endearing traits of Filipinos is their eternal optimism. When it comes to elections there is a continued belief and hope that they can bring about positive changes, despite a history that could perhaps indicate otherwise. The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) in their Guide for Politics of Change and Meaningful Elections said “… we must affirm this hope, but for this to become a reality we need to become a nation of discerning voters … elections can only be a tool for democratic change if we, the people, engage in active discernment about the choices we make and remain vigilant in guarding our choices”.

The NCCP and its member churches do not recommend candidates (similar to UCA), but encourage members to cast a vote as an act of a considered conscience and as an act of faith. They believe they are called as Christians to keep their eyes on the greater good of their people, especially the most disadvantaged, and to cast their vote as an act of faith in practice, not just as an act of self-interest.

Pastor Edwin Egar from UCCP and the Batangas Ecumenical Movement hosted me throughout my stay. He said the monitoring program was started because the Church believes that it is part of their duty to guide people in a clean and honest election – the vote is sacred and needs to be protected.

Political violence is a long-standing problem in the Philippines, often fuelled by lax gun laws, corrupt security forces and political ‘dynasties’ with their own security forces. Authorities declared these elections as peaceful, yet 10 people died across the country in isolated incidents relating to election day violence.

There were concerns that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) had not put in place safeguards to ensure the integrity and secrecy of the vote, or a transparent, accurate and credible vote count.

Comelec purchased vote counting machines, in spite of the fact these machines had malfunctioned during the 2010 and 2013 elections. Comelec failed to address the 32 glitches that were observed in 2013. Yet one of the published positive outcomes of the elections by Philippines officials was that “… only 64 of the 92,000 electronic voting machines in use malfunctioned”.

But, as NCCP reflected, no modernised election system will ensure democracy and a just government unless the systemic problem of fraud and violence – the entrenched modus operandi of powerful politicians and dynasties – is addressed decisively and comprehensively. In any electoral exercise, an organised and vigilant citizenry is the paramount requirement.

On a 39 degree day in the middle of a hotter-than-average Philippines’ summer, almost 83 per cent of the country’s 55 million eligible voters turned out to cast their vote – sometimes waiting up to four hours to do so. While there was an underlying realisation that the elections may not bring about desired changes because it is still a contest primarily of the elite, there was a strong element of hope.

All over the country there were changes in leadership, including at the very top. The elected President, Rodrigo Duterte has previous records of human rights abuses, but won the majority of votes in what some called a ‘protest vote’ by the masses.

People are hopeful – hopeful of change; hopeful of things being done differently; hopeful of the government being more accountable to the masses.

Only time will tell … but hope remains!

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