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Voter Ignorance in the Philippines: How It Harms Marginalized Communities and What We Can Do to Fix It

Published: at 02:34 PM

Tayo ang Liwanag Isang Pasasalamat | Ateneo de Manila University Tayo ang Liwanag Isang Pasasalamat | Ateneo de Manila University | May 13, 2022 | 📸 Photo by Mark Anthony Llego

As a Filipino citizen deeply troubled by the current state of our democracy, time and again, I have witnessed how ignorance among voters continues to plague our political system. This ignorance enables corrupt politicians like Rodrigo Duterte to take advantage of the marginalized and perpetuate vast societal inequalities. Through this personal account, I aim to highlight the urgent need to challenge voter ignorance and its harmful impact on our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

“Voter ignorance” - that’s the term I use to define voters’ lack of awareness or their misconception regarding candidates, their platforms, histories, and policy positions, alongside the overall political process. This includes a lack of understanding of how government functions, the issues at stake, one’s rights and responsibilities as a voter, and the ultimate impact of elections on communities. It is much more complex than merely being unaware of names on the ballot. Voter ignorance leaves citizens susceptible to manipulation by special interests and unable to make informed choices during elections.

Growing up in Basey, politics always seemed like a murky game played by powerful people far removed from everyday citizens like my family. We went about our daily lives without giving much thought to the politicians’ maneuvers and hollow rhetoric during elections. We only found ourselves fending off a deluge of grand promises, speeches, jingles, and posters featuring smiling faces promising change when campaign season approached.

Like many other Filipinos, my relatives made their voting decisions based not on policy issues, track records, or platforms, but rather on vague familiarity with names, personality traits, simplistic slogans, and misleading information. They confessed feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of both national and local issues, leaving them weak to the exploitative tactics and manipulation by opportunistic politicians.

It wasn’t until high school when I came to understand the detrimental effects of uninformed voting. As I began learning about our government system, I grasped that uninformed selections of leaders erode the very foundations of our democracy, allowing politicians to exploit their positions of power while marginalized communities suffer the consequences.

The intricate and broken state of Philippine politics stems from an uninformed electorate that ends up being susceptible to exploitation. Poverty, lack of access to education, a dismal public school system, economic disparities, and the influence of money and dynasties in politics have all led to an electorate often apathetic or indifferent about actively taking part in the voting process. This apathy and indifference towards their civic duties allow corrupt politicians to step in and fill the void.

Rodrigo Duterte rose to power by exploiting the ignorance and discontent of voters. He portrayed himself as an outsider who could fix the government’s problems with an iron fist. Many voters, frustrated with the failures of previous administrations, readily accepted his brash rhetoric and radical proposals without deeper scrutiny.

Duterte actively promoted misinformation and distorted facts to influence public opinion. For instance, he claimed that drug users in the Philippines numbered 3-4 million, a figure not supported by official data. Nonetheless, this claim justified his brutal war on drugs that led to thousands of extrajudicial killings.

By peddling false information, attacking critics as “enemies of the state”, and suppressing dissent, Duterte stifled avenues for voters to be properly informed about the realities of his policies. This allowed him to evade accountability as vigilante killings and human rights abuses multiplied under his watch. Thousands fell victim to the unchecked violence and culture of impunity perpetuated by Duterte’s rhetoric. Mainstream media self-censored out of fear, leaving Filipino citizens with limited venues to access impartial information and speak out.

Furthermore, Duterte utilized patronage politics and relied on a cult of personality to maintain his popularity. He consolidated power by appointing close allies to key government posts and shielding them from repercussions over scandals, alleged corruption, and other abuses. Those who dared criticize him faced vilification, intimidation, and reprisals.

Duterte also used government resources and machinery to promote his chosen candidates and punish opposition figures. For instance, Senator Leila De Lima was jailed on dubious drug charges after investigating Duterte’s role in extrajudicial killings. This climate of vindictiveness and zero accountability weakened checks and balances and democratic institutions.

This climate of misinformation, impunity, patronage and fear propagated by the Duterte administration further disempowered voters. It became increasingly perilous for dissenting voices and critics to speak out and counter the government’s dangerous narratives. As a result, many voters felt powerless and unable to make informed choices.

The failures of the Duterte presidency underscore the damage inflicted when unscrupulous politicians take advantage of an uninformed citizenry. His exploitation of people’s ignorance, frustrations and fears to gain power came at a grave cost to Philippine democracy and society. Systemic reforms are needed to prevent such a resurgence of authoritarianism.

For instance, legislative and Comelec reforms could increase transparency in campaign financing, impose stricter prohibitions on vote-buying and political patronage, strengthen anti-disinformation laws, and ensure balanced access to media time for candidates from all parties. Regulation of social media platforms is also key to safeguarding the integrity of Philippine elections and democracy from large-scale coordinated disinformation attacks.

Factors including patronage politics, clientelism, nepotism, debt of gratitude, nuisance candidates, public opinion surveys, political branding, and outright bribery have a significant influence, limiting the freedom of Filipino voters. Local politicians take advantage of the vulnerabilities of poor communities by offering temporary financial aid and favors in return for political support. The voting decisions of these voters are based on personal loyalties and connections, not a candidate’s competence. Dynastic families take advantage of their name recall, and surveys sway impressionable voters. The dearth of substantive policy debates and manipulation by well-funded PR machinery keep citizens from making independent, well-informed choices.

Election periods bare the shameless exploitation of vulnerable demographics by politicians. Vote-buying becomes widespread in impoverished neighborhoods, with envelopes stuffed with cash, canned sardines, two kilos of rice, and noodles being handed out in exchange for votes. Grand campaign rallies are turned into populist spectacles, focusing more on entertainment than espousing policy stands. Misleading propaganda and disinformation spread via traditional and social media platforms promote fake news and narratives rooted in fear.

Marginalized sectors bear the worst of these exploitative tactics. Farmers in agricultural communities find themselves caught in political patronage systems where their livelihood hinges on supporting local elites. Urban slum dwellers are manipulated through precinct-level vote-buying schemes. Fisherfolk in coastal villages are swayed by immediate handouts over long-term policy reforms. Their voice and agency are stifled by elites who manipulate them to hold power.

The injustice is magnified by an unfair distribution of resources. The educated, privileged upper classes have the luxury of time and capability to research candidates and make informed decisions. However, a significant fraction of the populace struggles each day merely to survive, having limited opportunities to gain broader political awareness. This constant struggle leaves them stuck in poverty, governed by corrupt politicians who actively skew electoral rules and procedures to their advantage.

As I dove into these distressing realities, I grappled to reconcile the chasm between the Philippines’ democratic ideals and the lived reality of its marginalized citizens. It became evident that the right to vote - meant to be a great equalizer - instead transforms into a tool employed by elites to uphold social inequalities and power imbalances by resorting to vote-buying, patronage politics, fear-mongering, and misinformation campaigns.

Outrage was what I felt by the continued failings of the democratic process towards the poor and vulnerable. Our nation once had high hopes after the People Power revolution. But subsequent governments have been tainted by incompetence, self-interest, dynastic politics, and an uninformed citizenry easily swayed by empty promises.

The failures of the Duterte presidency underscore the damage inflicted when unscrupulous politicians take advantage of an uninformed citizenry. His exploitation of people’s ignorance, frustrations and fears to gain power came at a grave cost to Philippine democracy and society. Systemic reforms are needed to prevent such a resurgence of authoritarianism.

Leni Robredo’s presidential campaign in 2022 galvanized grassroots volunteerism and tried to counter disinformation with an issues-based platform centered on transparency, poverty-reduction and social inclusion. However, the massive machinery of patronage politics, authoritarian rhetoric and disinformation was too entrenched for her people-centric campaign to overcome. Her loss demonstrates the need to combat voter ignorance at its roots, before it enables authoritarian-leaning candidates to gain power.

Moving forward, we must bolster voter education, promote transparency, and embolden citizens to scrutinize leaders closely and hold them accountable. This is imperative to prevent the resurgence of authoritarianism, uphold human rights, and restore faith in our flawed but promising democracy.

The threats we face are tangible. Incidences of extrajudicial killings and suppression of dissent can foster a climate of fear, discouraging civic involvement. But we cannot let fear triumph over hope, or cower as repression smothers our democratic spirit.

The use of strategies like red-tagging and suppressing freedom of expression have bred a climate of fear, deterring citizens from participating in political discussions or interrogating those in power. This further weakens the voters’ ability to make informed choices.

Despite my profound disappointment, I knew that despair was not an option. If we, the citizens, allow this flawed system to persist unchecked without advocating for a reform, aren’t we just as guilty? I resolved to embrace civic responsibility more conscientiously.

It is vital for our education system to play a significant role in cultivating informed and resilient voters who can resist exploitation. Civics and good governance should be integral subjects from primary school onwards. Media and digital literacy need to be taught to counteract fake news and propaganda. The importance of free and fair elections, as well as intelligent voting, must be ingrained in students as crucial to democracy.

Not only the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), but other agencies too must step forward to lead voter education campaigns on a mass scale, instead of delegating it to underfunded NGO initiatives. The COMELEC and other government agencies have the resources and infrastructure to inform voters about registration processes, voting guidelines, platforms of national candidates, and chief policy issues facing our nation.

For instance, government agencies could have done more to fact-check and provide context to campaign promises like the one presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. made on April 17, 2022 - lowering rice prices to P20/kilo if elected. While this promise resonated with voters grappling with the rising cost of goods, it lacked substantive policy details outlining feasible methods to achieve such price controls.

Voter education campaigns should be broadcast in all major languages through mainstream media channels. No citizen should be deprived of basic voting knowledge due to language or resource barriers.

An increasing number of Filipinos now realize that change begins at the grassroots. Joining advocates who volunteered their time to go house-to-house in vulnerable communities, I helped explain electoral matters and candidacies in simple, relatable terms. The focus was to equip citizens to make informed choices regarding their future stealthily.

Non-profit organizations like Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), and National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) have initiated voter education drives aimed at first-time voters, out-of-school youth, and those in remote regions often neglected. These groups hold meetings and workshops in collaboration with parish priests, teachers, and young volunteers. Their objective is to make voter education accessible beyond traditional educational institutions.

To illustrate, I contributed my time and effort to the Leni Robredo 2022 presidential campaign. I became part of various volunteer groups, leading house-to-house information campaigns in both rural and urban barangays. Distributing pamphlets, educating voters about Leni’s platform of good governance and transparency, and encouraging them to learn more about her people-centric policies, became part of my routine. Also, I attended different campaign rallies organized by local chapters of the volunteer-driven Robredo People’s Council (RPC). Robredo described her campaign as a “people’s campaign,” crediting her supporters’ efforts in organizing grassroots events. The objective of our efforts was to engage citizens on issues directly relevant to their lives and empower them to make informed voting decisions.

Seeing these initiatives take root across the country has rekindled hope within me. The road ahead won’t be easy, but it isn’t insurmountable. Our people power revolutions have demonstrated what we Filipinos can accomplish when united for democracy. Now we must once again marshal that spirit - not merely to overthrow dictators but to overcome voter ignorance entrenched deep within.

We need to snap the vicious cycle where vulnerable citizens elect corrupt politicians, thus ensuring the continued existence of poverty and a state of powerlessness. Voters, especially the marginalized, must recognize their democratic power and civic duty. In return, candidates should strive to uphold the highest standards of integrity, competence, and genuine service.

Only then will our nation progress with government policies that truly align with the people’s will and welfare. This will demand sacrifice and tenacity from every citizen, not only during elections but across all societal levels. We must hold our leaders accountable continuously while empowering each other through grassroots education.

Even though it’s a monumental task, I hold a firm belief that Filipinos are primed to undertake the hard work it requires. We’ve witnessed the dire consequences of voter ignorance and apathy. We know what’s at stake if we remain inactive. A robust democracy where leaders serve with integrity, where voting empowers citizens - this is the bright future we must strive for collectively.

The time to take responsibility has arrived. Our democracy will only grow stronger when voters make informed choices, when citizens find their voice, when the marginalized claim their rightful place at the ballot box as empowered human beings, not just passive pawns. I stand ready to take on this challenge and invite my fellow countrymen to rise and join me. The future of our nation depends on these actions.