What the Philippines Elections Tell the World

The midterm elections in the Philippines on May 13 catapulted to a seat at the Senate a late dictator’s daughter, who had been accused of lying about her academic background and of graft, and had denied the atrocities during her father’s 20-year reign. Likewise, an actor and senator, who had been imprisoned for four years for plunder involving a pork barrel scam and later acquitted but ordered to return public funds worth over a hundred million pesos, won another Senate term. Both candidates bested others who have no derogatory record and pending cases in court. And despite the damning controversies that continue to hound the Duterte administration, from the drug war killings to its stand on the South China Sea row, the president’s allies dominated the elections.

Those who had voted for these winners were called many names: dumb, illiterate, paid voters. The actor’s victory was even hilariously attributed to his “budots” dance, which appeared in the campaign video as crazy dance moves with no required choreography. People said had they known one could simply dance his way, that way in particular, to a Senate seat, they would have done it too. At other times, some blame the popular narrative of Filipinos being forgetful of their history as well as forgiving of the injustices done to them for the electoral results.

Forgetful or forgiving

In an informal survey conducted this August, 15 out of 22 Filipino respondents agreed that Filipinos are forgetful of their history, while six said no and one said sometimes. When asked if Filipinos are likewise forgiving of the wrongdoing or injustice done to them, 15 answered yes, five said no, and two said sometimes depending on certain factors such as the nature, impact, and understanding of the situation. The respondents, who were between 19 and 65 years old, came from public and private sectors, academe, and the unemployed.

According to prolific Filipino writer Francisco Sionil Jose, whose works have emphasized the social framework, class struggles, and colonial history of Philippine society, Filipinos are indeed forgetful of their past. In one of his Literature classes at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila during the 90s, he cited this as one of the reasons the country hasn’t reached its full potential. Having seen different generations passed by, the National Artist for Literature—now 94 years old who gobbled an apple pie with eyes closed and a diet soda in seemingly utter delight during the interview—continues to stand by this belief for many reasons.

The “lack of ancestorship” is one, he said. “We don’t have the kind of religion that other Asians have which emphasizes ancestor worship. These people—the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese—have a lineage and they worship their ancestors.” It doesn’t help as well that the country has many different tribes and is a divided people. “There were no great families, no monarchy in the sense that there is no royalty. Royalty in itself is built on history, on the hereditary nature. For us, we have none. We have a datu system, but just in certain areas where the title and the power are passed on to their children,” he added. He thinks these are the reasons that “memory is not institutionalized in the Philippines,” but that learning and remembering history is very significant because it makes one rectify and not repeat the mistakes of the past.

But that is not all. The recent election has a different story to tell, one that is besides forgetfulness. Sionil Jose believes the winning politicians have spent a lot of money to get where they are now. Reports of vote-buying have long marred Philippine elections with people allegedly receiving as low as PHP500 (approx. USD10) for a vote, particularly targeting the poorer, smaller communities around the country. “So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Filipinos have forgotten the atrocities,” he said.

To Filipino historian Michael Charleston “Xiao” B. Chua, Filipinos are “in one way forgetful, in one way not,” adding how all people only choose what to remember and what to forget, especially forgetting the things that gave them bad memories. Experience also plays a big role in remembering. “Did all Filipinos experience the sufferings of Martial Law? Of course only the victims were able to experience… So that’s our problem there. If you didn’t experience it, would you remember it? That’s where the importance of teaching history comes in,” he said in a phone interview. Also because it was dictatorial and there was censorship at that time, thus suppressed information on the killings and abuses by the government, he said the only things reported back then were the projects of that administration.

Political dynasty in the country also has a rippling effect in one’s memory. A political family, a national crisis, or a revolution can alter the image of another party and influence the emotions of the people toward decision-making. Case in point is the People Power Revolution in 1986 that toppled the dictatorial rule and placed the wife of a slain senator, who was the dictator’s toughest critic, to presidency. Much later, the female president’s death had become a symbolism and emotional moment that led to her senator son winning the presidential elections. So Chua said that can’t be attributed to forgetting but “the manipulation of the image of both parties of history, of the use of history in political means.”

Affecting Filipino memory as well is the “minimized time for Sibika at Kultura (Civics & Culture as a standard subject in basic education),” according to Chua who teaches history at the De La Salle University in Manila. There is more emphasis now on subjects like English, Math, and Science, which is why Filipinos are becoming forgetful these days, he lamented. 

But are Filipinos forgiving then? “Yes, it’s a Catholic trait,” Chua affirmed. “And our leaders are not simply criminals with whom you don’t have emotional attachment. Your leaders are the persons you campaigned for, you stood for, so when they come into trouble and you know them all your life, you pity them.”

Former president Elpidio Quirino was a clear example of the forgiving attitude of Filipinos, said Sionil Jose, recalling that Quirino forgave the Japanese soldiers who massacred his family during the Battle of Manila in 1945. “Sometimes that kind of forgiveness is also brought about by the realization that someone you don’t like today might be able to help you tomorrow,” he said. True enough, Quirino was quoted saying in the past that his forgiveness stemmed from not wanting his children and people to inherit the hate he had for people who might still be their friends for the permanent interest of the country.

Filipinos also value good interpersonal relations and, as much as possible, refuse to hurt others. “You know the golden rule: Do unto others what you want others do unto you,” Sionil Jose said. “But there are also Filipinos who don’t give a damn to that.”

Emotions and solutions

Rather than being forgetful or forgiving, Chua would rather describe the Philippines as an emotional country. And by emotional, he meant a nation that is loving, compassionate, and hospitable on one side, and also extremely emotional when angry. “Being emotional per se is really not a bad thing, because emotions drive productivity. If you are properly motivated emotionally, you can use that in a positive or negative way,” he said. What’s difficult to take is what’s happening now, how Filipinos are sometimes using their emotions negatively, by dividing the country and fighting against each other for the sake of politics, he added. While there’s no such thing as “perfect unity,” he said a nation can’t move forward if the citizens are divided.

The Philippine political system likewise needs maturity, which doesn’t happen overnight, he said. Even though it can’t completely be eliminated, he hopes to see a law limiting political families. “That’s the reason why we are becoming emotional about old issues, because the political families are the same, not much from new faces.” Although he acknowledged that there are new officials elected who weren’t emphasized as the others but are proving to be good leaders voted by the people.

Nothing is permanent in this world, as they say. Not even political dynasties, Sionil Jose believes. As shown in the last elections, some familiar and once-powerful political families lost both national and local seats. “They grow old as the political temper of the times changes,” he said.

Sionil Jose has this advice for the Philippines to be progressive: better institutions as safeguard against history repeating itself. Filipinos apparently put their faith and trust in one leader alone, likewise supported by religion wherein there’s one God, one leader and by the family unit wherein the father is viewed as the head. “It’s okay to believe in that monotheistic society or religion, but what’s important are the institutions that will make all these things endure. Because if the institutions are not there, things will collapse,” he said.

The tragedy, however, comes when a country is in a political crisis, whether brought about by famine, a bad leader, or colonialism, because each man is for himself now. “All the seven virtues are thrown out of the window because the primary purpose of every individual is to survive. There are no more virtues of good governance and honesty because you only have one goal—to survive.” He recalled that this happened in the revolution in 1896 until the dictatorial regime, and that after a succession of crises or anarchy, the virtues went further downhill. “And it’s very difficult to revive them because people have gotten used to the lawlessness, to the corruption, so they take it almost as a matter of something normal.”

Therefore the most important issue to address, to drive the country to progress, is creating a just society and abolishing poverty. “Because many Filipino people are suffering,” he said in a rather gloomy tone.  “It takes one generation to change a country, just 25 years, as long as you have a very dedicated bureaucracy, meaning leadership and government to impose this program of modernization.”

Sionil Jose sees a lack of enough nationalism working today in the Philippines and so much depends on how one can change the mindset of these people while at the same time make them love their country. “Filipinos don’t love their country enough,” he lamented. According to him, the ones who really love the country are the peasants who toil under the sun and till the land because they understand how valuable the land they labor on is. Even the revolutionaries, many of them were peasants who went to fight barefoot, which is why movies depicting revolutionaries in boots had it completely wrong, he pointed out. “My grandfather was in the revolution, whose feet were like ginger because he was a farmer. So you can see that there’s almost a peasant tradition in this country being soldiers. Many of the soldiers now come from the poorest families,” he said.

He further said that one loves his country because his roots are deep in that soil and that he’s proud of the history of his country. He recalled how a Malaysian friend about his age expressed this, one time in the 1960s: “We are very envious of you because you fought all your conquerors—the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. We did not. Our freedom was given to us on a silver platter.” So Sionil Jose stressed that Filipinos must know their history because they are “very heroic people.”

That said, to bring back to life the compartmentalization of the Filipino narrative as merely a forgetful or forgiving race because of the electoral results is not entirely accurate. Neither is it fair. As Chua said: “Our traits are a combination of all the traits we got from our ancestors, the Americans, the Spaniards—that’s the Filipino.” And though electoral results don’t necessarily define the whole character of a nation, perhaps everyone can begin to learn from it.