Patronage, money or anger? Why people vote the way they do
A week after May 9, the newly-elected or reelected politicians will occupy the power seats at the local and national levels of government. The coveted positions of president, vice-president, senators, congress representatives, governors, mayors, and local councilors are up for grabs. They would mark the end of months of fierce campaigning in an election regarded as the noisiest, highly polarized, and hotly-contested high-stakes elections in recent Philippine history. Happening in the middle of the Pandemic, the 2022 automated elections will be quick but could be wrought with foreseeable challenges of security and accuracy issues.
By the evening of election day, the VCMs (vote-counting machines) of the controversial system provider Smartmatic would have counted the votes from 106,000 polling precincts all over the country and electronically transmitted to the Comelec servers. Waking up the next day, the winners are known. Depending on whose candidate you’re for, you are either ecstatic or doomed. Comelec has certified the VCMs trustworthy. Or are they?
As this column goes to press, the campaign that started last February is now coming to an end. A highly divided opposition wrestles with the lone opponent son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to gather votes from 65.8 million registered domestic voters and 1.69 million registered overseas absentee voters. Despite a seeming runaway for the top survey presidential candidate Marcos, everything is still fluid. But a poll analyst says that as election day nears, voters tend to firm up their preferences for their candidates. On the other hand, some studies show many factors can still affect voter behavior or elasticity in the voter’s choice even up to the time he fills in the ballot. It continues to amaze me, therefore, why people vote the way they do.
As a social researcher, I have had the opportunity to live and work in various communities of different cultures. As a result, I am aware of research about three cleavage-based voting factors such as class, gender, and religion which influence voter preference. But I want to put forward three most possible reasons I believe have a more profound influence on how voters choose their candidates: patronage, money, and emotions.
In a predominantly feudal environment like Bicol, a culture of patronage or utang na loob undeniably pervades every election and social relations. The patron-client or amo-tauhan relationship generally describes the transaction between political leaders (amo) who belong to a higher socio-economic status and have the power to provide material doleouts to people in the margins (tauhan). This amo-tauhan relationship can also manifest in the kamag-anak and kababayan syndrome. In feudal relationships during elections, the tauhan almost always have no choice but to commit their votes to the amo. The connection is more personal, practical, and beneficial in getting favors and promises of rewards to the tauhan and the family. In rural areas where most Filipinos are poor, with low educational backgrounds, and are neglected by essential services, this kind of transaction is most prevalent and frequently abused. Patronage encourages the culture of dependency and mendicancy in Philippine society.
Endorsements - direct or indirect - and enforcement policies wielded by big powerbrokers like the political dynasties, military, church, and business, can significantly help influence voting choices. They create bandwagon effects like adulating fans of certain showbiz personalities and enforcing business establishments or store owners over their workers and employees. With increasing incidents of militarization in some communities, the military and its local functionaries have proven to be powerful vote changers where guns-goons-and-gold rule. The influence of factions or warring local politicians is tested in these elections, especially in provinces where political dynasties remain entrenched. All of them – good or bad -- are influential powerbrokers who constitute a part of the machinery for candidates to win.
The Pandemic and the economic problems that go side by side with the crisis have become a more vulnerable ground for vote-buying, especially in a tight race like the 2022 elections. In a region like Bicol which for decades has long remained unchanged from the time of Marcos to the present, money or its promise is a game-changer for vote choices. Many studies have shown that patronage politics co-exist with political dynasties and vote-buying monetary or material rewards. These times, vote-buying has turned teki and a lot easier to transact with sophisticated means of transferring money - GCash or online banking?
Vote-buying has become increasingly widespread since Day 1 of the campaigns, especially more blatant in the week leading up to election day. A house-to-house campaign is not only about marketing a relatively unknown candidate to the voters. It has long been a mechanism as well for the surreptitious distribution of money or dole outs for enlisting votes - tempting enough to accept during these critical times of joblessness and high prices.
Anger is the most powerful emotion that can influence votes. Anger can be an awakening tool, a mobilizer, and an organizer by itself. Inciting feelings – especially anger- in each campaign can powerfully change electoral outcomes. Communication studies show anger as an influential motivating factor for choosing candidates in an election. We see this very dominant today in social media. Anger can motivate people to talk, participate, and move in favor of a particular action. But anger, anxiety, and fear can also be counterproductive if not handled sensibly. When shared with a clear platform, program, and vision for change in the country, it is an effective agitation to harness and mobilize for future actions.
I have personally made my choices for the elections. Patronage and money have no place in my heart when choosing my leaders. Anger against indifference, failed promises, lies, and elitism have awakened a newfound hope for change in me. My deeper commitments for democracy, good governance, social justice, and people-centered development for Bicol and the country matter most to me now. Traditional elections won’t change that.