The next election: Another contest of personalities?

Published January 9, 2022, 12:10 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

We, Filipinos, are often contemptuously described as being more focused on “personalities” during elections. But the Spanish intellectual Miguel de Unamuno once wrote that it is a universal trend among voters everywhere to adhere more to personalities than to political platforms or personal achievements.

If there is nothing wrong with being personality oriented in politics, why do we usually end up choosing the wrong people to govern us? Perhaps, a flawed democratic process, which is a product of our history, distorted our personalism in politics.

When our colonial rulers introduced the democratic system of government to us, it was a case  of too much, too soon.”  Democracy was bestowed on us before we were ready for it.  The masses hardly realized that voting was an exercise of sovereignty.  Enterprising power brokers were quick to take advantage of the situation. Glenn May’s masterful account of 19th century elections in the Philippines somewhat describes our present politics:

“Political power in Philippine communities resided neither in the elected, nor in the electorate (who were generally bribed, cajoled, or threatened), but in the men who often took no official part in the election.  The election was, in effect, a marionette play, where the candidates, acting like puppets on the stage, performed according to a script and the men behind the scene pulled the strings.”

Very little has changed since. Many candidates today are mere dummies of power brokers (business tycoons, landlords, multinationals, political dynasties, or foreign countries) who often operate behind the scene. May describes the mindset of those who  won the elections, something that, to a great extent, prevails until now: “The leaders of Philippine communities have learned NOT how to serve government, but how to use government for one’s own interest and those who got themselves elected.”

Today, the powerful mass media aggravates our flawed sense of personalism in politics. As image-makers, unscrupulous media practitioners weave a web of myths about candidates in an election, which are published or broadcast repeatedly in various media outlets. With the help of dubious survey firms, they imprint in the mind of voters that these candidates are winnable and exceptional human beings who combine in themselves strength, intelligence, integrity, and forgivable moral frailties. It doesn’t matter if a candidate is a convict, a plunderer, or a rapist. Image-makers treat candidates like commodities which can be updated, overhauled, or improved. What matters is the packaging.

The power of the media has become all-pervasive, blurring the distinction between public opinion and mere publicity. Publicity has to do simply with who has more media mileage or newspaper notoriety.  If winning an election relies heavily on publicity, politicians with an extensive public relations machinery would always emerge as winners.  Mediatized politics is governed by Peter’s Principle which states: An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.   

Ideally, democracy works on the premise that human beings are capable of making correct judgment and responsible human decisions. Without this, democracy becomes a dance of fools, and the electoral process decays into blind ritualism.