This presidential election season has become one of the most interesting I’ve ever experienced. So many elements have come into play. More polling firms have been conducting surveys to predict the election outcome. Other firms are doing online sentiment analysis, or tracking Google searches to out-predict the surveys. It will be good to see which of these predictions will turn out to be correct come election day.
The presidential debates have taken a bizarre turn, with the survey frontrunner Bongbong Marcos, Jr. refusing to participate. It’s a testimony to the strange new world we live in that a politician who claims that he wants to lead the country refuses to answer questions in front of the public.
Supporters of Marcos and Vice-President Leni Robredo, locked in an asymmetric contest, extoll the traits of their respective candidates. The Marcos camp has taken a commanding survey lead through social media strategy. In contrast, the Robredo camp uses a house-to-house ground game to try to convert many of the undecided to their side. If for nothing else, the Robredo strategy shows that a people-based presidential campaign is possible, and the billions in financial support traditionally expected from big contributors may not be necessary aftis all.
Still, I worry that in the end, whoever wins will not matter for what ails the country. Focusing on candidate personalities instead of issues and programs has mired our nation more deeply into what some analysts call teleserye (television soap opera) politics. Moreover, framing the election in terms of the leading candidates as bida (protagonist) and contraband (antagonist) tends to distract us from thinking about the needed changes in our social structures and cultural systems. Unfortunately, we have fallen into this trap repeatedly during the past elections.
Persistent poverty, growing inequality, and pervasive corruption stunt our country’s social and economic development. Despite anyone’s wishful thinking, these will not magically disappear just because of a new occupant in Malacañang. Social structures and cultural values make these problems very sticky.
Social structures refer to the positions and powers that people have in our society, the relationships of these positions with each other, and the rules and resources that apply to these positions and relationships. The main aspects of our social structures that need to change include the short-term contractual employment of workers, the control of major corporations by elite families with minimal competition, the control of local governments by political dynasties, and the patronage relationship of citizens with elected leaders. No matter who the next president will be, not much socio-economic progress can happen under these social structures.
What about the cultural system? This comprises ideas, beliefs, and values relating to governance handed down from generation to generation. Some problematic cultural beliefs among our people include: “The welfare of one’s family is more important than the common good.” “The rich and the powerful deserve more privileges.” “Corruption is necessary to facilitate dealings with government.” The worst cultural belief is, “Elected leaders will solve our problems with minimal participation from us as citizens.” This lack of civic commitment and participation from the people prevents any social change from happening despite whoever gets elected.
While the above social structures and cultural systems are givens in our society, we must change them through the president’s leadership and our concerted action. Over the next six years, the president will need to build and mobilize a coalition of supportive legislators, civil society organizations, and citizens to effect fundamental changes. For example, the bill ensuring workers’ security of tenure has to be restudied, possibly amended, and refiled. Moreover, our educational systems should instill in people’s minds that wealthy Filipinos should share the fruits of economic development, and that government should punish the corrupt. The next president will also have to regularly communicate with and unify the people in order to inspire higher citizen engagement levels than ever.
So, which candidate will do what it takes to effect these changes? We have to answer this crucial question come May 9. It is time to end teleserye politics. Unquestioning loyalty to a candidate without considering the socio-cultural context is short-sighted and self-defeating. A gifted president alone cannot make democracy produce development; engaged citizens supported by favorable social structures and culture are necessary, too.
Dr. Benito “Ben” L. Teehankee is the Jose L. Cuisia, Sr. Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.