The author, Gill H. Boehringer, is a law professor at the Macquarie University in Sydney. He headed a six-member team of the People’s International Observers Mission [IOM] that observed the elections in the towns of Pantukan and New Bataan in Compostela Valley in Mindanao. MindaNews of May 17 had a long report of his team’s post-election interview.
Published in The Socialist Worker of June 15, “Terror behind Sham Filipino Democracy” is an observation of a military-communist contested area, that Pantukan and New Bataan are, applied to the whole country – the narrow observation broadened by reports of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations attributed to the military.
Boerhringer addressed two concerns when he wrote,  “the Arroyo administration has suffered a humiliating defeat in the May mid-term elections despite  widespread military intimidation, abductions and killings” — perceiving concern  as a means to win the election.
How true were Boerhringer’s observations? How valid were his impressions?
Of the military and the police, he wrote: “The pervasive presence of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is intended to create an atmosphere of fear.” Obviously, he was not just referring to fear to intimidate voters into voting for TEAM Unity candidates but of terror as a state prevailing in the country.
He cited the repression of progressive groups and individual activists by the Arroyo regime; the reported killing, abduction and disappearance of 1,100 human rights activists, leaders of peasant and worker organizations, journalists, lawyers and pastors done “with impunity” by the military and the police or by “private armed groups”.
He extolled the courage with “which Filipinos continued to defy the terror of the Filipino state with their votes” – alluding to the defeat of President Arroyo’s senatorial candidates. Further, he wrote: “In the face of the pervasive terror imposed across the country, the courage of the people is inspiring.”
The military and police presence in Compostela Valley may have been pervasive, as it was in Tondo in Manila according to another IOM team report, but certainly not countrywide. Reports from other IOM teams and of another foreign observer group – Asian Network for Free Elections – did not mention pervasive military presence.
Military units were deployed in areas known to be highly infiltrated by the communist rebels obviously to suppress leftist influence during the election. Filipinos must know these areas and would not be taken in by Boehringer’s article but not so do Australian readers.
Boehringer related “humiliating defeat” of the Arroyo administration to what he perceived as the “inspiring” courage of the Filipino people to overcome the “pervasive presence” of the police and the military – the “widespread military intimidation, abductions and killings”.
He distinguished the defeat the Arroyo administration suffered in the senatorial election from its victories in the elections for congressional representatives and local officials. Yet he equated the senatorial loss to “a humiliating defeat in the May mid-term election” — the whole election.
He saw two “simple” reasons – perhaps more crucial than the people’s “inspiring” courage – for the Senate race debacle:
First: “The Filipino people are fed-up with the corruption of the elite, which Arroyo represents.”
Second: “… they overwhelmingly reject ruinous policies favouring multinational capital as well as the slavish acceptance of neo-liberalism and ‘structural readjustment’ foisted on the country by the World Bank and the US administration.”
In equating the defeat of TEAM Unity to the defeat of the administration in the May election and in simplifying the reasons for that defeat, Boehringer presented to his readers a limited view of Philippine politics – blurring the real meaning of the Filipino vote.
Any discerning reader may ask: How could the Arroyo administration suffer a humiliating defeat when pro-administration congressional and local candidates overwhelmingly won? In fact, Malacañang has hailed the election results as a resounding victory.
The issue is not the defeat of the administration – a fact that Malacañang will never admit – but rather: What is the meaning of the May 14 election? This is the defining issue the President must see if she wants her remaining three years to yield a true legacy for her.
Two constituencies were involved in the May 14 elections — the national and the local. The two were one people doing two distinct functions – the national, as one whole, electing at large the senators; the local, divisions of the whole, electing the town, provincial or city officials or congressional district representatives.
Very clearly, the TU defeat means people’s refusal to give President Arroyo their vote. Did the overwhelming victory of the pro-administration local candidates in the local and congressional elections mean overwhelming support for Arroyo? Can the same people refuse and support their President at the same time?
By the TU debacle, the people expressed their protest against how President Arroyo governs. In failing to convince their constituencies to vote for the TU candidates, the local candidates and their leaders either did not campaign for the TU candidates or found them hard to sell because of the President. Some may just have allied with her because of patronage. This bitter truth the President must know and accept as guide to mend her ways.
The two reasons Boehringer cited are among the roots of the protest but not the only “simple” reasons. The people chastised the President for her assaults against freedom and rights that the Supreme Court repeatedly declared unconstitutional. And so they did for her government’s failure to stop rampant violations of human rights.
The vast majority of the people – the masses – may not understand those “ruinous policies” that Boehringer cited. But they felt their effects – the high costs of living, the low income and the grinding poverty. The President’s rejection of the House bill raising the daily minimum wage by P125 to satisfy the employers and investors must have had its toll.
The overseas workers must have been feeling the prevailing economic injustice that they voted for Genuine Opposition. They help the economy with their dollar remittances to their families but the much vaunted economic progress could not – by the President’s own words – yet trickle down to the poor.
Looking at the May 14 election as the “humiliating defeat” of the Arroyo administration will not help the country; but delving into its meaning will. On the part of the President, she should mend the ways of her government. On the part of friendly foreign governments, they can help influence the Arroyo government mend its ways.
Boehringer devoted a good part of his article on human rights violations. These have influenced foreign impressions about the Philippines. The government should stop these – the soonest the best.
Boehringer also referred to “Filipino democracy” as a “sham”. Is the people’s “inspiring” courage to withstand “pervasive terror” a sign of sham democracy? Is the people’s use of their right to suffrage to hand their President “a humiliating defeat” a sign of “sham democracy”?
The conduct of the election in many places like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was a mockery of democracy. But did that make Philippine democracy a sham?
("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)