How can democracy be felt on a national scale when at the very grassroots, democracy is eroding or worst it is dead?
The barangay (Filipino word for village) is the smallest political unit in the Philippines headed by a punong barangay (captain) and assisted by a council. They all serve for a three year-term with limitation up to three consecutive terms. Barangay is considered as the grassroots of democracy where the ideals and aspirations of the people are first expressed, formulated and implemented.
Huntington argues that a system is democratic when “its most powerful collective decision-makers are selected through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes.”
In retrospect, how democratic is the Philippines’ barangay political system? In 2010, Sangguniang Kabataan (“youth council”) was put on hold; twice that the Barangay and SK election was postponed (2016 and 2017); then the president made a proposal in 2017 for the appointment of barangay officials instead of election. In the Philippines, democracy at the barangay level is undermined because of postponement (instead of periodic election) and partisanship (instead of ensuring fair election).
Postponement of Elections
The last barangay election was held in 2013. Since then, incumbent barangay officials remained in office up to this day until such time that the next barangay election will be held unless sooner removed or suspended for cause. SK posts have been vacant since 2013. The National Movement for Free Election (NAMFREL), an election watchdog said that, “In a truly functioning democracy, regularly renewing the mandate of elected officials is an exercise of good governance.”
President Rodrigo Duterte’s reason for the postponement of the SK elections was to save government money while the barangay polls was to avert narco-politics – the fear of drug money getting into the elections. It was the very same reason why the president proposed for the appointment instead of election of barangay officials because some are involved in the drug trade. Postponement of elections in the barangay level is not the only thing that hurts democracy in the local government but the manner by which election is done. Some local government leaders have mastered the art of politicking especially during elections. Clientelistic politics is prevalent where quid pro quo is observed.
Due to the political culture of clientelism and in addition to the fact that some if not most of the candidates are related by consanguinity or affinity, it is not difficult that partisanship is uphold during barangay elections. Election in the barangay is seen to be the hottest because of the crucial number of voters which may significantly influence the results of the elections. Candidates are nominally nonpartisan and do not represent political parties, however, slates consisting of a candidate for punong barangay and seven barangay councilor candidates are not uncommon. While it is highlighted that barangay elections should be nonpartisan, it can be observed in some local governments that incumbent governors endorse/support particular mayors; incumbent mayors endorse/support particular punong barangays. In turn, come national and local elections, these punong barangays will campaign for those mayors, governors and other national candidates in their respective constituents.
More than speculations, it is an observed phenomenon how money politics is evident during elections. It is very disheartening how the poor become target of vote-buying in the guise of livelihood programs and it is very alarming that even barangay officials themselves serve as brokers in campaigning for national and local candidates with the promise of monetary incentive for their respective barangay once an opponent gets a zero vote.
Another manifestation that the principle of non-partisanship is not observed is when candidates campaign for barangay positions as a team or a group. This is a clear violation of law against partisanship which may lead to their disqualification. The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) is the constitutional body that is mandated to implement such law.
Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
Article X, Section 8 of the Constitution provides that “the term of office of elective local officials, except barangay officials, which shall be determined by law, shall be three years ….” This exclusionary provision means that Congress has the discretion and prerogative to make the term of office of barangay officials longer or shorter than prescribed. However, this discretion is not unbridled or without limit. The defining feature of a democratic and republican state is the conduct of fair, honest and periodic elections as stipulated in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution. It is through elections as one of the mechanisms that our leaders be held accountable to the people whom they serve.
Section 38 of the Omnibus Election Code of the Philippines states that the barangay election shall be non-partisan. Barangay officials are partisans because of the nature of their office. However, it is the ‘barangay election’ that is treated by law as ‘non-partisan.’ Local government officials who would be caught endorsing barangay officials may be jailed but it is hard to catch officials supporting barangay bets because they do not “support them in the open.” Violators of this provision shall be dealt with by law. For the first offense – suspension in one month and one day to six months while second offense, if found guilty, is dismissal from the service.
Representativeness, Responsiveness and Effectiveness
The Sangguniang Kabataan serves as the voice of the youth; an avenue to harness their leadership skills for they will be the future leaders. Barangay officials, on the otherhand, have surpassed the honeymoon effect, thus, their responsiveness and effectiveness is now at stake.
Did democracy really die in the barangay? The moment that the youth were not represented and the moment where the voting populace did not exercise suffrage in choosing their barangay leaders, democracy was on the verge of dying, it needs resuscitation through election for it to be revived.
Image: Ballot boxes used for the 2007 Philippine Barangay Elections in Davao by Keith Bacongco on October 2007 via flickr.com