Think-tanks play a huge role in US politics. Their advice is sought and the research they conduct is extensive. They have impressive offices located in prime locations in Washington DC. In the Philippines, we do have think-tanks but their relevance to the policy formulation is subjective, with budgets often on a shoestring. And with the exposition of the fake non-government organizations incorporated by Janet Lim Napoles during the previous administration, it can be difficult to gain political support to start-up non-profits, with the presumption that it would merely be a tool for laundering money.
At the International Visitor Leadership Program of the US State Department, this writer interacted with quite a number of think-tanks. One of them was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where we met Thomas Carothers, Ph.D., senior vice president for Studies, whose primary function, among other things, is to oversee all the research being done. This think-tank was founded (and funded) by Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s richest people in the late 19th century, business magnate and philanthropist.
I posed the question on the role of a think-tank in a developing country like the Philippines, considering that they have done work in Third World countries. Carothers observed that usually there is much resistance to their advice and that weaker governments tend to be more defensive, easily offended, should they disagree with the research. In comparison with First World countries, contrarian research is generally acceptable constructively and some sort of action is taken on the matter more often than not.
Thus, think-tanks in developing countries have to be more strategic both in choosing the topics of their research and the approach in making their recommendations to the policy makers and political leaders. It is also difficult to shield think-tanks from political colors since in other countries it appears that each political party has its own think-tank, churning out studies that obviously self-serving.
At the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance in Boston, we met with senior officials to discuss democracy in the Asia Pacific, yet most of the discussions centered on the situation in Myanmar and Vietnam that were represented in my group. Not much was mentioned on the Philippines since they said we pretty had much of a stable democracy. It was joked thereafter that they only studied countries in complicated situations, something that I quite disagree on.
This led me to thinking — has the Philippines enjoyed too much democracy post-Marcos? If we look at our leaders from 1986 onwards, we can identify a certain trend, it is that the elected Presidents tend to have a friendly image or a tough/strict image, alternatively, to wit: President Cory Aquino (friendly, motherly), Fidel Ramos (tough, general), Erap Estrada (friendly, actor), GMA (strict, professor), Noynoy Aquino (friendly, good son), Rodrigo Duterte (tough, no nonsense city mayor). Should I be a betting man, then my money would be on an actor (or boxer) to win in 2022!
With this trending, it feels as if the Philippines is a country that has enjoyed mediocrity, having fostered a culture of passivity and anti-intellectualism or just merely a people that enjoy the moment, voting whoever appeals best to our emotions at the time of the elections. In all the political changes, what must be consistent is that there must be a constant observance of the Rule of Law.
It has been said that our government is made of laws, not of men, but this belied every election season, where it is apparent that elections are personality-based, not party- or principle-based. In the Philippines, vote-buying is always a problem and voters choose whoever they have a deeper relationship and/or who handed them the most money.
A glimmer of hope appeared in the 2016 presidential elections, thanks to the Commission on Elections-mandated public debates among the candidates. Previously, candidates refused to show in public debates since they knew that our elections are merely a popularity contest and what they may say could lose them some votes. It was during these debates that President Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was able to outshine his formidable opponents and win the elections despite having little campaign money. It is, therefore, my hope that public debates be made mandatory for all elective positions, just to improve voter education. The only way to defeat vote-buying is through voter education and requiring principle campaigning.
At the Absentee Voting held in Arlington, Virginia, we saw clear differences on how they conduct their elections — they were less celebratory, more civilized, there was no campaigning on-site as all paraphernalia have to be 45 meters from the county hall and, best of all, no indelible ink after voting. Notably, included in the ballots were questions on amending their State Constitution in Virginia, like it was not an unusual thing.
Strict observance and respect of the election system are a key for a vibrant and strong democracy and we pray for this in 2019. Unlike the US, voter turnout is not a problem in the Philippines — the problem is voter education. Just a quick trivia: In Australia, voting is mandatory and you are registered as a voter upon issuance of your driver’s license. How’s that for efficiency? But be cautious since Australian government is quite shaky, having elected five Prime Ministers in the last six years. In the Philippines, imagine having five different Presidents in one term. Chaos.