IDENTIFYING the politician or politicians who pioneered vote buying in the Philippines is like trying to pinpoint the person who invented the trisikad (a bicycle with a mounted sidecar). This is certain, though: Voters accepting money from vote-buying candidates is normal every election despite its being unlawful.
Past elections in the country were not completely solemn and peaceful affairs. Aside from vote buying, violence is king in provinces ruled by political clans with private armies.
Philippine electoral history is not very old. The first national elections happened 86 years ago. The country never experienced a general election when it was still part of the Spanish East Indies of the Spanish Empire.
The first national elections took place in 1935, when the Philippines was still an American colony. Manuel Quezon was elected President. His running mate Sergio Osmeña was elected Vice President.
In the fourth presidential election in 1949, three years after the Americans gave back the independence to the Philippines, President Elpidio Quirino won a full term. Quirino, however, was hounded by his critics after his electoral victory for allegedly playing dirty. Quirino was Vice President under President Manuel Roxas, but he became the chief executive after the latter’s death in 1948.
“President Quirino was apparently unwilling to take his chances in a free election. The temptation to bring pressure to bear upon the voters was too strong. He used vast powers of the executive, inherited from Spanish times, to influence the result. It was charged that he used the Philippine Constabulary, the provincial treasuries, the mayors, and other officials to terrorize the voters and manipulate the results... It was alleged that ghosts, monkeys and bees were allowed to vote in some provinces. While the official returns gave President Quirino 1,796,446 votes, (Jose) Laurel 1,303,575, and (Jose) Avelino 419,890, Laurel never admitted defeat,” said American political scientist Harold F. Gosnell of American University in his 1954 paper published by the American Political Science.
Gosnell was a visitor to the Philippines to observe the fifth presidential election in November 1953, which was eventually won by Ramon Magsaysay.
The common line among some Filipino voters is to accept money from candidates buying votes. It is actually not the candidates personally buying the votes, but the underlings of their leaders in barangays.
Similar sentiment was recently echoed by Vice President Leni Robredo, one of the presidential aspirants in the May 2022 elections. Robredo drew flak after saying that while vote buying is unlawful, voters must take a pragmatic approach of taking money from vote-buying candidates. Voters, however, must choose based on their conscience. The money used in buying votes could be taxpayers’ money anyway, Robredo said.
The Vice President hit back at her critics, saying she was only pointing out “realities on the ground” that vote buying is still rampant even if it is a criminal offense under the Omnibus Election Code.
Aside from vote buying, the other hallmarks of Philippine elections include gun violence and rabid partisanship. Also, in the age of social media, fake news about politicians abounds.
Democracy in the Philippines is relatively young. It is still a work in progress and will always be a work in progress. For democracy to flourish, it “requires a people who have confidence in themselves, in their leaders, and in the democratic processes, and who have the means for operating democratic institutions. Included in the tools that make democracy work are literacy, a willingness to abide by the rules of the game, and a rapid means of communication and transportation,” wrote Gosnell.
A voter is part of the electorate, the powerful one in an ideal democratic setting. If a voter accepts money from vote-buying candidates, it means the voter surrenders the power to shape the government by choosing leaders without external influences.