FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2013 - 12:00am

Do not expect the senatorial campaign to be edifying — especially this year.

After the proclamation rallies and the first few sorties of the two main parties, we know the quality of discourse in this campaign is going to be low, very low. Not a single issue of urgent national concern was discussed. Neither grouping put forward clear platforms that could frame the debate henceforth.

This will be a campaign of self-promotion, of chiding and teasing, of snide remarks and black propaganda. To draw crowds to rallies, more entertainers will be pulled in. To generate interest, candidates will sing or dance or crack jokes. The sillier, the better. There is not much to talk about anyway.

This vacuous campaign will take its toll on the vigor of our democracy. It will bring down electoral contestation to the level of the burlesque.

To begin with, senatorial elections since the Edsa Revolution has been all about name-recall. This is why the upper chamber has been populated with movie stars, basketball players, variety show hosts and news readers from television — or else the scions of large political clans. The higher the name-recall of the candidate, the lower the financial hurdle of mounting a successful campaign.

Senators, after all, are elected at large. During the brief campaign period, they must impress 52 million voters spread out the archipelago. A full-scale senatorial campaign will cost, going by the conservative estimates, about P300 million.

We are not sure how the prevalence of social media will affect campaign costs. This is the first time social media could possibly matter in an electoral contest. The denizens who populate social media are generally more articulate, more progressive, more demanding of quality in our public life.

At the moment, however, the social media channels overflow mainly with disdain for the utter stupidity of our politics. The sarcasm that proliferates in the social media, coupled with the scandals at the legislative branch, do not promise to redeem our people’s faith in electoral democracy.

It does not help that most of the candidates are unlikely to win followers in the world of social media. Those who win followers in this terrain of communications are generally people who have important things to say. The medium, in addition, favors those with sarcasm to dish out.

The more mundane the campaign becomes, the more brittle our institutions for democratic representation will be. This electoral season could not possibly be a happy time for those who wish to see modern governance by means of strong institutions take root in our society.

Blame Manuel Luis Quezon or blame the interregnum of dictatorship. Something changed in our politics. It changed for the worse.

The original design for the Philippine Senate was that its members were to be elected by region, ensuring representation of the various ethno-linguistic groups. Quezon, before war ravaged our land and long before the 1935 Constitution took effect, amended that design, requiring senators to be elected at large. There was a Machiavellian intent here. The change in the manner of representation ensured dominance by Quezon’s party.

The martial law period prevented a new generation of political leaders from rising through the previous political party system. In the pre-martial law period, the two main parties exerted great effort to recruit bright young partisans and nurtured political careers. Dictatorship ended that party system.

At its best, the electorate in the sixties put a premium on competence and independence of mind. Our voters wanted the Senate to be a sanctuary for the greatest diversity of voices. The institution was valued as a check on the executive branch. Those who placed high in the bar exams, whatever their names were, became senatorial material.

In the fifties and the sixties, the main parties took care to have all the country’s regions represented in their senatorial tickets. It was both a nod to nationhood and a beneficial electoral strategy. Muslim Filipinos were always represented.

Elections after the period of dictatorship were challenged by the dearth of political leaders viable in the electoral arena. The multiparty system prescribed by the 1987 Constitution also undermined the stability of the political party as an institution, making party affiliation transient and the parties themselves weak organizations.

The reduced importance of political parties as persisting institutions magnified the importance of name-recall in winning elections. Parties actually formed according to the winnability of specific politicians, not the other way around. Party recruitment was based on pure name-recall in place of competence.

The result is the sort of electoral contest we see today. No great policy difference divides the contending groups. Candidates are recruited according to name-recall.

The absolute pits is that we actually have the two main contending parties sharing “common candidates.” That never happened before. It is unthinkable elsewhere. It makes an absolute mockery of party contestation. It is an insult to our voters.

The exploitation of name-familiarity is now at its most blatant. No apologies are offered for the cynicism of it all. The proliferation of scions of familiar political personalities is not a question of “political dynasties.” It is a matter of cynically exploiting the politics of name-recall that undermines all the institutions we need to make our democracy viable.

Considering all these, it should not surprise us that this is a campaign with nothing to talk about. This is worse than having two parties that merely replicate each other in what they offer voters. This is about two parties trying to be more cynical than the other.

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