FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Honoring the dead is deeply embedded in the deepest recesses of our shared cultural consciousness.

By tradition, we do not only honor the dead, we deify them. We believe the spirits of our ancestors hover around long after they have passed. They guide us through the most mundane things we do. They inform us, using the calculus of the living, helping us choose the paths we take.

Before Christianity introduced the concepts of Heaven and Earth, we understood life and death as occurring in the same dimension. The dead never leave us for another kingdom. They linger.

This is why of the dead we speak no ill. It is not because we fear offending other living persons. It is because we fear offending the dead.

When President Duterte declared a period of national mourning after the death of his predecessor, he found it necessary to call on all Filipinos to set aside politics and mourn as one. This is consistent with tradition and cultural predisposition even as it is really a gag order.

The call to set aside politics might be difficult to enforce – in this political season especially.

During the funeral services held at the Ateneo, two priests seemed in a hurry to politicize the former president’s passing. It was as if they feared losing the opportunity to fire up public passions for political effect.

Twice before, public passions swept like a bushfire after an Aquino died. One swept Cory to the presidency. The second swept Noynoy to highest office.

There are enough people out there hoping to reuse that template where a death shapes the politics to come. That template we have come to call “necro-politics.”

However noble the intentions are, “necro-politics” is inherently opportunistic. It manipulates public emotions to achieve political ends.

When public emotions become the decisive factor, we overlook the other considerations – competence, for example. Therefore, the nation is short-changed. The people are played.

When politicians toy with public passions, the country is diminished. We are denied an opportunity to soberly deliberate policy alternatives. Elections become an opportunity to wear our hearts on our sleeves rather than weigh contending programs of government.

Our electoral democracy, therefore, becomes even more fragile. It is rendered vulnerable to the shifting sands of sentiment, the whims of emotional surges. The crafting of a national future is left to the coincidence of deaths.

Much has been written about the weaknesses of our democratic practice. It is personality-centered and therefore has no means to ensure continuity. It is not a contest of contrasting programs of government, therefore the electorate is less than fully informed of its options. We have weak political party systems and therefore little means to produce a deep bench of leaders and statesmen who see a longer horizon for the nation.

“Necro-politics” aggravates all those weaknesses. The phenomenon stunts the development of a deliberative democracy, the only means we have to build consensus about the future.

Without cultivating deliberative democratic practice, we are all heir to illiberal democracy, to purely symbolic rather than substantive electoral choices and to oligarchic manipulation. That has been the disease afflicting our democracy, making it less than genuine and less than satisfying to the underclasses.

Instead of training our people to be more discerning in their electoral choices, we teach them to invest their hopes in the magic of mythical personalities, whether these are sporting icons or clowns or both. In the end, public offices become sites for on-the-job training. That does not serve the goal of excellence in governance.

We have ample political dynasties but not a real political class.

A real political class supplies electoral politics with a talent pool of well-trained statesmen. These are men and women steeped in the policy issues and do not simply mouth the appropriate aphorisms to win political support. They are supported by deeply institutionalized party mechanisms that invest time in studying policy options.

Instead of party-based policy groups, what we have are troll farms exploiting the powers of social media to distort facts and mislead voters. Instead of institutionalizing a party system, we rely on stoking public emotions this way or the other. This is what makes our democracy weak.

This is why our elections are inherently risky. They are opportunities for policy discontinuities. They are vulnerable to charlatans stumbling into power.

Our electoral democracy resembles a game of Russian roulette.

It was not always this way. Before dictatorship killed our party system, political parties performed reasonably well. They recruited the best and the brightest into their ranks as soon as they stepped out of universities. They supplied the political system with statesmen able to see far into the future.

True, there was much skullduggery even then. But these were chores left to local powerbrokers that killed and burned and bought votes to make the parties win. But the parties took pride in their ability to elevate the best and the brightest to national office.

It has not been that way for several decades now. National office has become part of the spoils of popularity. Sports stars and movie icons handily won elections – only because they enjoyed high name-recall.

“Necro-politics” is part of this perversion of electoral democracy. It asks voters to cast their ballots as an act of sympathy for a candidate who had lost a loved one and not for any intrinsic quality he or she possessed.

While it may be part of the dynamics of “branding” – that advertising term now used by campaign strategists – our democratic practice suffers.

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