Informed choices

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

No reason was stipulated in Republic Act 11935 for the latest postponement of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan or SBK elections scheduled this December.

This was understandable, after the excuses ran out for those who wanted to thank their grassroots leaders in the May elections through yet another term extension, as usual at taxpayers’ expense.

The original reason given was to save P8.5 billion that could instead be diverted to pandemic response. This argument was punctured by the Commission on Elections itself, which said a postponement next year would in fact bloat the cost of the BSK vote to a whopping P17.5 billion. One lawmaker also pointed out that the Comelec enjoys fiscal autonomy and the budget for elections cannot be diverted to other purposes.

The excuse then evolved to a supposed need to review the BSK setup, to see if barangay officials should enjoy a longer fixed term, or if the SK should be abolished.

Comelec officials, however, have asked why barangay officials should enjoy longer terms than mayors and congressmen.

As for the SK, the sooner it’s abolished, the better for government finances. Public services can’t get any lousier if the SK is scrapped. But this move could have been done without gifting the incumbents with yet another year in office.

One official of the House of Representatives gave the most honest reason when we interviewed him on One News’ “The Chiefs” before the HOR plenary passed the bill. His explanation for the lawmakers’ push for the term extension boiled down to: because they can.

Next year, there’s no guarantee that the October polls won’t be reset again. After all, SBK officials will be needed by the congressmen, as they did last May, for their election bids in 2025, for a lot of campaign-related services (including, as nasty critics suspect, buying votes).

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Those who are aspiring to have a chance to serve as BSK officials have a long wait for their turn. Heck, with endless term extensions, the incumbent BSK officials could be in office forever, helping perpetuate the political dynasties of their patrons in Congress.

Isn’t holding free elections at set intervals – with people voting with the expectation that the candidates will be serving only within a specified term – the essence of representative democracy? Isn’t the term of office stipulated when ballots are cast tantamount to a sacred contract between voter and candidates?

The HOR official said lawmakers are duly elected representatives of their constituents, and their wish is therefore the people’s wish.

Truly, our elections are among the worst manifestations of dysfunction in our hybrid feudal democracy.

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A critical element in curing this dysfunction is also a key element in confronting disinformation and fake news: quality universal education.

To make informed choices in elections, and to distinguish fake news from real requires a level of comprehension that is becoming out of reach for an increasing number of Filipinos.

Free universal education has not translated into quality education. Two years of pandemic lockdowns, with teachers and learners alike (plus harried parents) struggling to continue formal education, have compounded the problem.

When reading comprehension is abysmal among our 10-year-old students, higher learning is sure to be affected, with the impairment carried over into adulthood.

And if this problem afflicts the majority of the population, national competitiveness and productivity will inevitably suffer.

Education is supposed to help level the playing field in a society with yawning income disparities. But this is premised on the delivery of the same quality of education for rich and poor.

Instead, as in justice, public safety, health care and many other aspects of life in these islands, we have two types of education: one for the rich, and another for the poor.

The education gap was glaringly highlighted by the lockdowns. Exclusive private schools (plus state-run University of the Philippines) shifted seamlessly to blended learning, while students in many public schools couldn’t even afford the required gadgets and internet service.

UP gives students from low-income households access to top-quality education. But obviously, those who received quality basic education enjoy the edge in the highly competitive UP college admission test. They won’t come from public schools where educators can’t even decide which dialect should be considered the mother tongue for use as the medium of instruction from kindergarten to third grade.

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Through the years, I’ve known blue collar workers who told me they dropped out of high school or even elementary school in the provinces and decided to just find work in Manila because they weren’t proficient in the dialect used as medium of instruction and couldn’t make heads or tails of their lessons.

Their concerns are centered on day-to-day survival and instant gratification of their most immediate needs: food, shelter, basic health and keeping their sanity together through entertainment, smoking, drinking and (for street kids) sniffing solvents.

They are the most vulnerable to disinformation and fake news. Come election season, informed choice for them boils down to which candidate can provide a quick even if temporary fix to their problems – who can give them the bigger ayuda, or guarantee continued employment for themselves or family members, even if only contractual in the local government or barangay system.

The pandemic, which swelled the ranks of the extremely poor in our country, entrenched this mindset. People didn’t see the government’s bungling of the pandemic response or the consequences of corruption in the Pharmally scandal.

Instead what was remembered was the regular distribution of ayuda, with local politicians and BSK officials claiming credit for giving away people’s money. Mendicancy and patronage politics feed on each other.

If the International Monetary Fund is correct in warning that “the worst is yet to come” and a global recession looms next year, poverty in the Philippines could worsen, and that voting mindset will be carried over to the 2025 midterm elections.

Without proper education, informed choices are a luxury many people in our country cannot afford.

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