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I was in the Philippines two weeks ago to observe the campaigns for congressional elections in the Philippines due to take place in May 2010. The trip was organised by the Young Liberals and Democrats of Asia (YLDA) of which the SDP’s Young Democrats is a member.
Unlike Singapore, Filipinos do not have to play a guessing game on when the elections are to be held. This is because the date for the general elections is etched in stone in their Constitution, to be held on the 2nd Monday of May every 6 years.
And there’s another big difference. Their elections are run by the fiercely independent Commission on Elections (COMELEC). In Singapore, we have the Prime Minister’s Office effectively running the elections.
I also visited headquarters of the three major parties: Liberal Party, Nationalist Party, and the Lakas Kampi CMD alliance. For the presidential race, the most popular candidate, as far as polls go, is the Liberal Party’s Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of the late (assassinated) Benigno Aquino and the late president Corazon Aquino.
For a nation with over 91 million people spread out over more than 7000 islands throughout the whole archipelago, not forgetting 10 million Filipinos who work overseas, one can only begin imagine how much of a logistical challenge it is, to organise and conduct national elections on such a scale. With my first stop being the COMELEC headquarters, I was about to find out just how much.
Nestled in the heart of old Manila city’s Intramuros district, which in Spanish literally means “within the walls” as Manila city used to be a fortress erected by the Spanish conquistadores during their colonial era, the COMELEC lies just across the majestic Manila Cathedral.
It is nomination day and the whole promenade is bustling with activity and booming with the anthems, which played unceasingly from speakers mounted on a great assortment of vehicles, of the organizations that have arrived in force to submit their nominations.
A festive mood marks the beginning of the upcoming 45 exciting days of campaigning before polling day. Making our way through the throngs of people, and passing by an organisation’s protest rally against the disqualification of their nomination submission in front of the Palacio del Gobernador (Palace of the Governor), I finally entered the COMELEC building with my YLDA colleagues.
Browsing through the various bulletins that lined the walls, I couldn’t help but marvel at some of the information laid out before my eyes: 17,999 seats contested, over 50 million registered voters, and the fact that the Filipinos get to choose all their representatives, from the national level all the way down to their municipal level.
We also had the chance to discuss with the various party leaders and representatives their electoral message, campaign strategies, fund raising methods as well as recruitment matters. I, of course, shared with them our situation in Singapore. I brought back the various campaign materials and paraphernalia for future reference.
A highlight of the trip was the kick-off rally of Congresswoman Mary Mitzi “Mitch” Cajayon who is also president of the Liberal Party’s youth wing. Mitch shared about how majority of campaign expenses go to buying airtime for their campaign commercials.
On the policy front Mitch pointed out that while national politics are more ideologically based, their local politics tend to be more personality-based, as such it is not surprising to see the same family-clan feature prominently in a locality and administrating it for generations.
Mitch’s rally had a festive feel to it, with families bringing all their children, and the people adorning themselves with party paraphernalia. Bass drums and trumpets (manned by party members) accompany every applause, amplifying the crowd’s enthusiasm.
Mitch’s running mates’ speeches are short and to the point rarely exceeding 10 minutes. In between the speeches was a performance, usually a songs or a dance by youths or video clips to keep the crowd engaged.
Polls in the Philippines is an exciting and colourful occurence which draws the genuine participation of the electorate. I acknowledge that we should find our own way of doing things but I cannot help but feel that the elections in Singapore is something which the PAP wants to keep as boring as possible.
This is a shame because, as I witnessed during my visit to the Philippines, elections – whatever the issues maybe, whichever party a citizens supports – bring a people together. This is something that “rich” Singapore has something to learn from our poorer neighbour.
Jarrod Luo is the Hon. Secretary of the Young Democrats.