Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Part 1: Senate Race – A Virtual Campaign
Part 2: Burgers, Fries, Coke, and Politicians
Part 3: Opinion Polls – “A Science without a Scientist”

Remember Ramon Magsaysay’s famous line – “Can we defend it in Plaza Miranda?” There was a time when politicians were capable and willing to engage in public debates, often in a town square like Plaza Miranda. They could speak for hours advancing their positions or belittling the arguments of their rivals. Through these debates, national leaders emerged and many of them were outstanding orators like Ferdinand Marcos and Arturo Tolentino.

Today campaigning has changed. Magsaysay’s line is no longer appropriate since the validity and popularity of a political statement is determined if politicians can defend it not in Plaza Miranda but on national television. For political partisans, the decisive question is – “Can we defend it in facebook?”

In the recent elections, candidates became winnable bets if they performed well in the talkshow-inspired debates of Harapan (ABS-CBN) and Isang Tanong (GMA-7). Candidates were given 30 seconds to one minute to address the public. They have to articulate their platform, discuss national issues, and mock their rivals in this limited time. They lose support if they speak too long.

Can you imagine asking Sergio Osmena to explain the Hares-Hawes Cutting Act in one minute and then Manuel Luis Quezon is given 30 seconds to oppose the measure? Unthinkable in the 1930s but in today’s real-time world where conversations between human beings have been reduced into 140 characters, it seems quite fair to require politicians to deliver instant soundbytes.

The debate format (and the TV medium) does not favor the untelegenic and slow speaker. On the other hand, the winners in McDebates are not those who said something substantial but those who delivered memorable quotes. For example, Chiz has already mastered the science and art of issuing “digestable” press statements while Erap’s one-liners are often headline news material. This is also the reason why TV broadcasters have been topping the senate race in the past decade. Poor Gloria Arroyo – for ordinary TV viewers, her masungit na mukha and insincere smile are always a turn-off.

What is worrisome is that McDebates have the power to influence the voting decision of the TV audience. Voters actually believe they could adequately and intelligently judge election candidates by watching these fastfood debates. They should recognize that the primary aim of giant TV networks is not to perform public service but to improve TV ratings.

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Sensing that many voters behave like costumers in fastfood outlets, candidates are using “McDonaldized” methods in presenting themselves to the public. In other words, candidates have to acquire the features of a fastfood menu: easy to remember names (Noynoy not Benigno Simeon), bright and colorful images (yellow ribbon, orange check), intriguing slogans (Gusto ko happy ka!), and McSize platforms (Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap). Using superheroes is also cool (JusticeMan).

Candidates are “packaged” like a consumer brand. They have to be appealing to all types of consumers. They also have to use persuasive labels to clinch the support of discerning customers.

That voters can change preference throughout the campaign period is often mistaken as proof of existence of genuine freedom and democracy in the country. This so-called voter preference is no different from how neoliberaloids use the term consumer choice to defend the free market. We are free to choose as long as the choice is limited to what the single market has to offer. We are free to choose our leaders as long as the choice is limited to what bourgeois parties are offering.

But how do candidates determine the public sentiment? They hire PR firms which rely on opinion polls to measure the voting trend in the country. In the past, political parties use their ground machinery to investigate the needs and desires of their constituents. (Activists prefer to use the term Social Investigation). But today this political activity has been transformed into a pseudo-scientific (objective) enterprise. The masses and classes have been reduced into numbers. To empower the grassroots is to target the audience profile of TV networks.

PR firms are now more decisive in establishing the image and campaign content of a candidate. Parties and politicians have no choice but to submit to the wisdom of these modern-day astrologers and alchemists. They use various techniques to condition the minds of the public. The goal is not to democratize public opinion but to highlight a particular opinion, or emotion, or mood (usually, panic) even if it doesn’t serve the general well-being of the public.

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May 10 didn’t start well. Long lines in voting centers, disenfranchised voters, erroneous flash cards, broken PCOS machines, bomb explosions, vote buying. But all these problems were instantly forgotten when the Commission on Elections announced that it already received 50 percent of election returns in the country just a few hours after the closing of voting precincts, For Philippine standards, this was fast, super fast. And this was enough to declare the auto polls as a successful election exercise.

The tragedy in the recent auto polls was not the malfunctioning of the machines but the immediate acceptance of the public that the machines delivered credible results. Equating speed with accuracy is a dangerous thinking but it is the dominant belief today. Anything fast is convenient, true, modern. Fast delivery of pizza, instant pregnancy test result, realtime conversations, live coverage of events, Wikipedia search results.

One reason why we are bothered about the slow canvassing of results in Congress is the fact that we have already accepted the results of the elections. For many people, they were not simple election results; they were super fast transmitted results and they have to be precise. To believe that the digital results contained erroneous data is to accept a dangerous idea that the realtime world of exchanges on our TV and computer screens is also infected with false reality.

If we are ready to believe that instant wealth can be created and then vanish in split seconds in the mysterious stock market, what is so harmful in the belief that trapos can also win and lose in a virtual game?

Behold the emergence of digital democracies.

One Response to “McElections”

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