Elitism In Philippine Elections And The Infringed Electoral System – Analysis



The upcoming 2022 synchronized presidential, national, and local government elections (except the village and regional elections) in the Philippines signifies the periodic political exercise of Filipinos’ festive obligation to choose another set of new or reconditioned national and local traditional and/or newfound politicians perennially imagined to carry out their oath to unreservedly serve their constituents.  Nonetheless, 35 years since the country returned to pre-martial law “democratic” politics, substantial structural socio-political and economic change has yet to transpire (Buendia 2021, 169-191). The paper argues that what impedes the country from achieving its goal of national and human development is caused by the elites’ effective control of governance, legitimized by the disconfigured electoral system, among others. 

The historical domination of economic and political elite in the country has constrained the promotion of relative egalitarianism in Philippine society. The concentration of power in the hands of a limited number of people has undermined and weakened the rule of the marginalized people and disputed the fundamental concept of demos kratos (Greek word for ‘democracy’).  The quest to achieve better governance in the country necessitates the shaping of its political institutions and structures within the confines of socio-political and economic empowerment, mass-based institutional electoral system that guarantees the will of the people, and participative governance that allows multi-stakeholders’ engagement in realizing the national vision of political and economic development.

Inapt “political” culture and wrecked electoral system

The key political institution introduced by the Americans to the Philippines was the electoral system which saw the conduct of the first local election in 1899.  The Americans brought in the right of popular suffrage at the municipal, provincial, and later at national levels of government. The imposition of the system of voting in a predominantly feudal and agrarian society effectively extends the patron-client relationship, where the landlord is considered the patron and the tenant as the client, into an electoral relationship where a politician who has authority and wealth is deemed as the patron and one who benefits from their support or influence is the client (see Landé, 1966 for details). The former dispenses favours and the latter reciprocates it by providing services and bestowing loyalty. This relationship exemplifies a “debt of gratitude” type of reciprocity. Likewise, this interaction simulates a kinship dimension with paternalistic landlord acting as the father and the tenants as his children. 

This relationship persists, survives, and continues to be practiced at the 21st century’s elections with some few insignificant changes. Fundamentally, politicians act both as good and bad patron at the same time, depending on the circumstances.  While on the one hand a candidate distributes goods, services (infrastructure, health and medical, and welfare), and cash (especially on the eve of election day), on the other hand, he or she may turn violent – threatening and terrorizing both electorates and the Commission on Elections’ (COMELEC) deputized registrars and inspectors (usually public-school teachers) and harassing their opponents and supporters. Historically, election-related harassment and violence can range from intimidating and threatening persons with bodily harm, to kidnapping and murder. It also includes arson and bombings of strategic locations. Hired goons, private armies, the police and military, as well as armed rebel groups, also figure prominently (Patino and Velasco 2004).

As a client, it has been customary that electorates seek material goods from the patron in exchange for his or her vote. This type of “utilitarian” culture perseveres and permeates both in rural and urban areas as well as local and national elections.  It has been a convention  that clients  take advantage of elections by selling their votes to the highest bidder; civic organizations use the opportunity to ask for donations from politicians; small enterprises make windfall profits through contracts with individual candidates for their campaign paraphernalia like-t-shirts, calendars, balloons, pencils, and basketballs with their names emblazoned on it; and businesspersons support candidates whom they believe have the high probability of winning, rather than based on principles, in exchange for contracts and favours beneficial to their businesses.

Beyond issues and platforms of government, a politician traditionally campaigns with promises of providing government jobs, financial assistance, educational support and other personal aids. In turn, the voter supports the politician who has the ability to produce tangible and material benefits (positive transaction) or capability to inflict harm or punishment to those perceived to be their “enemies” and “exploiters.” As stated earlier, this psychological make-up of Filipino electorates is rooted on a culture of patron-clientelism that is largely a reflection of skewed socio-economic mal-development where a few privileged classes use institutions and structures of government to lord over the many underprivileged and marginalized sectors of society. 

The deeply-rooted desire of most politicians to either seek or remain in power for personal/familial enrichment and aggrandizement rather than local or national interest has institutionalized cheating as a well-developed practice in Philippine elections. Local and national politicians are adept at manipulating the process from beginning to end. It begins during the registration process when politicians work to remove supporters of competitors and pad the voters list with “flying voters” (those who vote more than once in several election precincts). Election return canvassers, often public-school teachers are bribed to manipulate the results. If cheating before and during the election is “retail” cheating, at the canvassing stage it is “wholesale” cheating which occurs. If cheating is a normal part of elections, so is protesting election results. Politicians say that no one losses in elections, only cheated. 

Modernizing elections or cheating? 

Although several endeavours to reform and modernize Philippine electoral system have been done, hence laudable, it has to be accomplished in conjunction with the alteration of the current social, economic, and political iniquities. Unless this is resolved, modernization will simply serve the limited interest of the élite and powerful over the greater interest of the people and nation. Tangcangco’s (1997) classic study of the country’s modernization program reveals that electoral reforms will not eliminate fraud where unequal power between government and society exists. Thus, she concludes that the modernization of Philippine electoral system conforms with the “purposes of politicians, election officials, and interest groups to retain defective procedures and loopholes in election laws … rather than of nagging concern for fairness and commitment to democracy by the incumbents.” (Tangcangco 1997, p. 127).

The continuing attempt to unshackle the poor and marginalized sector from elite-controlled and perverted electoral system, i.e., riddled with corruption, fraud, and irregularities, has not bear fruit. Since the use of electronic voting system or e-voting in the 2010 and 2016 presidential elections and the 2013 and 2019 mid-term elections, the usual cheating and other election-related irregularities like vote-buying, intimidation and harassment of both voters and candidates, and the presence of armed goons in precincts have not been prevented. A non-governmental organization (NGO) engaged in keeping elections safe, free, and peaceful observed that vote buying became more rampant since automated polls took place in 2010. Politicians go straight to organizers, operators in barangays to buy votes. (Panti, 2019). 

In the most recent mid-term 2019 election, COMELEC was accused of its failure to safeguard the sanctity of people’s vote and prevent fraud in spite of the use of Smartmatic’s (private company contracted by COMELEC to provide the technology and technical services for electronic voting) expertise in automated electoral system (Esmaquel II and Tomacruz, 2019). Whether or not Smartmatic, which won another the P400 million (USD 7.9 million) contract with COMELEC for automated poll system software, would be able to deliver a fraud-free technological service in the upcoming 2022 national and local elections is yet to be seen. This is aside from the dubious awarding of P535 million (USD 10.7 million) by COMELEC to one of President Duterte’s friend and campaign financier when he run for Philippine presidency in 2016. Duterte’s friend’s (Dennis Uy) company bag the contract to deliver all Automated Election System (AES) related equipment, peripherals, forms and supplies, among others.

Constricting democracy: the rule of the elites and dynasties

As in the past, Philippine elections have not become, as yet, an effective means of expressing people’s sovereignty in choosing their political leaders. While democracy is inconceivable without the institution of elections, elections alone are no guarantee for democratic rule. Put differently, one cannot be a democrat without supporting elections, but one can very well conduct elections without being a democrat. 

Fareed Zakaria (2003, p. 102) enumerates a long list of what he terms “elected autocrats. He draws a clear line between liberal democracy and the illiberal deviation which he calls “illiberal democracy.” In other words, while liberal democracy is characterized by competitive elections, the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic political liberties, “illiberal democracy” may permit competitive elections, but shows little respect for the aforementioned basic liberal rights. 

Elections need not necessarily transpire in a democratic regime but can also take place in an authoritarian regime. The latter do conduct elections as a measurement of legitimacy.  Elections are done to appease and abate people’s resistance the regime. Furthermore, they are intended to provide a peaceful option to radical, armed, and mass movements seeking to overthrow a despotic regime. Under the Marcos’ 14-year martial law rule (1972-1986), for instance, four (4) national elections were held apart from plebiscites and referenda. In all these political exercises, Marcos was able to legitimize his rule beyond the provision of the 1935 Constitution that limits the term of the Office of the President to a maximum of eight (8) years. 

It is indeed unfortunate that the character of elections in the Philippines, even after Corazon Aquino was catapulted to power as a result of the 1986 “People Power Revolution,” has not been principally altered. Democracy and elections linger to be weak institutions. Elections under the 1987 Constitution resembled not much different from the pre-martial law period. Philippine party system hitherto is largely a one-party/multi-faction system. In spite the proliferation of political parties at the advent of the 5th Republic (post-martial law period), they are neither different from each other in terms of party platforms and programs of government nor in ideologies, philosophies, standpoints, and viewpoints. Croissant and Lorenz (2018) characterize Philippine political system as highly ‘defective elite democracy’ more than 30 years since ‘democratic rule’ was restored in the country. The elite effectively remains in control over the country’s political processes and outcomes.

Electoral candidates’ commonalities lie in their class bases, elite origins, and interests they represent. Hicken (2018) attributes the oligarchic control of political parties and paucity of politically active citizenry or mass organizations to the “under-institutionalized” Philippine political party system. He contends that an under-institutionalized political party hinders democratic consolidation and good governance as it undermines the ability of voters to hold politicians accountable and produces ambivalence among voters on the merits of a democratic society.

Local clans and dynasties including warlords and regional kingpins endure and play an important part in Philippine electoral politics. They are considered as building blocks of politics. Given the size of Filipino families and matrix of interrelationships that bind them, they ensure not only the political continuity and dominance of a particular clan in local politics but also play a major role in supporting the ascendancy, continuity, along with downfall of local political leaders as well as Philippine presidents. 

From 1987 to 2016, elected legislators who belong to political clans comprised 70.4 percent of the House of Representatives (HoR) (Teehankee 2018). In the 2013 mid-term elections, all 80 provinces were littered with political families and 74 percent of the elected members of the HoR came from such dynastic groups (Purdey et.al., 2016). In 2016, Sidel (2018) affirms that there ‘remains ample evidence of the persistence of local ‘bossism’ and ‘dynasticism’ in municipalities, cities, congressional districts, and provinces across the Philippines’ (p. 35). Tadem and Tadem (2016) deduces that the concentration of political and economic power on the hands of the elite clans and dynasties has contributed to dysfunctional Philippine democracy and electoral system reminiscent of the pre-Marcos and martial law years.

Political dynasties linger to be a feature of the country’s political landscape. Dynasties have not been dismantled in spite of the constitutional provision (Art 2, Sec. 26, 1987 Constitution) to prohibit them, until a law is passed which define the details of its proscription. In as much as members of Congress are direct beneficiaries of political dynasties, it is unimaginable that such law would be promulgated in the near future. 

Elitism in electoral politics rather than weakened had fortified. In a country where around a fifth of the population lives below poverty line in 2018 and share a measly less than 5% of the national wealth (ADB, u.d.), it is hypocritical that candidates vying for an elective post would claim that they represent the interest of the poor and would advance their aspirations when most have not experienced poverty, marginalized, nor never lived with a monthly income below P10,481. In 2015 for instance, it is estimated that a candidate for HoR or for mayor has to spend around P73 million (approx. US$1.5 million) in a 45-day campaign period when the accumulated salary of a mayor for a three-year term amounts to approximately P2 million (approx. US$41,000) and P3 million (approx. US$61,000) for a representative at the HoR. In the 2016 national elections, the 12 winners of the senatorial elections spent an average of P107 million (approx. US$2.2 million) while some local government candidates spent even more than what the senatorial candidates had spent. 

It is estimated that a successful Philippine presidential candidate would spend three (3) billion pesos (approx. US$61 million), and five to seven (5-7) billion pesos (approx.. US$98 million to US$138 million) for the 2022 elections, while a senatorial candidate must spend at least half-a-billion pesos (approx. US$10 million). Based on the 2019 Salary Standardization Law IV, the cumulative salary of a President for six (6) years is at P28.7 million (US$590,000) and P10.6 million (approx. US$224,000) for three (3) years for a senator, yet billions of pesos are spent to get elected. It is expected that the upcoming 2022 national and local elections, candidates will carry on spending more either to seize or hold on to their political power in anticipation that they could recoup their “political investments.”  As before, political power at the national and local levels in the Philippines has always been concentrated on the hands of the wealthy millionaires and billionaires and has undermined the institution of democracy that gives power to the masses.


Elections are necessary yardsticks of leaders’ legitimacy, yet not sufficient devices to test the strength of democracy. The institution of election was employed to safeguard political and economic power that further entrenched patron-client relationship. The agrarian-feudal political culture of client-patron relationship, which views governance as an individual affair, has yet to be transcended. The blurred dividing line between official function and personal duty needs to be accentuated. 

The institution of Philippine election is beset with procedural problems taken advantaged by the old and emerging political élites to secure, protect, and perpetuate their interests. The electoral system and institution of democratic rule has been captured by the elite and used either to legitimize, sustain, or seize power. Powerful clans and political dynasties continue to hold power. Thus, the tools of democracy have become devices of violence—both naked and concealed—that drove the marginalized sectors of society to seek refuge to communist and separatist movements. The economic and political crisis that resulted from government’s neglect, abuse of power, and callousness on the nation’s welfare was aggravated under the so-called “democratic” regime.

Elections thus have to be accompanied by functioning institutions and processes such as transparency, a free press (including unfettered investigative journalism), ombudspersons, participation, civil liberties, democratic political culture, and professional associations.

History has taught us that weak party system, patronage politics, and elitism, undermined the legitimacy not only of elected officials of government but also emasculated the processes and institutions of elections and democracy. Indeed, addressing these concerns are challenging yet the opportunity to resolve them lies in the sheer and unceasing determination of people to place their collective future into their hands.

*Rizal G. Buendia is an independent political analyst in Southeast Asian governance based in England and Wales, UK. Former Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK and former Associate Professor and Chair, Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines.

**This article is part of a larger study entitled, “The Continuing Saga for Better Governance: Probing the structural limits, challenges, and opportunities,” commissioned by the Stratbase ADR Institute, Manila, Philippines.


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Rizal G. Buendia

Rizal G. Buendia, PhD, is an independent consultant and researcher in Southeast Asian Politics. Former Teaching Fellow in Security and Southeast Asian Politics and Governance at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and former Chair and Associate Professor, Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines.

One thought on “Elitism In Philippine Elections And The Infringed Electoral System – Analysis

  • November 16, 2021 at 3:12 pm

    Detailed and factual analysis.


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