As young people, we are often told to register to vote—and for the right reasons. We would often hear, for example, that we can “make things right through our votes” or that our votes “would help make our voices heard.” But while all of these are true, our current sociopolitical climate has shown that voting in the elections is not sufficient to bring about the change that has too often eluded us.
Make no mistake, the argument that the so-called youth vote can spell the results of the upcoming elections is empirically valid. According to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), as of September 11, 2021, young Filipino voters already comprise 52% of the total registered voters for the 2022 polls. This is expected to grow further after COMELEC extended the period for voter registration from October 11 to 30. But more importantly, this means that the youth can basically dictate the outcome of the 2022 elections.
At other times, we are also called to register because we are told it is our duty as Filipino citizens to exercise our right to suffrage. As someone who would be voting for the first time in 2022, I cannot deny that this captures my attention. Just imagine being able to enact change directly through your vote (How cool is that?). But it is important to look into some assumptions. What are we not seeing behind the overwhelming rhetoric of Philippine electoral politics? And what should we look out for after we have, indeed, voted?
I will start with the most widely-shared belief that I daresay, is a grave misconception: for as long as we register and vote, we can make things right. In reality, it takes greater time and effort to actually do so. For instance, while youth voters can dictate the election outcome, this can happen if, and only if, they decide on a collective vote. Suppose the youth vote is fragmented, as it would likely be given our diverse backgrounds and political biases—would we still be able to bring about the change we want then?
The complexity of young people themselves calls for a more nuanced understanding of voting as a democratic exercise. Too often, voting is seen simplistically as a matter of duty or choice. In practice, however, it can be shaped by other cultural factors such as kinship, values, or the pervasive ‘personality politics’, among others. Sometimes, we vote for a candidate not because they are competent but because they are our kamag-anak or because we have utang na loob. Worse, as my former political science professors liked to point out, politicians often capitalize on their prominent surnames or showbiz appearances to easily win the popular vote.
It would therefore take a great deal of understanding local contexts, facing the harsh truth of divisive politics, and navigating through diverse political as well as cultural dispositions, to be able to form a significant voting bloc from the youth.
On a similar note, there seems to be a tendency to paint candidates as messianic figures who, once elected, will make things right for us through and through. In fact, the latter is often not the case, as exemplified by President Duterte himself who vowed in 2016 that “change is coming.” Six years hence, Duterte has done little to fulfill his ambitions and has instead left a legacy of blood and bullets.
We should not make the mistake of scrutinizing candidates only at the level of the elections when in fact, this task increases in importance even more once they have been sworn into office. Our obligation does not stop after we have cast our votes. We have to continue holding government officials accountable, critically assess their actions, and call them out if need be when they betray the public trust.
After almost six years of this administration breeding social media propaganda and fake news, it should already be clear that blind obedience, among other things, will be the downfall of our democracy.
In anthropology, voting is usually understood as something that is embedded in a people’s social and cultural life. Far from being passive subjects to the rhetoric of politicians, we are capable of debating and negotiating the process of transformation in our societies through our votes, as the anthropologist Michelle Obeid asserts.
This is precisely the challenge for us after we register and vote. Let us get rid of the idea that we have done our part as long as we show up in our precincts on election day. Let us move away from the deceptive portrayal of public officials as infallible decision-makers. Let us become loyal to the institution of democracy rather than the blind ambitions of mad kings.
And when push comes to shove, will we be courageous enough to turn our backs on the same politicians that we voted into office?