How People Vote

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I came across two interesting posts in Facebook that triggered deeper reflection on how people vote—or why they vote the way they do. I know that most politicians, especially those who aspire for the highest positions nationally and locally, are sufficiently armed with the practical information called Election 101. Yet, I am amazed at how many of them, and their allegedly more intelligent advocates or fans, disregard the most basic. Truly, ambition and partisanship can make people blind.

The first post from a friend, Riza Regis, was a gentle reminder of a simple law in human behavior. Quoting from Gautama the Buddha, the message went like this:

“Some people can be reached by speaking to their conscience. Those are the ones who already know that they want to find an end to suffering. Through conscience, guilt, and shame, they will recognize their wrong when it is told to them.

“But there are not enough like them. Look a little deeper. These are people who cannot listen to conscience, not because they are bad but because they are too caught up in action. You cannot preach to someone who is fighting for life and breath not just in war but in the ordinary struggle of existence.”

The second post from Leni Robredo quotes a politician turned martyr and hero, Ninoy Aquino, in his simple articulation of yet another law in human and social behavior:

“The very first freedom that has to be won is freedom from hunger. When you are always concerned about where the next meal will come from, everything else becomes irrelevant.”

Gautama the Buddha and Ninoy Aquino, poles apart yet one in the fundamental understanding of a common law governing humanity. Of course, each one then moves on how to teach the different pathways in life sensitive to the priority of man’s needs.

I would think that political candidates campaigning for the people’s votes, their ardent supporters and advocates would never lose sight of the basics. Honestly, those who seek the more local, or most local of positions in public service seem to be the ones who remain most aware of people’s needs. I suppose it must be because of presence and proximity to those they wish to serve. Truly, I do not see as much of the same practical intelligence among those who seek national positions.

National candidates need national awareness, period. It can be so that raising awareness about one’s running, even more than one’s political platform or advocacy, becomes the number one priority if one runs for the presidency, the vice presidency and the Senate. It is pitiful that this is so because the bulk of the effort then is to raise funds to raise simple awareness that one is running for a national position. Much less effort and resources can be devoted to the more substantive issues as the next bulk of focus will be on raising an army to watch the actual voting process.

Together, though, with the needed national awareness comes the image that goes with it. Decidedly, those who have been in the national political scene longer have a great advantage, and we know how true this is from surveys, past and present. Yet, a minority of sitting national officials are struggling while a few newcomers are breaking through. This is when it begins to count when people know the candidate and relate their priority concerns with them.

The urgent needs for survival, especially where hunger is a serious daily threat, have to be connected with the candidate’s image and propensity to serve them. Buddha’s words on how some can be reached by their conscience hold very true. What is just as true is Buddha’s conclusion that there are simply not enough of these conscience-sensitive people because the greater number are too caught up in the ordinary struggle for existence. In an election, the greater number counts most.

Ninoy Aquino was more specific. He pointed out hunger, or the freedom from it as the most important. And it did not seem that he was talking about elections but governance itself—and how societal leaders must understand a people afflicted with massive poverty. How one can undervalue the importance and urgency of hunger is beyond me. Yet, with hunger knocking so consistently over decades on the doors of tens of millions, freedom from it has NEVER been top priority, not in government, not in the Church, not anywhere except from anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates.

The first need is security. If this is not understood, there is no second need. The whole principle of life rests on this.

Security has many faces, and the most primal are the most important. Food and shelter are so directly related to life itself that these are always the first concerns. A third and equal concern may burst into the scene in special circumstances—like life-threatening conflict. That is why peace in conflict areas is as primordial as food and shelter.

Underlying the primal needs, though much more subtle, is the need for dignity. When all other needs are in near equal importance, the need for dignity kicks in. And where dignity is concerned, candidates with whom the poor feel a greater connection with have a quantum advantage. They say that politicians promise everything, so the most credible to the people being promised, will get the vote.

I have always wondered why Philippine society led by the elite, the rich, the powerful and even the learned, somehow think they can jumble up fundamental priorities. Well, I was jolted back to the grim reality that the wealthiest one percent of the world own more than the balance of 99 percent. This is why the natural order of things can be screwed so badly yet succeed—because 1 percent control everything.

Except in an election in a country that struggles to give democracy a chance. In a democratic election, in one quiet moment, and only in such a moment, the poorest and the richest are as equal as it can get—with one vote each.

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