WHEN the Philippines goes to the polls in mid-May, most people will be concentrating on the titanic struggle between the two main presidential contenders: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the incumbent, and Fernando Poe Jr (also known as Da King), a 60-something movie star.
The country’s continuing obsession with action stars and media personalities such as Da King has made the Philippines the laughing stock of the Asia-Pacific and filled corporate boardrooms with horror.
Given former President Joseph Estrada’s disastrous record in office, the prospect of yet another actor occupying the official residence of Malacanang has had severe impact on the Philippine peso and business confidence.
Still, the 2004 polls also mark another historic event which in time to come will make the ridiculous candidacy of men like Poe less possible. On May 14, for the first time ever, expatriate Filipinos from across the globe will be eligible to vote.
While the numbers registered to vote remain small – only 160,000 are slated to cast their votes out of an estimated 37 million back home in the Philippines – the decision to reach out to the balikbayans (as they’re popularly known) will have dramatic long-term consequences for the country’s political system.
An estimated seven to eight million Filipinos are living and working abroad. These doctors, maids, construction workers, software designers and bankers remit more than US$7bil every year.
The decision to permit overseas voting as well as their government’s accommodating approach to dual citizenship ensures that this economically crucial class of men and women will finally have a voice in the country’s governance.
Moreover, it is to be hoped that the balikbayans will flex their economic muscle. Indeed, it is arguable that the overseas workers constitute the country’s “missing middle class”: a force for stability, progress and responsible governance.
Many politicians, such as the 40-year-old Senate majority leader Francis Pangilinan, view the electoral development positively. He argues: “The overseas workers have been major contributors to our country’s growth and survival. Now they will have a voice in its future governance.”
Certainly, these Filipinos having taken the brave and courageous step to leave the country in search of work are among the most dynamic, hardworking, well-educated and politically demanding members of the community. Their absence has deprived the country of a solid block of thinking and responsible voters, strengthening the position of ideologues and media figures that can sway the country’s impoverished masses.
There is no doubt that a larger middle class would also exert more pressure on the country’s political elite to act in a more transparent and accountable manner. They would in turn demand better law and order, improved government services and fiscal prudence.
It is highly debatable whether a larger middle class would be as susceptible to the blandishments of mediagenic figures such as Poe.
The Philippines has long been an economic laggard in the Asia-Pacific. Aside from a period in the early 90s when then President Ramos provided strong leadership and a clear vision for the nation, the Philippines has been devilled by anaemic growth rates, soaring birth rates and an absence of political will.
The inability to spur higher growth rates has meant that both budgetary and external deficits are large and growing. This situation fuels unemployment levels and exacerbates poverty that in turn only serves to worsen the nation’s already notorious law-and-order situation.
The combination of these socio-economic challenges and a stubbornly corrupt political class has made the country’s politics increasingly fractious and uncontrollable – something that the more educated and practical overseas workers could balance out.
Chito Salazar, a leading educator argues: “With the exception of those based in the United States, most of the expatriate groups such as those in the Middle East and Asia aren’t particularly organised. But in time to come – as they develop their own distinctive voice – they will become a welcome addition to the domestic political debate.
“While many of them were originally from the lower income groups, their international exposure will make them a very effective and enlightening political force. They won’t be bamboozled or seduced by simplistic solutions or personality politics.”
Marites Vitug, the editor of News break, a highly respected weekly magazine, argues: “I hope that with the experience of living abroad, they’ll demand leaders who are better qualified to attend to the country’s needs. Those who are well-informed can make the candidates more accountable.”
Empowering the middle class – even if they’re no longer resident in the country – may well be the only way for the Philippines to put a stop to the country’s living nightmare. As the expatriate voters gather together and exercise their influence, let’s hope that they will bring to an end the culture of corruption, recklessness and irresponsibility that has haunted the country.
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