Strewn among the various online expat forums to which I subscribe, they were stern and concise; avoid potential immigration problems, they declared in unison, by refraining from participation of any kind in the Philippine midterm election. Don’t talk about it. Don’t acknowledge it. Certainly don’t, God forbid, express an opinion. And on election day, one expat warned, make it a point not to be seen anywhere near an active polling place. In fact, he suggested, that might be the perfect day to stay home and read a book.
And so, I did.
Now that the election is over, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for months. The funny thing is, though, that I have no particular desire to exhale. Not that I would have much to say if I did; my understanding of Philippine politics is undoubtedly far too rudimentary to concoct anything meaningful to add.
I will say this, however; from the economy seats, this buggy ride has been extremely engaging. Wait, I’ll even go a step further; in some ways, it’s been downright inspiring. That’s because I come from America where democracy has been around long enough to have become the object of almost universal cynicism, derision and scorn. In other words, accustomed in the past to reciting daily silent mantras designed to summon forth the will and energy to vote in elections suffering from historically low voter turnout, I now live in a country whose citizens routinely travel hundreds of kilometers to participate in their hometown electoral processes.
Wow. I mean, just wow!
It’s not perfect, of course, as nothing ever is. One hears stories of electoral corruption on various levels, sometimes even culminating in the kind of violence that can undermine results. And there are complaints, as there are everywhere, that some voters do not choose their champions wisely. I am in no position to say whether any of this is true.
For my money, though, here’s the main difference between Filipino-style democracy and the process I’ve become accustomed to in America; enthusiasm. Not, mind you, just the requisite enthusiasm supporters show for their chosen candidates; that can be witnessed almost universally.
No, what I’m talking about here is a broader enthusiasm, the kind of enthusiasm that can sustain nations, a deeply-rooted, idealistic, excitement-driven, youthful enthusiasm for nothing less than the process itself. The kind of enthusiasm that, during the runup to elections, tolerates fleets of slow-moving poster-adorned vehicles blaring eardrum-bursting music between rambling barely-audible speeches delivered over crackling barely-functional loudspeakers.
The kind of thing that, in America – especially in the current political climate – would probably spark riots.
Perhaps that’s because democracy in the Philippines is still a shiny new toy, whereas in America it’s a torn old book with yellowing pages. Increasingly, it seems, Americans are losing sight of the process in favor of the results; if your candidate wins, the election was successful and, if not, well, there are other means.
I don’t mind admitting that this scares me, probably because I am old enough to remember the days when elections ended and voters put aside their differences to work for the common good, at least until the next election. That is, after all, the cornerstone of democracy and the only way it can work.
So here is my hope for the young democracy that I now call home; that it can serve as a gentle reminder to the older one I left behind. That, with this election season over, Filipinos can now unite to move forward in a way that lights up their corner of the globe.
For that is the democratic tradition, one that unfortunately seems to have been increasingly misplaced in the country of its birth and mine. And that, indeed, is not good news for anybody.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)