Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Myth of the “Omnicompetent Citizen”

For quite some time now, I have been quietly observing the ongoing “debate” between adherents of One Voice and Sigaw ng Bayan. It seems to me that the two groups have reduced the Charter Change debate into only one issue: whether or not the Filipino people should continue having the right to vote for President. One Voice tends to hew closely to the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (The voice of the people is the voice of God) view and they oppose a shift to a parliamentary form of government because it will take away the people’s right to vote for president. Sigaw ng Bayan, on the other hand, wants a shift to the parliamentary system that would result in only members of Parliament choosing who gets to head our government. Given the people’s history of electing actors to national office, Sigaw ng Bayan feels that members of Congress are the ones most capable of knowing who is most qualified to rule our country.

The more important question now then is: “Can the people be trusted to vote for the best leader?” Or, put another way, “Are the people competent enough to know who is the best candidate in the ballot?

Legendary journalist Walter Lippman, in his seminal book “Public Opinion,” has already debunked the theory of the “omnicompetent” or the all-knowing citizen. Written sometime in the 1920s, “Public Opinion” has since become required reading for all political scientists, opinion makers and journalists worldwide. In his classic book, Lippman posited that the general public’s view of reality is incomplete, that is, they do not see what is really going on in their government aside from what they see on TV, read in the papers or hear from the rumor mills. He also said that public opinion can be easily manipulated by propaganda and that people’s attitudes are heavily influenced by stereotypes. And since the public is not “omnicompetent” and is in fact easily susceptible to propaganda and stereotypes, Lippman concluded that governments should not wholly trust their citizens to know the “objective truth.” Citizens, he claimed, are not competent to know what is best for them because they are not well-informed enough to make correct decisions on multifaceted issues and intricate policy matters.

Applying Lippman’s theory in the Philippine setting, one tends to agree. Take the case of the Filipinos past choices for President. In the 1992 presidential elections, then-Senate President Jovy Salonga arguably was the most qualified of the candidates. But people did not vote for him because they thought he was old, sickly and was about to die soon (Salonga is still alive today and in fact, still writes articles). If the public was “omnicompetent,” they would have known Salonga would not die. Also, most Ilonggos then voted for Miriam Santiago simply because she is their fellow Ilonggo, one example of how “stereotypes” influence public opinion.

Taking my argument further, if people were all-knowing, they would have clamored for Washington Sycip to be their President (I believe Wash Sycip is the best person alive to manage our economy). Congressman Miniong Teves (who is still one of our hardest-working and competent legislators despite his advanced age) would already be a senator. And Butch Africa (the guy who modernized the National Statistics Office) would be a COMELEC commissioner by now. But it seems to me that our current system does not allow these outstanding individuals to rise to important positions of leadership. And I am referring not only to their inability to get elected. I am also referring to the media's failure to herald their achievements and make them "celebrities" to the public. I also mean the failure of powerful interest groups and political parties to recruit these outstanding individuals to vie and win public office. It is clear then that our "selection process" for our leaders is flawed and limiting.

Of course, there are people who will argue that the solution is not to change the form of government but to educate our people. But I am sure that there are masteral or even law graduates out there who do not know who Wash Sycip is or what Butch Africa has done to turn around NSO from being one of the most inefficient government agencies to one of the best-performing today. This seems to prove Walter Lippman’s point that people are not in the best position to know the “objective truth” because they are limited by incomplete information, stereotypes and propaganda. Based on their track records, these three individuals I mentioned are eminently qualified to run our government, but why is it that only a few Filipinos know that they even exist? And even if these three run for office, I am sure they will lose because aside from being “unpopular,” they lack resources, name-recall, party machinery and mass appeal.

So where does that leave us? I believe that by shifting to a parliamentary form of government, our people will have a bigger chance of choosing the best and the brightest leaders to run our country. Under the parliamentary system, talented individuals with no political pedigree or financial resources would have a better chance in getting elected because it will be the party which will choose their candidates and shoulder their campaign expenses. Once in Parliament, an extraordinarily-gifted but relatively "unknown" individual can shine and earn the respect of his peers, and hopefully merit their votes when they choose the Prime Minister. It will also prevent incompetent individuals who are merely riding on their star quality from capturing high government posts. It will also force our people, who are easily “awed” by a familiar political name, to take a second look at “fresher” political faces and this will hopefully lead to the infusion of “new blood” to our already incestuous political system. I also believe that the provinces will have a better chance to develop if we change our system into a parliamentary-federal form of government. For these reasons, I am in favor to a shift from the presidential to the parliamentary system.


vic said...

In the Philippines setting, it is the Politician that are the least trusted. So why is the proposed cha-cha leave the choosing of the PM to the elected representatives?

In a Parliamentary system as I have known it, the Leader of the party declared winner of the last eletion is the Prime Minister. And the voters choose to send more of that party members to Parliament for that Idea. That means Indirect voting of your PM. I don't understand why the proposal complicate a very simple process that works beautifully here in my country and in some mature democracies.

cvj said...

I'm curious as to what makes you confident that the following scenario as described above will happen:

"Under the parliamentary system, talented individuals with no political pedigree or financial resources would have a better chance in getting elected because it will be the party which will choose their candidates and shoulder their campaign expenses. Once in Parliament, an extraordinarily-gifted but relatively "unknown" individual can shine and earn the respect of his peers, and hopefully merit their votes when they choose the Prime Minister."

What is different between the election of a typical House of Representatives member to that of a Member of Parliament? Why is it that now, we have JDV instead?

Iloilo City Boy said...

Under the current system, parties are "weak" - meaning politicians do not owe their victories to the party since they spend their own money for their campaigns. It's an "each man for himself, bahala ka sa political career mo" system. Politicians today are more preoccupied with where to get the money to finance their next campaign rather than issues and party policy advocacies. As such, the general attitude of our politicians is one of "ownership" of the office - ako ang gumastos, therefore kapakanan ko ang dapat masunod.

Under the parliamentary form, this attitude of "ownership" of public office will hopefully change. Since the party "invested" in their campaigns, politicians can no longer claim title to their post. It will also free them from worrying too much about "fund raising" because they can rely on their party to do that for them.

As regards JDV, I believe he is an effective Speaker. If you look objectively at his track record, the House under his term has been consistently productive (in terms of bills passed). You cannot take that away from the man. Of course, dahil "pangit" siya, hindi siya kasing "mediagenic" as Zubiri or Chiz. That is precisely why I say Filipinos are not "omnicompetent" dahil ang pulitika ngayon dinadaan na lang sa papogihan.

cvj said...

Thanks for the explanation, but i'm still unclear as to what specific rule change or changes contained in the proposed constitution will provide incentives to focus on party-oriented instead of personality-oriented politics. Are there campaign-finance or party-finance related rules in the proposed charter?

vic said...

Even in strong political Party system of Parliamentary government individual candidates are allowed election spending with equal maximum limit, considering that there are candidates that are not affiliated to any party. for more on limitations on contributions and expendintures relating to elections check Postigo Luna's comelec ako and navigate to botante Kami. I posted some there from the country that has almost perfected both the Parliamentary system under conferation of Ten autonomous Provinces and three Territories. thanks...

Iloilo City Boy said...

Think about this; campaign expenses have become too pricey. Candidates for the following offices have to raise the following amounts for their campaigns:

President- P500 million to P1
Senator - P100 to P500 million
Congressman - P8 to P50 million
Governor - P10 to P50 million
City Mayor - P5 to 30 million
Municipal Mayor - P500,000 to P10

Campaign finance reforms and party subsidies are essential features of the Parliamentary system. Of course, candidates can (and will) spend their own money for their candidacies. But the financial burden will be shared (ideally 50-50) both by the party and the candidate so I am hopeful that it will bring about shifts in attitudes and practices.

Under the current system, no politician can be elected president without the support of the "Five Families" (Lucio Tan, John Gokongwei, Ayala, Henry Sy and Danding Cojuangco). Also, one has to secure the support of provincial elites (at what price I don't know). A presidential candidate also has to spend for a national media ad campaign, which could run into several hundred million pesos.

Under the parliamentary form, a candidate for Parliament only needs the support of local businessmen in his district and only needs to spend for a district-wide media mileage. Gone will be the days wherein taipans "donate" P500 million to a single presidential candidate. The nature of "political paybacks" will therefore become smaller. As they say, "madaling tanggihan yung tao na nag-donate ng P5 million lang pero pag P500 million ang binigay sa yo, how can you say no?

cvj said...

I suppose that a Member of Parliament will be at the Congressman range (8 to 50 million as mentioned above) in terms of campaign expenses so what you forecast will happen in the case of Members of Parliament should by your reasoning already be happening today with the Members of the House. After all, we've had the House in its present form for the past 20 years. We would then expect to have more quality members of the House of Representatives, but this is clearly not the case. Also, what is preventing one of the "five families" from buying the votes of majority of Members of Parliament to get themselves their very own Prime Minister?

Anonymous said...

Parliamentary form of government works if the parties are strong.Normally there are three parties that are the major players.A party with conservative ideas and principles, another one is the party with liberal ideals and the third, most of the time the weak party is an independent.In the Philippines we don't have these kind of parties, politicians have no principles or ideas that they can consider unique to their parties.Each one of them is ready to change party affliation in a heartbeat if they deemed it as advantage to them.I cannot picture a parliament where everybody has almost the same ideas or principles being displayed.We will never have a true opposition, most of the politicians are always end up as strange bedfellows.The rich and the powerful will perpetuate their power because as you've said they only have to spend less in order to be elected.The smaller the geographic area the easier for them to control.The reason why some people like media personalities and actors are elected(may not be the best choice) is because they are elected at large.Ordinary people will never got a chance to defeat a well oiled local political dynasties.You have mentioned Lippman, his ideas are logical and in fact happens everyday in a Democratic state.People are easily swayed, it's then the responsibilty of those who manages the campaign of any candidate to package his client in such a way that he or she will be attractive enough for the voters.Even in advanced Democracies like the U.S. stereotyping is the name of the game.We should not forget that under the presidential system we were able to have Presidents like Ramon Magsaysay, or Diosdado Macapagal which have their own humble beggining and manage to become at least good presidents.National officials as you've said were elected because of their bailwicks and the support of those who reign over their own small kingdoms, It will be very true also with the parliamentary set up.Another thing we haven't seen a draft of this proposed system, let us not forget that the same lawmakers sitting there right now will be the ones who will write this system.The least spoken of, objection to the parliamentary system is probably the most difficult one that people will have to bear in case the proposal will go through is the logistical nightmare that will be created by the shift.The money that will be used to this adventure is staggering, we could have find more useful ways to spend that money.I would like to remind you also that the proposal came into light because "Tabako" is pushing it and Gloria promised him this, in order to get his support during the crises.He is barred from running as President but not as MP