The Manila Times : 'Winnability' and voter transformation

News & Interviews
17 June 2021

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

WHILE many agreed with me, some of my friends are taking me to task for what I said in an online interview, where I proclaimed that an unwinnable candidate is useless. They alleged that I succumbed to the transactional nature of politics and have abandoned my commitment to elevating its quality.

But actually, I merely affirmed the nature of democratic elections, where the candidate who garners the highest number of votes wins. Thus, the performance, record, platform, and even character and integrity of candidates will all eventually yield and submit to the mighty power of numbers.

However, this doesn't mean that we have to abandon principled politics, and that performance, record and platform no longer matter. It doesn't mean we need to forget character and integrity in favor of money politics. If at all, these should remain as key norms in politics. But what needs to be transformed is the way "winnability" is framed and achieved.

It is anticipated, based on the names of possible candidates being floated around, that our choices remain the same. They will all be creatures from the same political swamp that ideally, and under perfect conditions, would require draining.

But in the face of the usual narratives and tricks, there is one thing that we can change. We can transform the manner people make their choices. And this should all focus on reason and not just on partisan biases.

Money, personal loyalties and partisan biases at present determine winnability. But our history is replete with tragic stories of how our collective interests suffered major losses when we framed winnability in this manner. Wealth, political idolatry and personal biases as factors that determine the choices of voters have not enriched our political experience and elevated our political practices. Instead, what we had were empty but addictive populism, broken promises and failed governance.

There is a need to change the political landscape where people who are dedicated to ensuring that the democratic experiment does not fail should campaign for how people should vote instead of campaigning for candidates. We need an army of advocates who will subordinate their personal choices of candidates to the higher goal of campaigning for a more principled process of choosing.

One can start by framing choices in the context of issues that matter most to the country. In fact, partisans can help in elevating the political discourse beyond personalities and into one of issues by simply framing their candidates not in the usual narrative of being less corrupt and more principled, which are abstract terms. What is needed would be to reveal the strengths of their candidates on key issues that matter most to actual and real people's lives. It's about time we go beyond the white-black, good-evil dualisms, and evolve into a more substantive framing of the strengths of candidates.

In order for a transformation in voting behavior to occur, voters should be taught to weigh candidates no longer just as symbolic brands that affirm their political identities as one from Mindanao or the solid north, or a loyalist or critic. There can never be political maturity if voters remain trapped in a discursive terrain where winnability is determined solely by charisma and a compelling or familiar narrative.

When winnability is framed by external appearances, what we end up with are shallow leaders. And when money politics determine who will be victorious in political contests, it also paves the way for money to corrupt politics. Relying on narratives that brand political events and personalities as black or white can easily mobilize, but it can only produce polarizing leaders and will further create divisions among the people.

The need to transform winnability to align with performance and issues, things that are empirically evident, is an imperative that needs to be addressed and realized. It is a challenging task, and it cannot be postponed. There is no other more appropriate time than the 2022 elections for us to muster the energy to get this started and going. What the people had to endure all these years, which culminated with the challenges we faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, should not be allowed to again be seized by opportunistic, personality-driven, parochial and narrative-fixated politics.

Right now, we are witnessing a procession of names, all tempting and offering us to take them seriously. For a long time, we have been held hostage by a kind of politics that failed us, simply because the voters have themselves failed by failing to exercise due diligence in exercising their franchise to choose their leaders. Thus, people without qualification but with money, or without outstanding records to match what is required of the post they covet but with the right surname, dare to inflict on us their mediocrity. And they have flourished because we allowed them to fester in our body politic.

Transforming the electorate may be a formidable task. And even if we succeed, it doesn't end in elections. Because the work needs to be reinforced when those whom we elect take their posts and govern. There has to be a consistent check of their performance. Fortunately, an electorate that chooses leaders based on merit and record, and not on loyalty to a family, ethnic group, or preferred narratives, and where winnability is no longer a function of money, surname and looks, would be primed to hold accountable elected officials on the same grounds of performance.

The greatest obstacle in this noble undertaking is that the people should be willing to part ways with the traditional practices of partisan politics. Advocates for transforming the electorate will have to first struggle with their own biases and may have to abandon their own preferred narratives of being caught in divisive discourses associated with people they have idolized and demonized.

The road ahead may be hard. But there is no other way because the alternative is our continuing to get more of the same political leaders.