Unity candidates

james-himenezTHE entire country is currently enthralled by two soap operas. The first is the subversively educational and enlightening serial drama better known by the hashtag with which it has invaded everyone’s awareness, #AlDub. The second is the soap opera called “Who’s running for what and with whom?”

In the meantime, while we’re distracted by these two cultural marvels, the very essence of democracy is being eroded right under our very noses by yet another, perhaps also cultural, phenomenon: unity candidates.

A unity candidate—along with its collective noun form: the unity ticket—results when politicians collude among themselves to give the voting public only two choices: the candidate they put forward or nothing. Considering that our electoral system requires only that a candidate get more votes than anyone else to be declared the winner, even the choice to abstain is practically an illusion. If you don’t vote for the unity candidate, you’re still going to see him take office.

You know who else does it that way? North Korea.

According to a diplomat from the Hermit Kingdom: “While candidates could be nominated by anyone, it was the practice for all candidates to be nominated by the parties. These nominations were examined by the [Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland] and then by the Central Electoral Committee, which allocated candidates to seats. The candidate in each seat was then considered by the electors in meetings at the workplace or similar, and on election day the electors could then indicate approval or disapproval of the candidate on the ballot paper.”

In that rogue state, the motivations for this kind of single-candidate elections are clear and unambiguous. Elections are nothing more than a political census, doubling in function as a loyalty check. Defectors report that while a voter can actually choose to reject the single candidate on his ballot, he has to do so by using a red pen placed right next to the ballot box, in full view of the election officials. Under circumstances like that, only the insane or suicidal would dare dissent.

Here, our politicians coyly trot out words like “unity,” “harmony” and “consensus.” They unfurl rationalizations like “unity candidates minimize the divisiveness of elections,” or “unity candidates eliminate election violence.”

I beg, most vigorously, to differ.

As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, said: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” And that’s exactly what unity candidates are: a conspiracy among politicians, to deprive the public of any real choice in who their leaders will be, thereby ensuring that the leadership positions all go to the few, chosen by the conspirators.

The funny thing is, when this same strategy is used in other fields, it is often considered criminal.

Take Section 65 of Republic Act 9184, for instance. The law says “when two or more bidders enter into an agreement which call upon one to refrain from bidding for Procurement contracts,” they will have committed a crime punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years. They can also be permanently disqualified from holding public office and from transacting business with the government.  If this sort of behavior is considered criminal in other contexts, why should it be any different in politics where it is no less harmful?

Consider this. Since the unity candidate is the only choice the voter has, the power brokers behind him are given free rein with respect to how they use governmental power. Those of us who consent to this arrangement ought to be reminded that an environment where a single power bloc controls positions of leadership has, time and again, been proven to be a fertile breeding ground for corruption, oppression and abuse.

Hand in hand with corruption comes the power to increase the cost—both financially and otherwise—of accessing even the most basic government services. With no fear of accountability via an electoral loss, unity leaders can easily restrict the availability of services to those who are perceived as allies, denying them outright to those who are considered enemies.  And worse, even if corruption is kept to a minimum, the lack of any electoral challenger eliminates the need to improve or innovate, leading to generalized stagnation. Does any of that sound familiar? It should, because those are some of the hallmarks of life under a dictatorship.

Sadly, the practice of fielding unity candidates is not illegal. After all, no person can be forced to run for office if he doesn’t want to. This is, however, nothing more than a convenient excuse for the power brokers who make it their business to forge unity tickets. Or at least, it used to be when they still felt the need to justify their strategic moves.

Nowadays, it seems like they don’t care about maintaining even that semblance of adherence to democracy. Now, it’s either they invoke buzzwords or they capitalize on the public’s fear of violence. In either case, they are doing the electorate an injustice by undermining the most fundamental principles of democracy and free elections.

But do we notice? No, we don’t. We’re too busy lip-syncing kumbaya.


James Arthur B. Jimenez is director of the Commission on Elections’s education and information department.



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