'Bobotantes' Don’t Exist. You’re Just Privileged

This year’s elections are one of the most contentious in the history of the Automated Election System. Massive reports of electoral fraud by citizens and poll watchdog groups, documented cases of blatant red-tagging and black propaganda by state forces, rampant vote-buying, and violence in the polls, among other cases, all cast serious doubts on the legitimacy of the election results.

But beyond these anomalies, there are simply a lot of people who voted for who they will. And, it’s so easy to point the blame on them, to dismiss them as dumb for choosing dancers and clowns instead of Cum Laudes and experienced lawmakers. It’s easy to say, “Mga hindi kayo marunong bumoto. Dinaan kayo sa jingle at pera.”

Newsflash: Voters aren’t stupid, and it’s not their fault.

Nanay Fely represents the regular voter 

I met Nanay Fely during our campaign for Neri Colmenares and Kabataan Partylist. She sells cigarettes just outside the tricycle terminal near the public market. I bought a stick and chatted her up, giving her a paper fan to help with the early May heat. We talked about her issues: She lives in another barangay with her family, but recently some people turned up to collect “dues” for the land owner, and they didn’t know what to do.

Kaya nga sana si [Candidate B] ang manalong mayor. Lagi nalang sila [Candidate A] e, hindi naman kami natutulungan,” she said. “Kaya rin iboboto ko si Cynthia Villar. Sorry a, to. Iboboto ko rin si Neri, syempre! Pero may pabahay si Villar.”


It was a strange slate, I thought. But Nanay Fely represents the regular voter: somebody looking for people who will take care of his or her most pressing issues. For Nanay Fely, Villar, with her smug smirk and orange tarpaulin, represents hope. 

And there are many cases of people with similar sentiments. People would sometimes say, “Maka-Duterte ako pero iboboto ko to (Colmenares), kasi pinaglalaban niya ang gusto namin,” while we were on campaign. When asked why they were pro-Duterte, they’d reply, “Nawala ang mga adik at magnanakaw e. Ramdam ko yun.”

Those sentiments are more than valid. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people vote based on personality politics or because they don’t know better. But at the end of the day, it is economic interest that drives voters, and who they vote is who they see as capable of providing a real, tangible solution to these problems.

Vote-buying is a symptom of something else

Let’s talk about vote-buying. This year’s elections had more cases of vote-buying than in previous years. Duterte himself said that vote-buying was “integral to the Philippine elections.” And he’s not wrong, on some level.

We—and when I say “we,” I mean the “petite bourgeois middle class,”—know better than to sell our votes. We believe in things like integrity and that no amount of money can make us vote for any candidate.

But tell that to somebody barely earning enough to survive from one day to the next. Or to a farmer struggling to sell his crops so they can buy food to eat. When they are offered P1,500 for a vote, they’re being offered a real, tangible, solution to their problems, far more potent than any promise or jingle.

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And that is the real problem in Philippine society. Not “stupid” voters, but poverty. Not personality politics, but a system that disenfranchises the vast majority of Filipinos and forces them to cling on to false icons of power in hopes of barely surviving.

That is the real enemy here. When nine out of every 10 farmers do not have their own land, or one out three workers are contractual, or 82 percent of our schools and universities are commercialized and privatized, the end result is a society that empowers those who are already in power, while leaving the vast majority of the populace in the dirt.

It’s easy for the middle class to simply ignore the realities of the nation. Suburban comfort tends to create a bubble of privilege around its citizens, and they tend to look at things differently. There’s no denying that the urban middle class and the “rich” are more educated, focus more on platforms, and have greater access to candidates’ positions. But we must never forget that this is a product of their privilege and position in society. 

The answer is not an election

So, what’s the solution? In simplest terms: engaging the masses. The problem is not the voters but the exploitative systems that created them, including cultivating trapo culture and disenfranchising voters from obtaining real political power.

Engaging the masses means telling them that there is a way. It means voters' education forums, discussions on Philippine society, and elevating discourse in what way you can. It means taking the time to talk to Nanay Fely about the issues she faces while you smoke your cigarette. It means connecting with the people you would normally deride and dismiss as a “bobotante.”


But it’s important to remember that discernment is a function of privilege. Beyond teaching people to vote wisely, we must accept that the solution is, was, and never will be any election. Although having true representatives of the people will always be important, we must accept that no election will give the majority of Filipinos the political power that they need. 

As long as the ancien regime of landlords, foreign capital, and political dynasties entrench themselves in positions of power, the Filipino people will continue to be directed by a class so far removed from their own. Even those with benevolent interests ultimately end up serving their own.

What we need is not an election, but collective action. More than education, we must empower the Filipino. A true government of the people is not just voted in by the people, but run by them, and directed by them.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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