Baxter Award Recipient Monsod: “Fair Elections Are About Social Justice”

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Christian S. Monsod, former chairman of the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC), founder and honorary chairman of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) and pioneer of the National Citizen’s Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), received the 2012 Joe C. Baxter Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2012.

Following an introduction by IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney, the award was presented to Monsod by Sarah Mendelson, deputy assistant administrator at the United States Agency for International Development.

Below are Monsod’s remarks upon accepting the Baxter Award.

I am deeply honored at being given the Joe C. Baxter award for 2012 by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.  I thank its Board of Directors and its Philippine office for this unexpected honor.  It is a most welcome boost to the task of nation-building of which IFES has been a valued partner through the years.

I accept this award as an affirmation by an acknowledged international expert of the pioneering efforts of the Philippines to modernize its election system. I accept this award as a tribute to the spirit of volunteerism that is the moving force in our efforts at reform as a nation, whether in mobilizing 500,000 ordinary citizens to protect the ballot or in empowering the basic sectors in their quest for social justice. Volunteerism, at its finest, is people power.

Free, fair and regular elections are really about social justice, with the ballot being the only right in a democratic system where everyone can be truly equal. But social justice is also about social reform programs where the goal is not equality but equity to make sure that nobody is left behind by development.

Guns and goons kill in elections. But poverty also kills. It is slow death from hunger, from diseases that we thought no longer existed, from the loneliness of a life with an empty future. It is also the “dying of dignity.”

Clearly our political and economic development must go hand in hand with social reform. Not only because social justice is a compelling moral issue but also because conclusive empirical evidence tell us that sustained high economic growth is not possible unless we also address the problem of inequality. In other words, social justice makes good economic sense as well. And that means not only income reform – quality education, universal health care and livelihood opportunities - but also asset reform, which is primarily about land and natural resources.

Reforming our election system has been a rocky journey – from one that was misused by a dictatorship to stay in power to a manualized system that was so tantalizingly vulnerable to cheating that few politicians could resist doing it. Certainly, the overdue nationwide adoption in 2010 of an automated system was a signal achievement widely appreciated by our voters for reporting credible results within hours of the vote. But my colleagues from the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC), who are here today know, from the lessons of 2010, that the automated system needs major enhancements, especially on such issues as internal rigging, auditability, disenfranchisement. And it cannot be vendor-driven.

Moreover, our systemic problems, which may not be similar to those in more matured democracies like the United States, need equal if not more attention. What’s the point of an accurate and speedy count when what is being counted are votes that have been devalued by (1) the improper, even illegal, use of money, including government funds, (2) dysfunctional political parties, (3) warlordism and (4) entrenched political dynasties?

Yet, despite its shortcomings, our people overwhelmingly prefer elections for choosing or changing their leaders as against a military takeover, a revolutionary government, a self-serving revision of the Constitution or a people power upheaval. To them, elections are about political power that they did not have in a dictatorship. And they vote with a high turnout of about 75 percent.

But to improve their lives, the people say that they rely only on themselves with the use of people power in their own communities. They no longer go to the streets to serve the agenda of politicians. This is the changing paradigm of people power. It’s a good omen for the future, but there is still the challenge to democracy to make good on its promises.

In 1986, when we liberated ourselves from martial rule, the rich and the poor, stood side by side in a spontaneous moment of solidarity, and we promised one another that we would bring our nation to greatness with a better future for all.

But today, mass poverty is still with us and income inequality has not changed in 26 years. We have not done very well by our poor, and we know this must change.

In the battle for change, legal activism and intelligent advocacy are more effective than sloganeering and street action. Hence, the continuing dialogue with the COMELEC on electoral reforms, and civil society’s support for the COMELEC’s efforts to overhaul the seriously flawed implementation of the party-list system in the House of Representatives.

Hence, the example of volunteer lawyers crossing the social divide to help the poor get land that they can call their own, decent housing, the protection of their fishing grounds from poachers and of their ancestral lands from the environmental degradation of mining.

In 2006, volunteer lawyers took then President Arroyo to Court on her attempt to circumvent the constitutional term limits by revising the Constitution itself. The Supreme Court ruled against Arroyo by a close vote of 8-7 where 10 of the justices she appointed were split 5-5 on the legality of her peoples’ initiative.

In 2010, volunteer lawyers also fought the family of our incumbent President Aquino in the courts for the distribution to the farmers of the largest sugar plantation in the country, which the family had avoided for 23 years. In April this year, the Supreme Court by a vote of 14-0, including the three appointees of Aquino to the Court, finally ordered the distribution of some 5,000 hectares to about 6,000 farmers, a decision which has been accepted by the president and is now being carried out.

These are certainly notable victories. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them to change the national landscape because our society is still in the grip of a feudalism where many in the leadership elite subscribe to a discredited trickle-down economics that preserves their privileges and widens the gap between the rich and the poor. This must change if we are to build a just and progressive society.

We know that this journey takes time and is never easy. But making the journey is half the battle won. And we shall keep on trying – again and again, in isolated rural areas and in the majestic halls of justice, and in elections after elections after elections until we get the country we deserve.

Thank you and good evening.

For more information about the 2012 Baxter Award, click here

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