A FEW days ago, like millions of people all over the world, I watched the US presidential elections come to an end. I was simply awestruck by the victory of an African-American, Senator Barack Obama, over a white American, Senator John McCain. But, frankly, it wasn't the historic character of the triumph of a person of color (I'm completely perplexed why Americans simply refer to President-elect Obama as a black man when he isn't completely one, as his mother was a white American from Kansas) to the highest office of the acknowledged dominant superpower of the world. What struck me most were three realities of the American electoral exercise: the vast territories that it covers; the peaceful transition and the credibility of the results. The fourth thing that struck me most was the inevitable question: Why doesn't our diminutive country have the same democratic experience? It matters little that we are a small country but it certainly matters like no other that our electoral exercise wherever and whenever they are held be peaceful and credible as well. Is the Philippines capable of all that?
Americans, as McCain exemplified, often call their country "the greatest nation on earth" and there's no use arguing about that, especially when, as Barack Obama solemnly declared in his victory speech, we see another proof from their latest political act that that "government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the earth". In contrast, some conscientious lawyers that I know often see ours as a "democrazy" that has "a government off the people, buy the people and poor the people". It is a peculiar political creature regularly featuring politicians who do everything to gain votes and equally fight tooth and nail against ever admitting or conceding defeat. And, to our chronic embarassment, it is a reality in not only one dark spot of the archipelago. Nay, it is as ubiquitous as wherever Filipinos run for public office. The cynic's joke is not even funny: "No Filipino candidate loses an election. He only gets cheated."
That explains why I was simply bowled over listening to Republican John McCain's
concession speech. In previous days he was a driven man pushing hard to prove that he was better than his opponent to be president of the United States and it seemed to me that he was prepared to move heaven and earth to block Senator Obama's election to the presidency. But I saw none of that "angry" and "grumpy old man" the press made him out to be. I saw a humbled but a self-possessed man. This was all the more remarkable because between the two candidates, he had the most to lose. His age alone shuts him out from a possible future presidential comeback. His many attempts to distance himself from President George Bush may have also cost him precious political and social connections. In short, just as Barack Obama's election is historic, McCain's political ambition is now history.
But I didn't see nor heard a bitter John McCain. Rather I heard a calm and composed
man accepting the American people's verdict with sadness, yes, but also with high praises hopes for his opponent's triumph and for the democratic tradition.
Every Filipino, I think, should be green with envy over foreign politicians capable of such graciousness in defeat. It is not that we don't have the genes. I remember distinctly how
the late Senator Raul Roco very graciously conceded the election to then candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 but, realizing the serious credibility problems of her victory, later poured cold water on the whole thing. Of course, it could be argued, and with justification, that that election didn't reflect the true results. The specter of a Joc-joc Bolante haunting the incumbent president for whom he allegedly masterminded an illegal transfer of agricultural funds to her election coffers is too loud and too obvious to ignore.
If I were to identify two stumbling blocks to a Filipino losing gracefully, one would be the amount we spend (and I'm not simply talking of legal campaign expenses) and another would be our value of "hiya" carried to excess. That is, we don't want the social stigma of election defeat, so we blame election cheating. It seems to me a strange irony that election cheating has always plagued us and, thus, had provided a convenient fodder to sore election losers. The poverty of the masses is always the favorite escape goat for all the sins that lead to what we now see as our "inauthentic" and "immature democracy". Those who use that escape goat may have a point. But it does not explain all or even most of what is wrong in our psyche or character that shows its ugly heads in our society's anomalies. Either we submit to an inner and structural overhaul such that it can be tested externally in our actual political conduct. Or we will keep on seeing and being sore losers.