President Obama ’s reelection: Comparing American and Filipino presidential elections

American colonial legacy. Under American colonial rule (1899-1946) among whose avowed goals were to train Filipinos in democracy, our leaders learned the ropes of elections, political parties, presidential government with its separation of powers and checks and balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial departments, and a centralized unitary system, so unlike the decentralized U.S. federal system.  We also developed through public education, public health, and export agriculture, but not industrialization.

Political party development started with a short-lived Federalist Party advocating Philippine statehood in the U.S.A. Politics would be dominated by the Nacionalista Party that captured the pro-independence movement at the expense of minor parties. On the eve of independence in 1946, the Nacionalista Party split by forming the Liberal Party under which Manuel Roxas won in the first post-war national election. A proto two-party system emerged but the two parties were not distinctive in their ideology and programs, and their leaders changed party affiliations for their personal convenience.

U.S. democratic presidential elections. Of course, America is the foremost world power. It has the largest industrialized economy. It is also among the oldest, stable democracies. So comparing the Philippines with America seems inappropriate. But still some caparisons may be in order if we are to learn how to develop and modernize our own politics and democracy.

We see that America has a stable and very competitive two-party system. President Barrack Obama sought reelection on November 9 as the Democratic Party candidate; he was opposed by former Massachussets Governor Mitt Romney of the Republican Party. Their two parties have contested and alternated in power since the late 18th century.

The selection of presidential candidates starts in the political party primary elections in the various states, allowing individual party members to indicate their preferences among the party candidates. Next the two parties hold their presidential nominating conventions, except that an incumbent president is assured his party’s support. Then the contending political party presidential candidates face each other in national televised presidential debates where the American people can compare and assess them.

And finally the voters cast their votes and the party campaign organizations maximize the voting of their partisans. In all, presidential elections are very competitive. The candidates must demonstrate their position on issues and their leadership qualities. The process allows political party members a significant role in selecting the candidates. It mobilizes them in the campaign and the actual election. There was great excitement throughout the long process. And the world at large followed the presidential debates, elections, and the outcome. 

Our Filipino presidential elections. Until 1969 our presidential elections were contested mainly by the candidates of the Nacionalista Party and the Liberal Party, but the contests were  essentially between the “Ins” (the incumbent president and his partisans) and the “Outs” (those aspiring to replace the “Ins”); without significant differences in their party positions on issues and problems. There was unabashed switching of party affiliations of the main candidate. President Ferdinand Marcos, the Liberal Party Senate President became the Nacionalista presidential candidate in 1965. No meaningful distinctions can be made of the platforms of the nation’s supposedly two-party system. 

Under the 1987 Constitution presidential elections have been contested by several candidates including third political parties and party-less independents. In our last presidential election, in 2010, we had nine accredited presidential candidates. Most of them selected themselves as candidates, not their political party.

The winner, Senator Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino III, originally ran as vice-presidential candidate of the Liberal Party, whose presidential candidate was Senator Mar Roxas, the LP president. When Aquino’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino, the revered democracy icon and cancer victim died in 2009, a massive wave of sympathy for her made Roxas give way to Noynoy who readily won the presidency (42% of the votes). Noynoy ran on slogan: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.”

In second place (26%) was Joseph Estrada, Partido ng Masang Pilipino; the ousted president in 2001 who had been  convicted of plunder and then quickly pardoned by President Arroyo. In third place (16%) was former Speaker and Senator Manuel Villar, president of the Nacionalista Party. Fourth (11%) was Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro (Lakas-Kampi Alliance). Fifth (3%) was evangelist Eddie Villanueva (Bangon Pilipinas). Sixth (1.39%) was Senator Richard Gordon (Bagumbayan VMP). Seventh and Eighth (.15th and .13th %) were independent candidates: Nicanor Perlas and Senator Jamby Madrigal; and last (.12% ) was John Carlos de los Reyes, of the Kapatiran Party whose platform is based on the Christian gospels.

Also unlike American presidential politics where the president and the vice-president are elected as a team, in the Philippines we elect our two highest leaders separately. So we have had vice-presidents who did not belong to the party of the winning president: Vice-President Diosdado Macapagal in 1957, Vice-President Joseph Estrada in 1992, and Vice-President Gloria  Arroyo in 1998. Moreover, national candidates are elected mainly on their personal popularity, star or celebrity status, wealth—and therefore their perceived win-ability—rather than on their tested leadership and competence, or party affiliation.

Back to the 2012 American presidential elections. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney ran on visions and specific issues and policies on which they differed, while upholding some common principles as well. The three presidential debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates illuminated the candidates’ differing outlooks, policy positions, leadership qualities, and personalities. The candidates debated the economy, taxation, health care, immigration, foreign policy, the welfare of the middle class, and the role of government.

Voting preferences of the electorate were shown to be on the basis of their political party loyalties: Democrats or Republicans. They were also shown in relation to demographic and other factors, such as the young and older; women and men; mothers and fathers; white Americans and the growing minorities—Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Blacks.

Outcome of the American elections. Before, during and right after the presidential election the mass media and the social media coverage was intense and exciting. Not only for Americans but also for interested and concerned foreigners who felt they too had a stake on the outcome of the elections. Some were concerned for what might be learned for their home countries, and countries striving to be democratic, or to break out of their authoritarian politics.

Americans had been told that the contest between Obama and Romney was close, maybe too close to call, and that the final outcome would depend on several “battle-ground states” beyond the supposedly Blue (Obama) states and the Red (Romney) states. To Filipinos used to counting only the popular votes nationwide, winning the popular votes in each state of the Union in order to win all its assigned “electoral votes” is very intriguing.

Very impressive indeed was the 24-hour CNN coverage of the election and the incoming results state by state, adding the cumulative electoral votes of Obama and Romney just a few  hours after the voting ended in various states. When the pattern of Obama’s victory was assured, the CNN projected the President’s reelection. We, non-Americans shared in the great excitement as Democrats celebrated their victory in Chicago with President Obama and his family. The concession speech of Governor Romney was gracious. Most eloquent and inspiring was President Obama’s thankful victory speech.

With 270 electoral votes needed to win, the President had won 330 against Governor Romney’s 206. With Florida’s delayed results added, the President’s total rose to 359 electoral votes, a most impressive win indeed. 

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