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The 2016 Philippine Elections: Conversations with the Hong Kong migrant community

Thirty years ago in February 1986, the People Power Revolution triumphed over the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. When Marcos declared victory in a pivotal election against Corazon Aquino – widow of murdered dissident Benigno Aquino – amid widespread allegations of fraud, a million protestors appeared on the streets of Manila in a sea of yellow ribbons. Realising that his 21-year presidential tenure was at an end, Marcos fled.

When the jubilant crowd marched into the deserted presidential palace they discovered what remains today a notorious symbol of corruption and rent-seeking in Philippine politics – the collection of more than 1,000 pairs of shoes owned by Imelda Marcos, the dictator’s wife.

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Imelda Marcos at the Marikina Shoe Museum, Manila. Photo: Vince Lamb via Flickr

The restoration of democracy was not a panacea for the “sick man of Asia”. In the 30 years since, the country has continued to suffer from high levels of corruption, and politics are perceived to be dominated by wealthy families. Under the Priority Development Assistance Fund established in 1990, every senator or congressman can receive an annual sum of PHP 70–200 million (HK$ 12–33 million) from the national budget with little oversight.

The funds are ostensibly used to conduct local public works programmes, but on many occasions they have simply been embezzled; Filipinos refer to this phenomenon as “pork barrel politics”. Moreover, the government faces an armed insurgency in the southern island of Mindanao, and has failed to reduce poverty at a rate comparable to its Southeast Asian neighbours.

For these reasons, large numbers of Filipinos have little choice but to seek greener pastures abroad. Up to 10% of the country’s GDP, according to the World Bank, consists of remittances from expatriates. In 2013, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimated that there were over 200,000 Philippine nationals in Hong Kong, making the city the 11th most popular destination for its expatriates worldwide, narrowly behind Singapore.

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Campaigning at Chater Road, Hong Kong. Photo: Elson Tong

For a one-month period beginning on April 9, these overseas Filipinos will take part in their country’s general election for the presidency and the congress. For those at home, election day is scheduled for May 9. The overseas voting system was not introduced until 2004. Before, those working abroad were simply disenfranchised if they did not return to their place of registration in the Philippines.

According to the Commission on Elections, there are 54 million registered voters this year, 1.38 million of whom are based overseas. Speaking to online platform HK Pinoy TV in February, Philippine Vice Consul Alex Vallespin announced that there were 93,049 registered Filipino voters in Hong Kong.

As in previous elections, polling will take place at the Bayanihan Kennedy Town Centre, a former school converted into a major Filipino community and cultural venue. In the 2013 senatorial elections, queues formed outside the gates of the centre every Sunday, reportedly as early as 4 am.

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Bayanihan Kennedy Town Centre. Photo: VictoriaDFong via Wikicommons

A five-horse race?

Presidents are only allowed to serve for a single six-year term, and the incumbent Benigno Aquino III – son of Corazon Aquino – will step down in June. Benigno Aquino has presided over a period of cautious optimism, improving the country’s ranking on international corruption indices with a series of high-profile arrests, and stimulating the economy to a respectable 5.8% growth rate in 2015.

However, the story has been different for some Filipinos living abroad. Speaking to HKFP, Dolores Balladares, Chairwoman of the migrant support organisation United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL), described the Aquino administration as a “continuation of the Gloria Arroyo presidency [from 2001 to 2010], when there was no justice for migrant workers”.

Balladares points out that Aquino has slashed the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs, increased mandatory insurance fees paid by overseas Filipino workers to the government-owned company PhilHealth, and closed down a number of embassies and consulates – thereby cutting off services to expatriates. She claims that Aquino broke all of his promises to migrant workers “within the first 100 days of his administration”.

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Benigno Aquino III. Photo: World Bank via Wikicommons

Aquino’s successor will be chosen from five candidates. They are engaged in a tight race according to opinion polls by research institute Social Weather Stations in late March. Only Grace Poe has the support of over 30% of respondents.

Grace Poe, adopted daughter of 2004 presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr, is considered a relatively untarnished, albeit inexperienced, politician. Initially, the Commission on Elections disqualified her for failing a requirement that candidates have at least 10 years of Filipino residency – she had become a United States citizen in 2001 – but the judgement was overturned by the Supreme Court in March. Aquino’s own preferred successor is Manuel Roxas, who once invited Poe to become his running mate for vice president, in vain.

Current Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay, an opponent of Aquino, and Rodrigo Duterte, long-time Mayor of the southern city of Davao, are two other leading candidates. Neither is free from controversy. Binay has faced allegations of corruption from the Commission on Audit dating from his tenure as Mayor of Makati, Manila’s central business district. He denies the charges. Duterte is known as a “strongman” waging war against corruption and drugs, but his taste for firm measures in this war has been criticised by human rights groups: Human Rights Watch accuses him of tolerating extra-judicial killings by the so-called “Davao Death Squads”.

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(From left to right) Binay, Defensor-Santiago, Duterte, Poe and Roxas at the Presidential Election Debate, February 21

Finally, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who was suffering from lung cancer just one year ago, is running for the presidency in her first attempt since 1992. Significantly, she has chosen Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr – son of the former dictator – as her running mate.

Balladares and her colleagues at UNIFIL support Poe as they agree with her pro-welfare and pro-labour electoral platform. Both Poe and Duterte have spoken against the widespread practice of contract labour in the Philippines, where employers hire workers on six-month contracts that are endlessly renewed. As officially “temporary” workers they are deprived of regular welfare and benefits.

Courting the Hong Kong community

But Balladares is mainly setting her sights on the contest for the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Philippine Congress. Her organisation UNIFIL is affiliated with Migrante International, a global alliance that aims to promote the rights of overseas Filipino workers. In 2004, the first year that overseas voting was introduced, Migrante sought political representation back home in the Philippines. Its Chairperson Connie Bragas-Regalado – then a domestic worker in Hong Kong – ran as a party-list candidate for the House of Representatives. She did not win a seat as Migrante failed to obtain over 2% of the party-list vote. This year, Bragas-Regalado will join four other candidates – all former migrant workers – on the Migrante party-list.

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The Migrante/Grace Poe campaign at Chater Road. Photo: Elson Tong

Migrante has been campaigning actively in preparation for this year’s elections, and it is only the first time that it has publicly endorsed a presidential candidate in Grace Poe. The party has established a network of supporters, mainly by word of mouth due to lack of resources. According to Balladares, it has recruited 3,200 new members in Hong Kong since November 2015.

Although she is optimistic about the party’s prospects “given that each of these new members will reach out to friends and family back home”, she emphasises that organisations like UNIFIL are unlike other political groups, in that they do most of their work outside of election years, providing shelter to migrants in distress and referring them to pro-bono lawyers.

Candidates across the political spectrum are taking Hong Kong voters seriously. In February, action film star Robin Padilla flew to the city to campaign for Duterte, attracting large crowds at Chater Garden. On Easter Sunday, the same area was lined with booths and stages that variously called on Filipinos to vote for Roxas and Bongbong Marcos. Poe herself came last Christmas initially as a tourist, but was invited to speak at a gathering after being recognised – “it was an accident”, joked Balladares.

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The Roxas campaign. Photo: Elson Tong

Yet if Migrante fails to obtain a seat in 2016, it will be barred from nominating party-list candidates in the future. Under the 1995 Party-List System Act, groups that fail to win over 2% of the party-list vote over the course of two successive elections will be automatically deregistered by the Commission on Elections. Migrante first ran in 2004, and was prevented from participating under controversial circumstances in 2010. Therefore 2016 represents the party’s second and final chance to break into mainstream Philippine politics.

Automatic deregistration under the Party-List System Act is only one of several difficulties faced by political groups in the Philippines. In September 2015, it was announced that the names of 13,900 Hong Kong-based Filipinos would be struck off the official list of overseas voters for failing to vote in the two preceding elections. Although they were given until October 31 to re-register, UNIFIL has received calls for assistance from disenfranchised Filipinos, and has forwarded a number of complaints to the Consulate General.

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The Defensor-Santiago/Bongbong Marcos campaign. Photo: Elson Tong

Electoral fraud?

A more deeply-entrenched threat to Philippine democracy, however, is the possibility of electoral fraud. “In 2004, Migrante mobilised local campaigners in certain districts of the Philippines,” recalled Balladares, “but sometimes, even in the districts where the campaigners themselves lived, we received an inexplicable zero votes”. She alleges that one specific rival party running on a pro-migrant platform won two congressional seats, without having conducted any visible campaign work.

Soon afterwards, the country would be embroiled in the massive “Hello Garci” scandal. Gloria Arroyo had won the presidential elections of the same year. Yet several months later, recordings of a telephone conversation – allegedly featuring Arroyo and Virgilio “Garci” Garcillano (an official from the Commission on Elections) – were leaked to the public. The former appeared to ask the latter whether she would, in some way, be able to “lead by more than one million [votes]” in the 2004 election. Opposition legislators interpreted the recordings as evidence of vote-rigging and tried to impeach Arroyo, but the process was blocked by her allies. She was arrested on separate charges of electoral fraud in 2011.

Given the length of time needed to file official complaints, Balladares argues that a better strategy against electoral fraud is prevention. She and Migrante have been conducting training sessions for voters and volunteer poll-watchers, in which they demonstrate the procedures of voting and the irregularities to look for. The Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong has also introduced electronic voting machines – replacing manually-counted ballots – since 2010.

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Philippines Congress. Photo: Robert Viñas via Wikicommons

Half the world away

Despite the fanfare on recent Sundays, the elections are unlikely to inspire every single Filipino living abroad, especially as many have been separated from their homes and local communities for decades. Vice Consul Vallespin told Hong Kong Filipino media outlet The Sun that he was expecting a 50% turnout this year, even though the Commission on Elections had set a target of 80%.

Hong Kong is already an anomaly in its high rate of political participation. Globally, only 25.99% of overseas voters cast their ballots in the 2010 Presidential Elections. In the same year, the Philippines recorded a domestic turnout of 74.98%.

Nevertheless, Balladares believes that the welfare of migrants depends on fundamental changes in the Philippines itself. She has a clear vision: “if there was one single government policy that would improve the lives of overseas Filipinos, it would be to create stable, well-paying jobs back home instead.”

She knows that she will return home one day, but she does not want the plight of “modern day slavery”, experienced by some Filipino migrants today, to be carried over and imposed upon migrants tomorrow.

“We want the next generation of Filipinos to work overseas because they choose to, and not because they are forced to.”

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The 2016 Philippine Elections: Conversations with the Hong Kong migrant community