SOME commentators have bemoaned the low turnout of Filipino overseas absentee voters so far, attempting to read way too much into the initial numbers of Filipinos abroad who have voted in the elections.
While voters in the Philippines go to the polls on May 14, overseas Filipino workers are given a month’s head start and are able to vote from April 14 until May 14. A whole month is given to OFWs since many of them work in remote areas that do not have a Philippine diplomatic post or other Commission on Elections designated voting place.
The first day of voting was April 14, Saturday, a work day in Saudi Arabia, which may account for the small numbers of voters that turned out in Jeddah, Riyadh and Alkhobar. We are waiting to see the number of people who turnout this weekend, which is Thursday and Friday in the Kingdom, to see if there is a surge in voters.
One must bear in mind that since voters have a whole month in which to vote, many OFWs wait until the last minute to cast their votes, so we should see another surge in voters near the end of the voting period. The last weekend of voting in Saudi Arabia will be May 10 and 11, so expect another surge then.
I don’t believe those people who say that many OFWs don’t vote because it is allegedly hard to register to do so. If filling in a voter’s registration form at a Philippine mission and showing a Philippine passport as proof of citizenship is too hard for some OFWs to do, then I don’t think they have a right to complain about it.
What I think really affects some OFW voters are the same doubts and cynicism that affect voters back home. A Filipino friend of mine in Jeddah told me he had not registered to vote as someone else would surely vote in his name back home, a reference to the huge number of illegal votes cast in the name of people not registered or who are dead. The Comelec a few weeks ago announced that it had stricken the names of 1.2 million ghost voters from its rolls, but I’m sure that many ghost voters remain on the Comelec list.
Many OFWs feel indifferent when it comes to voting because they feel that their individual vote will make no difference in the outcome, and that invariably corrupt politicians will hijack the results to their own benefit.
The huge voting fraud scandal in the 2004 elections in which President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was heard asking then-Comelec commissioner Virgiliano Garci about the election returns in a phone call (the infamous “Hello, Garci” tape), seriously impacted on the little trust that Filipinos had left in the electoral process. While Filipinos have long been aware of the three “Gs” in elections, guns, goons and gold, the Garci tape seemed to once and for all prove that there was a link (no matter how much it was spinned afterwards by Arroyo administration officials to make it look like an innocent inquiry) between electoral fraud and the highest elected official of the land.
I also think that many intellectuals in the Philippines are projecting their fantasies of having a hyper-aware electorate onto OFWs, which is unfair. For sure, many OFWs are extremely bright, educated and the best in their fields, working as engineers, teachers, journalists and nurses abroad. But that does not mean that all OFWs believe that voting is important or that they can make a difference. This is the sad but true reality on the ground. OFWs are human beings just like Filipinos back home, with careers, families and personal problems to think about.
OFW community groups could certainly do more in terms of organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns, but restrictions on holding public events here makes it difficult sometimes for Filipino groups to be as active as they would like to be. In any event, volunteers are doing an excellent job of manning the polling stations abroad and should be commended for their good work.
In 2004, Filipinos in Saudi Arabia voted overwhelmingly for President Arroyo. It will be interesting to see how they vote in this election. Has their honeymoon with the president endured or is it over? Tune in next month for the final numbers.