[This article came out in ABS-CBN news’ “Kapamilya Overseas” website on 4 April 2007.]
The Philippines and European countries experience elections and the political process in general in quite different ways. I have been put in the position to experience the political process here in the Netherlands from up close. Last year, my wife (Maya Butalid, a Filipina) was a candidate for the muncipal council in Tilburg, where we live. Maya was then running for her second 4-year term, as part of the Labor Party slate. [Interestingly, she is the only Filipina holding elective office in the Netherlands; and in Tilburg, where there are very few Filipinos – about 40 out of a total population of more than 200,000 people].
My involvement with the campaign was mainly in the distribution of pamphlets. I did this by going house to house (and dropping these in people’s mailboxes), by distributing these among parents bringing children to school, or to people going to church or the mosque. It was cold then (the campaign was from January to March, thus in the middle of winter), and trying to distribute pamphlets in the midst of snow and sleet is not easy at all – I had to make sure that the pamphlets didn’t get wet, while at the same time trying to keep my hands from freezing.
Other campaigners went to community centers, sports clubs and shopping centers, distributing pamphlets and explaining the Labor party’s platform to people. They also knocked on doors, distributing red roses (the symbol for the Labor party) and talking to the residents.
The 2006 elections turned out quite well – Labor increased its seats in the council from 7 to 11 (out of 39) becoming the biggest single party in the council. Maya was one of the 11 Labor councilors in the new council.
A big part of the campaign here is done indoors. After my experience with almost frozen hands, I understand the logic of doing more campaign activities indoors. It turns out that elections here are generally held during the colder months.
Campaigning thru the media is also quite important. Parties are allotted time in radio and TV programs; and newspapers write lots of articles comparing party programs and such. In national elections, political debates among the party leaders are held a number of times. The allotted radio and TV times for the various parties are free of charge, and parties rarely place paid advertisements.
Posters are mainly posted at designated billboards, plus a limited number of places outside of these. [After the elections, parties are required to take down their own posters]
The indoor and media-centered nature of the campaign makes the whole process practically invisible to foreign visitors. I once talked to some Filipino visitors who had spent the whole day walking around Rotterdam, during a time when there was a hotly contested local election campaign in that city. Well, they didn’t notice that there was an election campaign going on.
In the elections here, people choose among political parties. Also, elections here are usually for one government level at a time – thus, there are separate elections for the municipality, the province, national, and European levels. This means that the only name that one has to remember is just the name of the party. The Philippine problem with remembering candidates names, and the associated practice of having sample ballots etc does not occur here.
Campaigns do not involve the candidates or their wives singing or coddling babies. We hardly get to even see the candidates’ partners or their children. Neither is it important to get pop stars or other celebrities to endorse a candidate or party.
It is more natural for elections here to center on the issues and the platforms of the various parties. Political parties here differentiate themselves from each other on the basis of their stand on various issues. Political parties in effect have to promise to do things if they get elected. However, since political parties usually need to form coalitions to get a majority in parliament (or the provincial or municipal councils), they need to compromise with other parties. The bigger their proportion of the seats, the more they are able to realize their programs.
European countries have parliamentary systems, and most of them choose representatives by a system of proportional representation – which means that seats are awarded on the basis of the percentage of the vote that a party gets. All levels of government have councils which are elected this way. One big advantage of this system is that everybody’s vote counts. Even if the party you voted for is only supported by one percent of the voters, that party will get a seat (or seats) in parliament.
Parties of all kinds make a pitch for their share of the votes, and the seats.
Here are some of the parties that run in European elections:
– Christian Democrats: espouse traditional Christian values such as “the family as centerpiece of society”;
– Social Democrats: originally representing the interests of the workers, now they say that they also stand for the rights of the weaker sectors of society (e.g. migrants, unemployed people);
– Greens: emphasizes issues of the environment and emancipation;
– Liberals: stands for individual rights, want lesser government role in the economy;
There are all kinds of other parties in the right. there are traditionalist parties e.g. the British Conservatives, activist Christian parties, and even nationalist, semi-racist parties (Belgium’s Vlaamse Blok). On the left, there are Marxist parties of all kinds, including reconstituted/renamed communists (e.g. Refundazione Communista in Italy), Left Socialists (in Scandinavia), Trotskyists, anarcho-syndicalists, to name a few.
There are also limited-platform parties e.g. Senior-citizens parties, Animal rights party (in the Netherlands), and even “anti-greens”(the Auto party in Switzerland, protesting against strict environmental rules in that country). In some countries, there are also regional “national” parties such as that for the Basques in Spain, or the Scottish and Welsh parties in Britain.
All this makes for an interesting range of choices for the European voter.
Depending on the particular rules for electing the parliaments in the various countries, the mix of parties that get seats differ. In the Netherlands, where the proportional representation rule is without restriction, a party only needs to garner 2/3 of one percent of the votes to get a seat in parliament. In Germany, a party needs to get at least 5% of the vote before they get seats. This means that the Netherlands would have a wider range of small parties in parliament, than Germany would.
Election Day and After
Voters in the Netherlands are mailed their voting passes a few weeks before the elections. On election day, we then go to the designated voting places, present our voting pass, identify ourselves with our passport or national ID card, and then vote. Voting is just a matter of pressing buttons on a special voting machine. The voting takes place from 8am to 8pm.
By about 10 pm, preliminary results are already out, and usually the final results per municipality are ready by midnight. [ This is a bit faster than the counting process in the Philippines]
After the election results are out, the various parties go about the business of feeling each other for possible coalitions. It is very unusual for one party to have an absolute majority of the seats; most of the time, a number of parties will have to form a coalition to get a majority. In a sense, it is only then that the “real” political process gets going – the process of hammering out government policies.