I know, I know. Much has been said about Nancy Binay. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably likely to fit the following description: middle to upper-class, city-dwelling, internet-literate, social media-savvy, and fairly interested in politics. You may be so interested in politics that in fact you read about it when there isn’t a major political event going on. So you’re probably likely to strongly dislike, or even despise Ms Binay. I know I do; I know many of my Facebook friends do. You probably do too.
Much of the Nancy Binay hate I understand and I believe has solid ground to stand on. She may be legally qualified to run for senator but isn’t necessarily qualified to perform the duties of one – and probably not when you compare her to the other candidates. She is a member of the Binay family, a political dynasty that, paradoxically enough, began its journey to prominence in earnest when her father and now Vice President Jejomar Binay, a outsider not belonging to the old elite, was appointed by Corazon Aquino as mayor of Makati in 1986. (More on that in this excellent article by Nicole Curato.) The strength of the Binay name was cited by the United Nationalist Alliance itself as the reason for why she was included in the earliest commissioned surveys of the senatorial race. These, among others, are strong indications she’s probably not worth electing to a position a few heartbeats away from the Presidency.
But there are certain criticisms of Ms Binay that should make us think about how to improve our public discourse and our political system as a whole. I’ll focus on the discursive problems and discuss possible changes to the political system a little. Politics is complex and there’s only so much you could do with one blog post. (But we can try!)
The hidden sexism of the nanay de pamilya haters
Insults are cheap. Politicians have thrown mud and been thrown at at for as long as they’ve been playing the game. In the right context, such scathing words may have a positive effect (like speaking truth to power, or satire). But other times they mask a hidden bigotry that is pernicious and hard to remove.
One example of such lingering attitudes – in this case sexism and heteronormativity – is illustrated by the meme below:
The meme implies that Nancy’s self-styled credentials as the nanay de pamilya (mother of the family) are laughable ones to bring up as qualifications for a Senate bid. Another implication is the oversimplication of motherhood and its association with mundane, servile tasks such as taking care of children and keeping order in the household. Such ideas have dangerous consequences for Filipino nation-building and citizenship.
A broken system makes for broken debates
Another much-echoed criticism made of Binay is her refusal to participate in pubic debates and fora. This was a line of attack notably pursued by the Akbayan and their candidate, Risa Hontiveros. For many people (including myself), this raised serious doubts about whether she had the policy chops that citizens often expect from their elected officials. I believe this tactic was mildly successful for Akbayan and Hontiveros in that it gained them valuable, even if somewhat limited, media mileage. During elections, controlling the messages of the news cycle is indeed crucial to victory, as it allows you to campaign without having to worry about fending off attacks on your own candidate. But it was doomed to fail on one crucial metric: Binay’s subsequent debate attendance.
That Binay skipped the debates (especially the biggest ones run by the networks) should rightfully be condemned by anyone who believes in a healthy democracy. Debates, properly designed, can promote the awareness of candidates and their issue positions that are crucial to making informed decisions. Her critics are right to press her on this issue. But Binay might sadly be right when she implies that motorcades, not debates, win elections. She’s probably joined in this belief by the other senatorial candidates who’ve skipped debates. Why waste time preparing and possibly looking stupid if one can just join sorties and hold motorcades to win? After all, have debates even been empirically proven to be good for candidates? The absence of Binay and the other candidates is but one symptom of a larger ailment: our broken system of electoral debates. Let’s discuss this on a number of levels.
The debates the mainstream media hosts are generally designed to be non-confrontational, lightweight, and unmemorable. Candidates typically “face off” on a very long-winded question (preceded by videos that border on the teleserye side of dramatic) for at most TWO MINUTES. The responses to these short and obtuse answers are often limited to ONE MINUTE. The candidates are then forced to spew ready-made, policy-light soundbites which communicate very little information to the voter. Topics are repeated from debate to debate among the networks – vastly limiting the scope of discussion. People often stay as uninformed as they were before the debate or are at worst confused.
The networks also accord very little importance to the electoral debates, interviews, and documentaries they produce. I’ve often fallen asleep in the past trying to watch these to the end because they start at 9:30 PM on WEEKENDS and end at midnight. The interviews, which might have given me a detailed look at a candidate, often start at 11:30 PM. And no person can watch all of these interviews, not even given all the middle-class luxuries of time and bandwidth for YouTube. Worst of all, these “debates” have one forever’s worth of commercials. These debates are next to useless for our democracy.
Reforming public debate… among other things
These networks are probably never going to do anything that harms their bottom line, but something clearly needs to change. I see three ways of effecting change: public regulation, a little nudging from civil society, or a mix of the two:
- The first option most probably involves expanding the role of the COMELEC to include the regulation of presidential debates. This is good because government can compel these media organizations in a way that private sector institutions simply can’t (through fines, etc.). An obvious problem is the fact that COMELEC may be politicized (and it has, arguably), and thus may not be trusted to give equal treatment to candidates.
- The second will need a consortium of civil society groups to sign a compact with the media to jointly hold debates. I believe this is what is happening now, though with significant differences. First, compacts are signed between certain groups and individual networks, not the mainstream media as a whole. The networks retain significant leverage over the style and content of the debates, thus keeping their interests and not the public’s paramount. A slightly better, though still flawed, model is that of the Commission on Presidential Debates in the United States. The parties organize the debates and the media agrees to cover them extensively. The networks could all converge on a suitable compromise – they could black out their 8-10 PM timeslots and rotate hosts from different networks like they do in the US. Among the problems I see here are the lack of a binding contract to enforce, and the faction-driven rivalries within civil society groups. (Remember the rift between NAMFREL and PPCRV?)
- The third involves a public-private partnership to administer electoral debates – one that involves COMELEC, the media, and civil society groups. This combines features from both alternatives above. The COMELEC could provide the legal muscle to keep all the relevant parties honest, and media and civil society can keep up their end of the bargain without fear of splintering or breaches of contract. This might be the most workable solution, but still not without its downsides.
This is my end goal: to make the debates such gigantic events that no candidate could possibly skip them without facing serious retribution from critics and the media. This is why in the United States, despite the lack of a significant correlation between debate performance and polling performance, candidates still attend debates, even at the risk of losing or making a major gaffe. They can’t possibly afford the negative media publicity that comes with shirking engagement with their opponents. If Nancy Binay avoided a debate in this world, she’d be given hell by practically everyone.
Still, there’s only so much we can do with the debates before finally arriving at the conclusion that our political system itself is in need of some serious fixing. As long as there are 20+ candidates running for 12 seats in the Senate, elected at large, our debates will continue to be confusing, unexciting, and uninformative. We’ll need constitutional reform to work out all these kinks – discursive, dynastic, you name it.
As the past several paragraphs have shown, simply focusing on the person of Nancy Binay isn’t enough if we want to truly change our politics. Examining her case through the lens of gender and institutions, we can see that she – while complicit in our political woes – is but a sign that we need to tackle them from a much broader perspective.
About the author
Michael V. Manangu (@michaelmanangu) is a politics and policy researcher, aspiring academic, and lead author for The Daily Opium. When he’s not trawling bookstores and the Web for awesome reads, you can find him walking the planes (otherwise known as playing Magic: the Gathering) and plotting the downfall of kings in historical strategy games. In case it wasn’t apparent from the article, he is not voting for Nancy Binay.