An Election of Debt

By Nancy Eng MacNeill

From province to province, precinct after precinct, throughout the Philippine islands, the May 10, 2010 elections showed widespread evidence of voter intimidation, vote buying, campaign violations on Election Day, denial of voter rights, and more. As a first time participant with the People's International Observers Mission it was easy for me to wrestle with my rights as an individual and my understanding of democracy in this Filipino election. However, if I really want understand the context of the People's Movement and stand in solidarity with the Filipino people then I need to understand utang na loob.
Utang na loob has no direct translation in English, but it is a debt of gratitude for a good deed or a favor done. This debt is a continual cycle of favor and gratitude between friends—in essence, a cycle of being indebted to each other, an indebtedness that can never be paid, one that is owed forever.


Vote buying is a common practice throughout the Philippines and the May elections reflected a republic in hope of a change. Vote buying had escalated in value since the 2007 elections from 500 pesos to 2000 pesos in one of the local precincts I visited. Vote buying is not for the faint of heart, it is very organized and calculated. I would contend that vote buying is community organizing at its finest. Another election observer asked the question of loyalty and truth with voters: "If voters are paid for their vote and possibly given an additional tili tili (eleventh hour shower of money the evening before the election), why not vote for whomever they choose? Who would know the difference?"

I spoke with a woman who wanted to tell me her story; she chose her words carefully. On the morning of the elections, she brought her 90-year-old mother to the precinct to cast her vote. Barely able to walk and totally dependent upon her daughter for care, this 90-year-old voted because she was given money to do so and was desperately in need. After voting, she was brought back home to be cared for by her son so her daughter could return to the precinct. The woman I encountered was a "leader" in her Barangay (barrio). Each Barangay had a coordinator who recruited leaders who each then recruited ten voters in their Barangay to vote for their particular candidate. Each voter received 2000 pesos for their vote, while the leaders received 2500 for their work. On Election Day, leaders often monitored the precinct as a watcher, to make sure all recruits came to cast their vote. If the candidate won, leaders seen as watchers might also receive additional money for their hard work. 

In the voting area of all the precincts I visited, there were poll watchers from every party, in many cases watching the polls for a particular candidate. Identifying voters who sold votes was not difficult: a red ribbon worn on a sleeve, campaign shirt or shirt corresponding to a certain party, voters supplied with a printed ballot with the candidates already selected, or a ballot sleeve where cut outs guide the voter to fill in the appropriate circles casting their vote for a particular party slate.  

On my flight to Manila to serve as an observer, I sat next to a young adult who said that his father was running for Mayor. I asked him what was his father's inspiration for considering public office and he said "change, much like the change that Obama encouraged in people." Voters waited in long lines on Election Day, through the heat of the day, without food, water, or bathrooms, from the break of dawn at 7:00 am until the polls closed 12 hours (in some cases 15 hours) later, just to cast their vote. Was it the hope of change and making a difference or has a deeply embedded sense of Utang na loob become easily corrupted by the greedy, preying on people's immediate needs, instead of the noble honor to do a favor or a kind deed for someone? I think with each election the People's Movement moves closer toward hope, justice and peace for all people. Utang na loob binds people and communities together now. And one day an election of change will bind people and communities together, not debt.

Nancy Eng MacNeill, associate for conferences for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, served as an observer of the elections in the Philippines with the People's International Observers Mission.

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