On October 30, 2023, the Philippines held what is arguably the most impactful elections in the country: the 2023 Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan Elections (BSKE). The 2023 elections decided the leaders and council members for the smallest unit of government and the primary implementer of government policies at the grassroots level: the barangay. After the COVID-19 pandemic led to postponement after postponement of the BSKE, ¬†the first village-based and youth council elections were finally held after five years.
Two days later, all ballots from 42,001 barangays in the Philippines came in; and the newly elected barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan officials begin their terms at noon on November 30, 2023. Pundits have since noted that the conduct and aftermath of this year’s election, which was marked by a lack of overtime pay for teachers who served extra hours on barangay election day, teachers backing out of poll duties for fear of security threats, and stories of violence and fatal shootings, will influence the midterm elections in 2025.
But the impact of barangay elections goes much further than future polls. This article by Dr. Alicor Panao of the UP Diliman Department of Political Science explains the reason.
People, the clich√© goes, are most curious about the things that matter. Studies on issue salience, for instance, suggest that people are more likely to seek information on political matters when they are relevant, affect their well-being or align with their predispositions or values. In political science, information seeking is regarded as a cornerstone of civic engagement. After all, information is crucial to making informed decisions, not only on health, finance, or education, but also on politics.
On October 30, Filipinos voted for the leaders of the nation‚Äôs basic unit of governance. Barangay elections are vital for ensuring effective local governance, community development, and civic participation in the Philippines. Section 384 of the Local Government Code states: ‚ÄúAs the basic political unit, the Barangay serves as the primary planning and implementing unit of government policies, plans, programs, projects, and activities in the community, and as a forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered, and where disputes may be amicably settled.‚ÄĚ Barangays, in other words, are foundational in the country’s democratic system, as they allow citizens to have a direct say in the leadership and decision-making processes of their local communities.
Considering their significance in our political life as a nation, to what extent did Filipinos seek information on the upcoming barangay elections?
A quick way to grasp Filipinos‚Äô informational interest on the barangay elections is to examine online search trends, such as those made through Google. Using Google Trends, a free online tool, ¬†we can examine, for instance, how frequently certain search queries, such as the phrase, ‚Äúbarangay elections‚ÄĚ, are entered into Google’s search engine over a specified period and in specific regions or geographic locations. Figure 1 below gives the daily series of the search phrase, ‚Äúbarangay elections‚ÄĚ, and its related term, ‚Äúcomelec‚ÄĚ, from June 01, 2022 to October 30, 2023. Both terms correspond to the barangay elections and are most likely the most common terms keyed in when people query for information from the search engine. Interestingly, informational interest in the barangay elections appears to be minimal and started to peak only sometime in late August and in late October. The first uptick likely corresponds to the period of the filing of candidacy for the barangay and sangguniang kabataan elections, which COMELEC set between Aug. 28 and Sep. 2. The second uptick, on the other hand, is probably due to interest generated by the campaign period (Oct. 19 to 28). ¬†When campaign posters started littering the streets, people probably began to be curious about the candidates.
To ascertain to what extent the barangay elections is salient, however, we need to compare it with other queries made on other issues Filipinos find relevant. Figure 2 replicates the trend lines, but this time includes series corresponding to issues that may also be of relevance to Filipinos. For simplicity, we only included two issues. ¬†We included the search trend for the term, ‚Äújob hiring‚ÄĚ, since the clamor for better wages is perennially an urgent concern among Filipinos, based on surveys. We also included the trend for the search term, ‚Äúkdrama‚ÄĚ, since Korean dramas now consist a substantial component of contemporary Filipino entertainment.
Figure 2 shows interest on employment somewhat consistent all throughout. Employment search is expected to be a more constant concern than interest in elections, considering that jobs are a fundamental economic necessity for most Filipinos and their families. Employment provides a means to earn a living, support basic needs, and achieve financial stability. Interestingly, neither elections nor employment creates the amount of informational curiosity that Korean dramas do. While it is well known that search trends reveal information-seeking behavior related to seasonal interests or activities, elections do not seem to create the same level of excitement as, perhaps, the latest episodes of one‚Äôs favorite K-Dramas.
In fine, barangay elections do not create the same degree of informational concern as, say, employment prospects or television entertainment. This is not to say, though, that Filipinos have their priorities in the wrong places. Quite understandably, in a country where there is a wide gap in the quality of life, people are always on the lookout for better paying jobs to improve their financial stability and standard of living. On the other hand, watching TV dramas can offer a sense of catharsis, allowing citizens an outlet to release pent up emotions and frustrations related to government dissatisfaction. For all we know, K-Dramas might be the only thing that keeps citizens from rioting and the state from collapsing.
Nevertheless, these trends do remind us of the need for election management bodies (e.g. COMELEC) to strengthen voter education and broaden civic education. For voter education to be impactful, initiatives should commence well in advance and persist throughout the electoral cycle. At the outset of this cycle, the electorate should receive information regarding voter registration procedures, not only to allow them sufficient time to complete the registration process, but also to help them understand the gravity of the deliberative exercise to our life as a nation. By educating citizens on the democratic process and their role in it, voter education ensures that elections are fair, transparent, and reflective of the will of the people, thereby strengthening the democratic foundations of a society.
Dr. Alicor Panao is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, UP Diliman. He is also a member of the Philippine Bar.
(Photo courtesy of the UP Diliman Department of Political Science)