Prior to coming to Canada, I had never voted in any election, whether national or local. On second thought, I might have had—but in student elections. In fact, I voted for myself in one of those elections for a college student government. And if you’re wondering—yes, I won by a plurality of votes.
The year I became eligible to vote, Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law all over the Philippines and if there had been any elections held that time, they were sham and not free. After the EDSA Revolution, we decided to leave for Canada and entirely missed exercising our right to vote in any of the elections after the Marcos dictatorship. But in retrospect, we might not have voted because we had always entertained the idea of either boycotting the elections or spoiling the ballot. So whichever way it was, it didn’t seem like voting at all.
It’s totally a different story when we came to Canada. Voting could be very frustrating. Most of the time we see only the grief and sadness of defeat in the losing candidates’ faces. But how about voters like us, who never experienced picking a winning candidate. Save for Jack Layton, the NDP opposition leader who is the Member of Parliament for our riding. And David Miller, the left-leaning mayor of Toronto whom we voted for a change. But he decided to step down after two terms and forgo a third stab for re-election. You would know by now the type of candidates or political party we support, so you can understand our anguish if our candidates always lose during elections, save for these two notable faces.
We have quite a number of aspirants for the Toronto mayor’s office. This is a very important elective position. After all, Toronto is the centre of the earth north of the 42nd parallel. Every Toronto native would know who the city mayor is, even though he or she might not know the prime minister of Canada. We’re not Canada’s capital, but so is New York City.
Going back to our mayoralty candidates, the list is long but only four are viable and potential pretenders to His/Her Worship’s throne. All the others are nuisance candidates who have no real or even imagined chances of winning.
When the electoral race started, there were close to ten possible winning candidates but one by one they dropped out like flies until only four were left standing. The thing with city elections is they are the most democratic. Really. Candidates don’t have to run under political parties. Anybody can throw himself or herself in the ring—straights, gays, lesbians, men, women, disabled, old, young, rich, poor and what have you.
The smorgasbord of candidates gives the appearance of choice, which is important to the democratic process. So unlike the U.S. electoral system, our superpower neighbour in the south, where the only choice is between Tweedledum or Tweedledee.
The question that bothers me, however, is when candidates drop out of the race to endorse another candidate. In endorsing someone more winnable, the lucky candidate endorsed looks like he’s getting a bunch of votes, which in reality does not count. Why not simply stay in the race and let the people decide on election day?
Today, running for office in a democratic election seems all about winning. There is no more honour in losing even if running for office enables a candidate to sell a vision of the city he or she wants to lead. All that matters is what the poll survey says. In reality, a majestic vision of the city doesn’t buy votes any more.
Elections used to be an opportunity to choose the candidate that offers the best political platform. Even in an advanced and mature society like Toronto, that seems to be the dilemma. I remember some years ago when Barbara Hall, the mayor of the small fiefdom of Toronto before amalgamation, decided to become the first mayor of the new megacity. She offered to rebuild Toronto as a city with a vibrant cultural community under a new kind of urban leadership. Although she won the majority of the vote in the old Toronto and two boroughs, Hall lost the mayoralty election to a clown who had a strong base of support in the suburbs.
History seems to repeat itself. The frontrunner in the Toronto election, Rob Ford, has always thrived on bombast and controversy in his ten years in city council. Running on the people’s discontent about City Hall (the long garbage strike that made the city stink for over a month and the subway and transit strike which tested the city residents’ limits for patience and tolerance), Ford was able to bring to Toronto the wave of nasty right-wing populism that is now spreading all over North America.
Amid the backdrop of anger and resentment fuelled by the Tea Party movement in the United States against the democratic incumbent in the White House, Ford is enjoying the ride and the momentum of his political crusade against big government.
The other contender is gay, in a same-sex marriage, which is legal in Canada. Equally boisterous and sometimes furious, George Smitherman represents the Toronto mayor the rich and the liberals would prefer to win. However, Smitherman, the frontrunner from the opening of the gates, has stumbled and appears totally blindsided when Ford entered the race.
The NDP candidate, Joe Pantalone, could still overtake Smitherman for second place but the pants of the mayor look too big for him, no pun intended. As usual, the candidate with the best political platform will lose, and there is no consolation in finishing second.
As an aside, there is also a serious lesson for Filipinos to learn from the coming Toronto election. A major Filipino community centre in Toronto that has boasted its non-partisan status in the past has publicly endorsed George Smitherman for mayor. For a non-profit and non-partisan organization that relies on grants from the city for its programs, this kind of endorsement has not been a wise decision, if not a no-brainer. If Smitherman loses, the Filipino centre in effect will be alienated from City Hall, especially from a new mayor who has been known to be against cultural diversity and anti-immigrant (read: he doesn’t want newcomers from non-white countries).
What were the leaders of this Filipino organization thinking? It could have been all right for them to individually vote for whoever they want as mayor, but not to publicly endorse one candidate over the other as if he is the choice of the whole Filipino community. This shows how parochial or what a friend would call “barriotic” the decision-making process of some of our community’s so-called leaders. In the Philippines, a large religious sect would do exactly the same thing every election time, to endorse a candidate as their church’s choice.
Voting has its perils, especially when you put principles at stake. The irony, however, is that the candidate who speaks the loudest most often ends up taking the throne. Never mind if he has offended so many and has had past brushes with the law.
But we must not despair. Rather, we should continue our struggle and hope someday the people will listen to a more serious public debate of ideas and principles. We cannot simply let the democratic process continue to be a constant revolving door for politicians or leaders who do not have the interests of the people at heart