Written by Rachelle Bascara.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer collated the positions of the five presidential candidates on ten key issues: poverty, economy and jobs, food security, peace and order, corruption, health care, foreign policy, traffic, climate change, and interconnectivity. Reading through the profiles and action points, there was no mention of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW). OFWs comprise around ten percent of the Philippine population or an estimated 15 million Filipinos. Some OFWs now have the opportunity to vote through the Overseas Voting Program. There are currently 1.1 million Filipinos abroad registered and entitled to participate in the upcoming May elections.
Considering that the Philippine population is now over 100 million, it may seem sensible to ignore Filipinos overseas and focus on the local population. However, considering how tight competition is, getting the OFW votes may be what could swing it in favor of whoever leads the presidential race. Unlike the 2010 elections, where there was a clear lead on who will win the seat of the president, it may have been strategically wise to ignore overseas Filipinos. Having said that, Binay won over Roxas by a margin of only727,084 votes for the seat of the vice president. The overseas Filipino voters could have made a difference then. Given how tight the results are in recent polls for Poe, Duterte, and Binay, the one million voters overseas can make a difference. Similarly, Marcos, Escudero, and Robredo appear to be neck and neck for the seat of vice presidency.
The 1.1 million registered overseas voters do not capture the full relevance of the OFW votes. These overseas voters, considered to be responsible for keeping the Philippine economy afloat with their remittances, have families and loved ones in the Philippines. The reason why remittances of OFWs comprise as much as 8.5% of the country’s GDP — the largest proportion to the domestic economy among the top countries with the highest official remittances — is because of the people they have left behind. These people, the recipient of remittances, are very likely to be concerned about government policies that are relevant to OFWs, especially when they are beneficiaries of such remittances. So if we consider the families, loved ones, and the beneficiaries of OFW remittances, the 15 million Filipinos that would be concerned about government policies and programs relevant to overseas workers can easily be doubled or trebled.
The widely publicized case of Mary Jane, purportedly a victim of human trafficking on death row in Indonesia, is further testament to the relevance of OFWs in today’s Philippine political narrative. Days before her scheduled executionFilipinos around the world picketed Indonesian embassies demanding reprieve for the 31-year old mother of two, who has worked as a domestic worker in Dubai prior to going to Indonesia. Likewise, the Save Mary Jane Movement, lead by Migrante International, had well-attended mass demonstrations and pickets in the Philippines. This signifies how much Mary Jane’s story resonates with the Filipino people. The public outrage may also be among the reasons for why she was granted temporary reprieve.
Other than Mary Jane, two other events captured the attention of overseas Filipinos under the Aquino administration: the pork barrel scandal and Typhoon Haiyan. The pork barrel scandal also known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam is the alleged misuse of PHP 10 billion by corrupt members of the Philippine Congress. This scandal had a significant social media presence, which lead to the creation of a Facebook page entitled ‘Million People March’ by two US-based Filipinos, founders of an organization called ‘Power Ng Pinoy’. The concerned netizens showed up in Luneta Park as thousands of protestors called for the abolition of the PDAF until — finally — a hearing in the Supreme Court declared the PDAF as unconstitutional. The fact that the Philippines is the social media capital of the world has further strengthened the connection of OFWs to the Philippines, and the events surrounding the pork barrel scandal show that they actually have some political influence.
Moving on to Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons recorded to make landfall and the biggest natural disaster in the Philippines in recent decades, Filipinos all over the world spearheaded various fundraising projects from London to the Bahamas, from Filipino students in Cornell University to the University of Canberra, from the office to the church, and all other venues in between. On top of being a natural disaster, the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan is a tragedy of government as well. Filipinos all over the world watched in helpless empathy at the incompetence of their democratically elected government representatives. Typhoon Haiyan is a reminder of the Filipino people’s urgent need for effective good governance now that we have seen and experienced the reality and the lethality of climate change.
Mary Jane, PDAF, and Typohoon Haiyan are three key issues that have brought overseas Filipinos closer to home in recent years. Every national election is certainly important but we are now in a post-Haiyan, post-PDAF, and post-Mary Jane Philippines, and these three key issues further reinforce the general significance of the upcoming May elections given the historical point that the Philippines is in. The Philippine Labor Export Policy was initially introduced in the 1970’s as a temporary palliative for the unemployment problem in the country. In the absence of a genuine program for national economic development, this policy has become a lasting feature of the Philippine Government’s economic survival strategy, even though all economists and economic organizations, including the World Bank, consider it unsustainable. The presidential candidates ignore the plight of the overseas voter at their own cost, for the nation’s Bagong Bayani (New Heroes), as the has government dubbed them, is fifteen million strong and growing 6,000 more each and every election day that passes.
Rachelle Bascara is a PhD candidate and Associate Tutor at the Philosophy Department and the Politics Department of Birkbeck College, University of London. Image credit: CC by Shubert Ciencia/Flickr. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines.