FAST BACKWARD: Election cheating in 1895

Polls, unknown to most of us, were held during the Hispanic rule of Davao (1848-1898). Outside the prerogative given to the missionaries to appoint a mayor, or gobernadorcillo, elections for local chief executives were also held yearly.

Under the electoral guidelines of the period, only males were qualified as electors, but this discriminatory rule eventually led to abuse, which called for a revision of existing edicts. Eminent Jesuit historian Jose S. Arcilla wrote:

“In 1676, the vote limited to 13 electors; six past barangay heads, six incumbent, and the incumbent gobernadorcillo. The first three candidates winning the highest number of votes formed the terna or list of three names sent to the central office in Manila, which chose one to be the gobernadorcillo or town chief. The governor normally appointed one on the terna, unless special circumstances dictated otherwise.”

But the way the list was prepared became a contentious issue. In 1895, in a letter dated June 1 written by Fr. Saturnino Urios, S.J., he reported to his Mission Superior in Manila that the local polls held that year in Davao was annulled and a new vote was ordered.

The annulment was an offshoot of a disagreement why the electors, who argued that three distinct persons should be included in the terna, listed the name of the gobernadorcillo third on the list instead of being on top. This closely resembles the now-abolished rule of installing the candidate with the highest number of votes as barangay captain.

To iron out the kinks, the padre intervened, asking why the incumbent mayor was placed last when in fact he was seeking reelections and must be placed first given the previous electoral support he got? He pointed out that his election as town executive was an affirmation of support from the public that need to be honored in the list. This sounds similar to the recent political practice of respecting the “equity of the incumbent.”

“After much struggling and preparing,” Fr. Urios wrote, “we succeeded in listing in the first place the incumbent gobernadorcillo. By proving in this way that this was the electors’ choice, we have to work for his reelection. For, according to the law, it is now the turn of the one figuring in the third place.”

Electoral cheating is as old as colonial rule. In his Ph.D. dissertation, Las Principalias Indigenas y la Administracion, which Fr. Arcilla cited in Jesuit Missionary Letters from Mindanao, Volume III: The Davao Mission, Luis Angel Sanchez Gomez argued there is enough evidence showing indigenous local officials were abusive and corrupt in handling electoral exercises.

“Annual local elections [during Spanish rule],” Fr. Arcilla noted, “were invariably occasions for cheating, as well as the efforts to raise mission stations to the rank of full-fledged civil municipalities or independent ecclesiastical parishes. Intrigue or political maneuvering was evident, most of the time in order to control local funds and keep political power within the family or a closed circle of blood relatives.”

This assertion indisputably affirms the long-held practice of perpetuating political dynasties as a relic of the list of colonial malpractices. By extension, it stares us on the face that the intent to pass an effective anti-dynasty law will remain ‘suntok sa buwan’ goal.

To ensure a continuing hold of powerful position, harassments were perpetrated. In Sigaboy, for instance, abuses were committed by the tercios, the colonial soldiers who linked with old Christians in terrorizing the people, forcing them to leave the town center or settlement.

The law enforcers, in threatening defenseless neo-Christians, were usually armed with Remington rifles while their cohorts carried shotguns and other deadly weapons.

Fr. Juan B. Llopart, a Jesuit, writing from Pundaguitan, Gov. Generoso, Davao Oriental, a letter dated May 30, 1895, said:

“Even more [than the abuses and intimidation done by the soldiers and their allies], the reason for this departure [from the settlements], and which will continue unless immediately remedied, are the retailers of the worst breed—least inclined to work and always very hungry—their wives and their children, sometimes without the needed documents authorizing, if not the, others to conduct their peripatetic trade. Sometimes these are the ones who carry the baston de mando in the village, and at times even have themselves accompanied by an armed escort, pompously and ‘officially’ strutting through the settlement of the new Christians, with a few gantas of rice for food. And this all they bring to barter for almaciga, wax and other products.”

In numerous instances the padre relayed to the district authorities but “little or nothing is done on their part, such that sometimes their manner of proceeding from one day to the other seems contradictory.”

Cheating, intimidation, armed harassment, family dynasty, and a host of other electoral highlights will remain with us for generations more to come given its deep roots. With politicians belonging to dynasties making our laws, there’s no hope in sight our polling process will be transformed overnight into an honest, orderly, and peaceful elections.