Philippines: Overseas Filipino Workers Get The Vote


Lorraine Salazar

In October, both Houses of Congress passed versions of a law that will decisively shape the outcome of the 2004 national elections. After 15 years, 5 Congresses, 64 bills, and years of fervent campaigning by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), an Absentee Voting bill is set to allow from 4 to 7.3 million OFWs to take part in the political life of the nation. The two different versions of the bill will now go to a Bicameral Conference Committee composed of House and Senate members to reconcile conflicting provisions. The House bill allows OFWs to vote only for the presidential and vice presidential positions, while the Senate version also allows voting for senators and party-list representatives. The consolidated bill is expected to be finalised before the end of the year. Both houses of Congress have already agreed to a P1 billion budget for implementing the law.

From the start, the point of contention was not the right to vote of Filipinos, who had been forced by economic circumstances to seek employment overseas. Article V, Section 2 of the 1987 Constitution mandates the establishment of 'a system for securing the secrecy and sanctity of the ballots as well as a system of absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad'. What is hotly contested is how to implement the law and ensure that cheating and election irregularities, which are perennial problems in Philippine elections, are eliminated. Domestically, elections are prone to fraud, but no one has called for their suspension until irregularities are eliminated. Instead, the task is to make sure that electoral reform is undertaken to prevent the repetition of those irregularities. At the same time, OFWs have argued that while preventing electoral fraud is a lofty objective, it should not be used as an excuse to disenfranchise them.

As of December 2000, there were approximately 7.3 million Filipinos living abroad - 2.9 million were OFWs, 2.5 million were permanent residents, and 1.8 million were irregulars. From 1990 to 2000, OFWs repatriated over US$42 billion. For the first half of 2002 alone, dollar remittances reached US$4.14 billion, which was a 43.2 per cent increase from the same period in 2001 and led to a balance of payments surplus of US$1.7 billion, and a current account surplus of US$3.4 billion. Foreign exchange inflow from OFWs contributes nearly 85 per cent of the gross foreign exchange earnings of the country, which in turn helps the country to meet the dollar requirements of businesses; relieve the pressure on the peso, especially during volatile periods; and, help to boost the economy’s overall growth. When the peso recently breached P53 to US$1 dollar, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas pleaded with OFWs to send home their earnings to cash in on the high exchange rate. The day after the appeal, dollar trading increased to US$161.5 million from US$104 million the day before, helping the peso to recover slightly. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that OFWs are the 'modern day heroes' of the nation.

Aside from their undoubted economic contribution, OFWs can offer a more demanding perspective on the election of national leaders, having experienced different governmental systems and cultures. Moreover, they are beyond the influence of the 3Gs that beset local politics – guns, goons, and gold – which enables them to have a more measured and critical stance in choosing candidates.

OFWs will have a decisive influence on who becomes the next national leader. The current administration has recognized this and has finally heeded a key sector of Philippine society. It is high time that overseas Filipinos re-acquire their constitutional right to vote.

WATCHPOINT: Will a more demanding constituency elevate Philippine elections beyond personality politics?


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