SUSAN V. OPLE
Published — Wednesday 24 June 2015
The Commission on Elections declared rather triumphantly that the number of overseas Filipinos who have registered as voters as of this month has reached 1.4 million. This means that the Department of Foreign Affairs through diplomatic posts finally attained its perennial target of crossing the one-million threshold in terms of overseas registrants.
Kudos to the Philippine embassies and consulates around the world for setting a new record for the 2016 elections. Now here’s the rub: How many among those who have registered as voters overseas would actually cast a ballot in May 2016?
I remember during one of the discussions that we had with a senator on issues affecting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), he lamented that despite the growing Diaspora, politically, the migrant workers’ sector have yet to show its political muscle.
In 2013, a winning party-list group named, OFW Family Party-List, made it to Congress with a total vote of roughly 750,000. It was enough for two slots, currently occupied by Congressman Roy Seneres and Congressman Johnny Revilla. However, poll records showed that the total number of votes from overseas Filipinos garnered by the OFW Family Party-list was only slightly above 20,000 votes. The bulk of the OFW party-list group’s votes came from local supporters, whom we can assume to be the families of OFWs and former OFWs.
No less than Liberal Party stalwart and current Senate President Franklin Drilon expressed alarm over the low turnout of votes from qualified voters overseas. Again, based on the 2013 election results, out of the 737,759 registered overseas voters, only 113,2009 actually cast their ballots representing a measly 15.35 percent. This turnout is even lower than the 26% turnout in the 2010 presidential elections. Some OFW groups were quick to say that going to the embassy to vote is not as easy as it sounds, citing the need to get the permission of the employer as a reason, while others cited the expense and travel time involved. The clamor among OFWs for online voting is not enough to compel members of Congress to pass a law that would enable the Commission on Elections to source the right technology for it.
What could trigger a more robust participation among registered overseas Filipino voters? Offhand, perhaps two things: A collective desire to ensure that a more pro-OFW president takes the helm and to bar a specific candidate from winning because of a strong bias against OFWs. The overseas workers need to know whom among those planning to run as president and vice-president of the Philippines have a genuine concern for labor. Prospective candidates should be asked, for example, their individual positions on the controversial terminal fee integration program of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).
The “pay now-refund later” scheme of MIAA tramples an existing law that exempts all overseas Filipino workers from paying the PHP550 airport terminal fee. Who among the 2016 national candidates are in favor of continuing this patently illegal scheme? I can foresee a united front among most OFW groups against any presidential candidate espousing the continuance of this unfair, moneymaking scheme.
OFWs need to make their presence felt not only economically but also politically. Will they be the game changers in the 2016 polls? They definitely can be, if not through their own ballots, then by influencing the choices of their families. A show of force in 2016 will make it difficult for the next administration to ignore the concerns of Filipinos working overseas.