Regressing Philippine democracy 1

Regressing Philippine democracy

Ed Tayao

Posted at Nov 02 2021 11:24 PM

What is democracy other than participation? What is participation without results that’s good for the people? We have to be asking these questions moving forward, especially with the worsening conditions in governance. There may have been a lot that has been accomplished lately, especially in infrastructure, but so much has been lost in governance, particularly in the key element of participation and in turn, accountability. What’s worst is that this regression has been going on eversince, so it has been escalating.

Since the founding of the First Philippine Republic, to the recognition of the Philippine sovereignty in the Third Philippine Republic, we can very well say we have learned so much from the West. Our founding fathers were educated in Europe, while the enactment of the 1935 Constitution is, for all intents and purposes, an American approbation. This should mean we have learned enough, that we have put everything we have gained to better our country, our lives. Then again, our democracy is a class of its own and our public institutions a product of our political history.

This should have been well and good, but it seems we proceeded without making any conscious contribution in the shaping of our politics; what we can say, fits our unique circumstances. Perhaps we tried but could not copy hook, line and sinker, the working democracies and public institutions of the West. At the very least though, we could have given much thought on how we have changed politically and institutionally from the time that we were still under a colonial power and effect one that is truly our own.

Maybe some of us gave much thought on how best to shape our democratic institutions and therefore our own system of politics. Those who did however, were simply not in a position to put it to fruition. Those who could see through all these thoughts to action were sadly not interested enough to advance our own brand of real democracy.

Real democracy is one that does not only cry for or insist on participation; it ensures participation as it is an instrumental feature in effecting a kind of governance that is responsive to what the people need. After all, it is not a democracy if it only satisfies the desires of a few, even legitimizes the selfish machinations of a few. Even if one argues that people’s participation is remarkably vibrant, it amounts to nothing as it only serves the interests of the few.

We should have already put in place the kind of politics and governance we deserve by now. After all, we have already been an independent country for some time; there is nothing that prevents us from putting up a government that is truly our own. Regrettably, we have yet to make the most out of being independent as to create institutions that will really serve us and no other interests, domestic or foreign. We had so many opportunities before, but it seems, it is only the Malolos Constitution that, at the least, approximates the kind of constitution that fits the unique character of the country and the people. So, it was only in the First Republic that suitable political and governmental mechanisms were given much thought. To learn about the spirited discussion between Felipe Calderon and Apolinario Mabini will make us proud as a people; it will lead to a realization that we weren’t always just copying political and or governmental systems from other countries. We were not able to sustain that first government though and evolve it as other nations did with theirs. Instead, we were not only subject again to foreign occupation, we ended up just making do with the colonial political structure.

We may be independent now, but we cannot deny that foreign influence remains significant. Of course, it can be argued that we really are strategically located and at the same time we as a people can really relate with the West, very much unique in Asia, and therefore always a magnet to foreign influence. That may be the case, but we could at least make it difficult for self-interest to be that significant in the running of our government.

As it is right now, the perilous combination of a still significantly centralized set-up of public institutions and personality-oriented politics, the very formula employed by colonial powers before for the primordial simplistic purpose of control, the influencing of a key government official, is as good as manipulating the government or a particular agency for narrow ends. Not only is common good sacrificed for local self-interest but even foreign interest. Worst, we end up blaming particular leaders without realizing that ultimately, it is because of the kind of politics we have.

In a way, we only have our leaders to blame. Despite the long-standing proposal (changing the system has been there as early as Jose Rizal’s time and revived by Claro M. Recto in the 60s) to take a serious look at our politics and governance and effect long-term, systemic reforms, no one has really stepped up and supported it all the way. Many have made it their slogan, even creating study groups to determine needed changes to our constitution, but no one really sustained it to the finish. Perhaps these leaders who advocated systemic reforms were really into it, but I couldn’t help but wonder if, say the people around them, were undermining them, why not bring the case directly to the people? It cannot be avoided then to think that they were not only complicit, it was also self-interest that got the better of them.

Alarm bells have been rung countless times, precisely why the call for reforms has always been there. The situation has worsened further though. If before we only had a semblance of true democracy, where political institutions like political parties somehow operated as how it is supposed to be, now there isn't even a semblance. 

Party conventions were conducted before to formally nominate candidates for office, at least those for national positions, from presidential to the senatorial candidates. The struggle for nomination of a party in the convention was palpable before, so much like the primaries done in other countries. Of course, breakaway factions putting up their own political party almost always happened, but at least there was an effort to follow political party processes. The result had always been a complete team—from a candidate for president to candidates for the Senate.

Lately, politics have been just out-and-out personalistic. Processes and therefore political parties are relegated as pure and simple accoutrements to running for office. Party conventions have been totally scrapped, or if there is any, it is nothing more than just some ritual to formalize an already preordained candidacy. The last time I remember we had a party convention, where the protagonists actually battled it out within the processes of a political party was in 1992, and to a certain extent, in 1998. Again, it can be argued that the result was just the same: those who already decided to run found themselves running just the same, but at the very least, the lines were clear between the different opponents. At the very least, the teams were complete.

It is only now that we have candidates filing and/or announcing individual candidacies; a candidate for president filing without an announced vice-presidential candidate, or following suit after getting the public guessing, or simply with no VP at all. Then there is one filing for vice president with no standard bearer at first, only to be followed rather unexpectedly with a supposed partner running for president. For some reason, we have yet to see them together, not even in a program on tv. What is even more interesting is the fact that there is not one president and VP tandem with a complete senatorial slate. Topping all these is that most of those running for the Senate are “common” candidates. The message could not be other than “I don’t care who else is running as I have decided to run no matter what!”

Instead of shepherding the people to deepen their involvement in politics and therefore deal more and more with issues, these political developments only further bolster personality-based politics. The rather anemic kind of political party processes before should have been because of its nascent phase of political development, having been just recently freed from colonial control. It’s been a quarter of a century though since the Americans left. The Cold War has ended and so many other countries in different continents have already embraced democracy and strengthened public institutions, and yet here we are still with the byzantine kind of politics and governance. Many third wave democracies have progressed consistently but we are regressing, sadly.

The polarized nature of our politics is a direct result of personality politics. The only way to distinguish one from the other is to highlight the politician’s or person’s personal characteristics, not differences in policy approaches or program preferences. This is anemic, even childish manner of politics that to render the rather identical brand of politics different is to heighten the already polarized personalistic politics. To distinguish one from the other is of course fundamental in order to win popular support. In the end however, it’s a useless exertion as it engenders nothing but hate. Politics is always seen in vague terms, as a battle of good and evil. There may be concrete results in the form of responses to popular issues, but the long-term effect is deleterious as it is not sustainable.

For instance, why do we have a recurring problem of oil price hikes? The unchecked oil price increase is even often blamed for the economic debacle in the 1970s even if it was mainly because of unreasonable dependence on foreign loans. Since 1998, we have deregulated the downstream oil industry but just like in the telecommunications and the power industry, the expected result of competitive prices and better services remain just a dream. It’s now 2021 and all we can still just hear from our leaders are palliative solutions like slashing or giving up the excise tax. It would be glad to hear a substantive solution like the unbundling the prices of downstream oil products’ sales, but this would still fall short of giving the public a basic idea what this option is; at best then, the purpose is mainly to get popularity points from the public.

Can we expect long-term comprehensive solutions like this rather technical policy scheme of unbundling? The answer is no, for two main reasons. One, it will require a comprehensive mechanism which requires extensive policy-making and therefore demanding a team (majority) effort in the legislature. Two, even if a majority of policy-makers can be gathered by a strong leader, it cannot be expected to be without consideration of what big interests require. Fund-raising to pursue political ends is personal, preventing individual political leaders from taking a stand contrary to business interests. If gathering of resources is made institutional, that it is political parties that raise resources and use the same to promote the careers of their members, there would at least be a way to prevent personal backlash. Then again, the resources gathered cannot be for personal benefit. There is then no incentive to pursue systemic reforms.

Having a complete senatorial slate is not just cosmetic. In a general way, it indicates an attempt to craft a comprehensive program of government; a set of policy initiatives that will be passed in the legislature, hence the need to assemble a majority in Congress. This is completely lost in the current scheme of things, giving the impression that so much can be done by a single political leader. This is not only farther from the truth as the government is a huge set of different institutions requiring coordinated actions or initiatives; it also promotes the absurd and dangerous thinking that one single person can and, in fact, should do everything of significance in government. It cultivates fanaticism from the people, while the leader assumes he or she is some God who can do practically anything.

Given this, it is difficult to expect understanding between political leaders. Alliances in other countries are formed by way of finding common ground on issues and determining how to partner, pushing it forward. The result is a strong partnership as failing to push agreed initiatives will impact on the popularity of both parties. On the other hand, debate, that is, differences between parties are primarily issue-based and doesn’t go down as personal grievances.

In our case, the basis of alliances is nothing other than spoils—what positions or projects in government can be shared with the ally. Spoils, of course, are simplistic bases of any agreement. Once the die is cast, there is nothing that prevents the prevailing ally from reneging on the arrangement even only after some time. Coalitions are then pursued primarily for personal ends, nothing more. To a certain extent, the upshot could be a strong bond between partners; but it will almost always be a brittle one that once broken leads to really bitter rivalries.

We can and should continue the advocacy. I'm still hoping one of the candidates for President takes a serious stand on pursuing systemic reforms. It should be a fundamental priority as it will lead to the resolution of so many problems we have had ever since. It will change the rules of the game of course, but it should be seen as a gain for everyone, especially for the political leaders who will successfully see to its fulfillment. As it has been in all countries that finally saw the development of its public institutions, it is indubitably a legacy, one that undoubtedly worthwhile to pursue.

Watch more on iWantTFC

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.