From “Electoral Democracy” to “Substantive Democracy” we have a long, long way to go.

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

February 3, 2013

The importance of voting and elections in our democracy. In our “democratic and republican State” where our people are the source of sovereignty and all government authority  (Article II. Section 1. Constitution), their direct action and decision-making in governance are focused mainly on electing our political leaders. Rarely do most citizens participate in  discussions on public policy, take part in political parties, or in recall, referenda, and plebiscites. Although many do follow public affairs on radio and television, and through the print media. More youth access the social media. 

We know that the selection of candidates and our political campaigns and elections suffer from all kinds of problems and deficiencies. Access to power through elections is limited by the dominance of political dynasties, the emphasis on celebrities and name recall, the high cost of campaigning, fraud, vote-buying-and-selling, the dependence of poor voters on their political padrinos, and even violence. These factors cause our citizens’ distrust, dissatisfaction, and cynicism regarding elections, the government and political leaders as a whole, and the way our kind of democracy works in relation to the people’s hopes and quality of life.

Dysfunctional Elections? The stubborn persistence of our problems of mass poverty, unemployment, low incomes, social inequality and insecurity, inadequate public services in education, health and welfare, lawlessness, and rebellion raises questions about the real value of elections and the resulting quality of public leadership and governance, even as we make progress in our goal of holding regular, clean, peaceful, and credible elections.

Filipino democracy since independence in 1946 has gone through 67 years of evolution, including a destructive reversal in over 13 years of authoritarian rule under Ferdinand Marcos (September 1972 to February 1986). From this perspective, the overall practice and outcome of successive elections and political administrations seem to suggest a cumulative and collective failure of leaders, institutions and citizens in relation to the vision and goals of Filipino democracy summed up in the preamble of our constitutions of 1935 and 1987 as building “a just and humane society” and a peaceful and democratic nation under the rule of law.  

This harsh judgment must take note of our many good and exceptional leaders and citizens. However, they have not so far constituted the critical mass of leaders and citizens we need in revitalizing institutions and breaking out of a vicious cycle of underdevelopment unto a virtuous cycle of progress and global competitiveness. Accordingly, millions of Filipinos have voted with their feet as OFWs. Many pay a high price to themselves and their loved ones, not to mention the “brain drain” of professional OFWs.  

Objectives of “Electoral Democracy” and Goals of “Substantive Democracy.” Various electoral reforms are being devised to improve both “the inputs, process and outputs” of our elections (“Electoral Democracy”); and their “outcomes in the form of electing good leaders who are honest and effective in making us realize our vision of the Good Life, the Good Society, and our ideals of Democracy (“Substantive Democracy.)”

The Input, Process, and Output Objectives of “Electoral Democracy.” To begin with, therefore, we should specify the various objectives of our elections that should guide our efforts at reform. As to inputs and process, the output objectives of elections are: (1) to encourage good leaders to become candidates for public office; (2) to inform the people about the problems and issues of governance; (3) to inform the people about the qualifications and capabilities of the candidates; (4) to encourage the people to choose the most suitable candidates; (5) to control the cost of campaigning to the candidates and their supporters; (6) to reduce vote-buying and selling; (7) to ensure peaceful, orderly, fair, honest, and credible elections; (8) to provide equitable State funding of candidates;  (9) to control the cost of election administration; (10) to ensure timely justice in resolving electoral contests and court cases; (11) to actually have good leaders as candidates and winners in the elections; (12) to actually make the voters informed about the issues and problems of governance and the qualifications and capabilities of the candidates; (13) to achieve the desired kind of elections and resolution of electoral disputes and court cases as described above; (14) to achieve the sought after credibility and legitimacy of the elections;

The Outcomes of “Substantive Democracy.” As to the outcomes or end goals of “Substantive Democracy, we have the following: (1) to improve the quality of governance as shown by the policies and decisions of the elected leaders in the course of their leadership and interaction with the people; (2) to develop responsible and accountable leaders and political parties in and out of power; (3) to improve the programs and services of the government; (4) to increase the positive impact of government programs and services on the people’s lives, and the quality of social and political institutions; (5) to validate the legitimacy of our democracy through the successive elections—among  our own citizens and internationally; and (6) to feedback the outputs and outcomes of elections and the end goals and outcomes of “Substantive Democracy” to the inputs and process of elections. Political scientists call this “the feedback loop:” the Outputs and Outcomes are again fed back as Inputs to the whole process of elections and governance for the common good of the citizens.  

The real challenge to our elections and democracy. The real challenge to and true measure of the quality of our elections have to do with the quality of our government leaders and their capacity to provide our country and people the “good governance” needed to achieve sustained development that will raise the quality of life of most citizens—especially the poor, powerless and insecure—and thus validate and legitimize elections and democracy as the means to build a peaceful and democratic nation and a just and humane society.

Given the inability of our leaders collectively to provide us the sustained “good governance” needed to solve our chronic social, economic and political problems, observe the rule of law, achieve political stability, and consolidate our democracy after the EDSA revolt, it may not be unfair to judge our elections and our governance as a whole to have failed so far in terms of the end goals and outcomes of elections in a democratic nation.

We should realize that the destruction of our democratic institutions and the corruption of our leaders and the military under the Marcos dictatorship was a costly political, social and economic reversal whose lingering effects are still very much with us today. The nation also lost invaluable time (1972 to 1986) during which several Asian countries achieved a social and economic breakthrough under their own political systems. Compared to their social and economic progress, the Philippines has lagged behind. Our rapid population growth rate and weak nationhood compared to theirs have been and continue to be severe constraints on our development in the absence of good governance.

To reiterate, this is not to say that we don’t have many good leaders; it is to say that they still do not constitute the critical mass of leaders that it takes to revitalize our institutions in order to lift the nation to higher levels of prosperity, security and progress for the common good. Many leaders travel at government expense but remain insular and have no sense of urgency to solve our problems, compared to leaders in other countries that are thus more progressive.

Once more, the sad state of our nation after many elections and political administrations may be attributed to a failure of collective leadership and a collective failure of our institutions, public and private. The quality of our citizenry is also a vital factor in the equation. So many are poor, insecure, and dependent. Thus, cumulatively, their social, economic and political empowerment and discernment would impact upon the quality of our elections, political leaders, and governance. Clearly, the factors for democratic political development or stagnation are interdependent.

Institutional Change for Good Governance and Substantive Democracy. Moreover, we also need structural and institutional change in the distribution of powers and resources between the national government and the local governments, and among the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the national government, in order to improve the quality of elections and political parties and to achieve good governance.

Good governance is understood as the sustained and institutionalized capacity of our political institutions, with our people’s participation at all levels, to make and implement policies and decisions to deal with our nation’s problems and challenges. Governance is to be responsive, efficient, effective, transparent, honest, and accountable to our people.

Then the Republic of the Philippines as “a democratic and republican state” would be our very own, our  legitimate political and social system worthy of our continuing loyalty, allegiance and support. Only then will our people believe the constitutional principle and democratic myth that “Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” This is Substantive Filipino Democracy: Government of the Filipino People, by the Filipino People, and for the Filipino People (paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln in his historic Gettysburg Address).

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