The State of Our Democracy and Its Prospects Part One

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

March 3, 2013

This week I took part in a public forum at the Pimentel Center on Local Governance and Leadership, University of Makati, where we were asked to diagnose the present state of Philippine democracy and governance and how it might be in the near future, say the 2020s. Although our time was very limited I suggested that we discuss the subject in the context of our experience in: (1) nation-building and modernization; (2) democratization and re-democratization after experiencing authoritarian rule; and (3) development. In this way we would appreciate the complexity of improving our democracy and governance.

 Modernization. In our prolonged transition from “a traditional society” to “a modern society” many among us find it difficult to shift from “personalism” (personal favors, palusot) vs. “universalism” (the impersonal “rule of law”); from “Filipino time” and lack of urgency, to valuing time as a limited and precious resource (“industrial time”);  from “pwede na” to striving for excellence in what we do. We are slow in internalizing our faith and our laws and in learning from other countries. We are still a slow learning society in a fast changing world, and we are falling behind our more progressive neighbors.

 Over a century of democratization, authoritarianism, and re-democratization. Under Spanish colonization our forebears learned to build the Filipino nation, free themselves from Spanish rule, and set up a de facto democratic republic; only to be re-colonized by America and to fight the Filipino-American War. From 1900 to 1946, we learned to build and operate our democratic institutions as an American colony. But we had to endure over three years of tyranny and destruction under the Japanese occupation before we regained our independence in July 1946. Our 1935 Constitution would remain in effect until 1972.

 Authoritarian rule under Marcos.  In September 1972 President Marcos declared martial law. He justified his self-serving act: (1) to save our Republic from the rebellions of the extreme left—the  Communist rebellion and the MNLF rebellion—and the rebellion of the extreme right, “the oligarchs;” and (2) to build a “New Society”—“Ang Bagong Lipunan. In fact Marcos destroyed our democratic institutions. He set up a corrupt and self-serving authoritarian regime, politicized the military and police as his partners in governance, worsened the rebellions, and set back our political, economic and social development. With his political enemies imprisoned or eliminated, Marcos and company remained as the oligarchs in charge.

 Some ill effects of the Marcos dictatorship endure. The Marcos heirs and former allies have long returned to power. Most of our people quickly forgive and forget the transgressions of our leaders, confirming the conventional wisdom that we get the leaders and the government we deserve.   

Our authoritative vision for the Philippines in our 1987 Constitution. Under this Constitution adopted under President Corazon Aquino, the Filipino people shall endeavor “to build a just and humane society” and “establish …a democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace…” (Preamble). Then in Section 1, Article II, our Constitution declares: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Many more constitutional provisions define our ideals, principles and design our major institutions in pursuance of our national vision.

What is the state of our nation and democracy 27 years since the EDSA “People Power” Revolt and 26 years under our 1987 Constitution?  This has been a turbulent period of re-democratization and development. With a population of 97 million in the homeland, the Philippines has become the 12th most populous nation in the world, although some 12 million Filipinos have left the country as OFWs since the 1970s. At a high personal cost to their separated families, their remittances do make up a sizeable share of our GNP.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Aquino administration there is more transparency in governance. We are also achieving higher economic growth. But it is not inclusive; it does not create enough jobs for our many unemployed. The urban poor multiply as the rural, jobless poor flock to the cities and many live in the ghettos. Poverty and inequality remain high in the midst of visible wealth and affluent life-styles. This is a worrisome situation. High poverty and human insecurity make citizens dependent on their political patrons who in turn are tempted to misuse public funds and abuse their office to remain in power. Desperation of the poor and corruption of the powerful may lead to more criminality and venality. Governance suffers and costs more, resulting in inadequate public services.

What about our middle class? As we have observed, in the industrialized democratic countries the large numbers in the middle class are seen to be the bedrock of their democracy. They are educated, gainfully employed, well informed, and critical of poor governance. They participate in politics as members of political parties and business or civil society organizations.

In the Philippines our middle classes are not much larger than our lower income classes. While some middle class members are active in civil society, they do not join political parties that are regarded as loose, opportunistic, and unaccountable alliances of politicians without serious political platforms for governance and reform. Except for their votes our numerous poor citizens are not empowered to participate effectively in politics and governance.

“Good Governance.” This concept and ideal of Filipino democracy has emerged after over 13 years of authoritarian rule under President Ferdinand Marcos. Blending Filipino and international ideals, we understand “good governance” as manifesting these features:

 (1) people’s participation in free and fair elections and in policy and decision-making made possible by an open and accessible government in a free society with vigilant, competent and responsible media; (2) responsiveness of the government to the needs and demands of the people who are informed, empowered and enabled to express their will to their political leaders and civil servants;

 3) transparency and accountability of public servants in response to the citizens’ will and their right to know (“the truth” in governance) as the sovereign in a democracy; (4) honesty and fidelity of public servants and the certain punishment of those who are abusive and corrupt;

 5) efficiency and a sense of urgency in the exercise of power and authority to make the best use of scarce resources, including time especially; (6) effectiveness in providing the needed public services, solving problems, and achieving goals, all for the common good;

(7) the protection and enhancement of human rights and the fulfillment of social justice; (8) achieving ecological integrity and sustainable development; and

(9) realizing “Pamathalaan,” the indigenous Filipino vision of governance:  “dedicated to the enhancement of man’s true spiritual and material worth”…”through leadership by example, reasonable management, unity (pagkakaisa) between the governors and governed, and social harmony based on love (pagmamahalan) and compassion (pagdadamayan). (Pablo S. Trillana III. The Loves of Rizal, 2000. p. 179.)

Many Filipinos assume and therefore lament that as a people and nation we have no vision, common purpose or goals. It is true that our leaders rarely point out to the people our national vision, purpose, or goals embodied in the Constitution. And our students are not learning about the Constitution as they should. For these reasons, among others, we cannot fault many among our people for assuming that they do not exist at all.

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