THIS is the penultimate part of a series of columns on democracy. Focus was placed on four countries in Asia — China, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea — comparative to the Philippines, extracting their best practices in governance, whether such practices are in line with our American democratic legacy or with its opposite, China’s authoritarian system. We looked into the amalgam of practices from the three others closest to the Philippines in terms of cultural proclivities as we began post-World War 2 from a similar starting point with informally designated status as growing economies. Today, these three, including China, have progressed to a point where they have assumed the elevated status as developed countries. The Philippines has not.
The premises in these columns are that the most important priorities of governance, whether democratic or authoritarian, are “above all, to serve and promote the welfare of its people by protecting their security and well-being, maintaining law and order, and providing essential public services, which are equated with universal access to health care, education, employment, and dwelling (HEED). For this to be possible, governments must ensure that their economy grows and are stable. Freedom of speech, choice of beliefs, freedom to dissent, and even freedom to bear arms are subordinate.” (“East Asian models of governance,” The Manila Times, Sept 27, 2023.)
Although advocates of democracy disagree with the subordination of other freedoms, empirical evidence suggests these to be effective in Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, which did suspend many of these freedoms sometime in their history and restoring some of these later as a consequence of their economic success. Today, these countries epitomize the calculated use of a mixed type of democratic and authoritarian methodologies and strategies that impelled the uplift of their people’s lives. The Philippines may emulate the success of our neighbors, extracting their best practices. But somehow, these freedoms dictated by the precepts of democracy may have to be imputed back into the calculation. The critical question is when?
After almost a century of our system of governance associating it with democracy, a mindset was shaped enforcing a bias that authoritarian and totalitarian approaches to governance may not work in the Philippines. We tolerated for a time a drastic change as in the time of the Marcos dictatorship but eventually rejected it for a semblance of democracy restored by the Aquino government. But what was restored was simply a façade of democracy, and this faux re-installation of democratic practices and the subsequent governments arriving full circle with another Marcos has not given us the desired quality of life that Filipinos deserved, comparable to those of our economically advanced Asian neighbors. What gives?
We will put in proper perspective the causes and the practices that seem to be the proverbial albatross hanging around our democratic necks, preventing us from attaining the desired results.
Factors why our democracy failed
The Centrist Democratic premise, described in these series of columns, past articles and our CD literature, centered on “traditional political patronage as the primary evil in Philippine governance.” This has been ingrained into our political culture, permeating the very sinews of a good part of our political life. Our political system itself is a travesty that has been embedded in our 1987 Constitution. This has spawned several elements that have contributed to the challenges and limitations of democracy in the Philippines. Some key factors are not necessarily in sequential order.
1. Political dynasties. A culturally positive, close-knit Filipino Asian family trait has been perverted into the sordid practices of politics where power is concentrated within a few families to the exclusion of other capable people, preventing competition for power, a cherished democratic dogma, and limiting political choices. Such concentration of power is self-perpetuating, spanning several generations.
2. Dominance of vested interests. The emergence of political family dynasties necessitates alliance with the moneyed, the elite class and the oligarchy, forming a formidable influence in government — where their own people are ensconced. The interests of this powerful group are, therefore, protected and enhanced. Thus, the priorities of government are distorted toward a few rather than society in general.
3. Weak institutions. The Philippines is characterized by weak institutions, starting with the electoral system where money and logistics determine the winners, undermining the process resulting in massive voter disenfranchisement and fraud, eroding people’s trust in elections and, ultimately, the legitimacy of sitting officials.
The institutional weakness permeates other branches — the Congress’ House and Senate, intermittently at loggerheads advancing vested interests staking their respective turfs, delimiting their legitimate oversight function over government.
A weak judiciary and its adjunct, the prosecutorial and enforcement agencies, are beholden to the appointing powers, negating accountability and transparency, placing its independence and impartiality suspect.
4. Widespread corruption. Regulatory capture by allies in the oligarchy, bureaucratic slippages and rent-seeking have undermined democratic processes. They erode public trust in government institutions, distort the allocation of critical resources, hamper economic development, weaken accountability and transparency mechanisms, among others, and impair the rule of law. Despite efforts to combat corruption, it continues to be pervasive.
5. Socioeconomic disparities. With endemic poverty, the gap between the “haves and the have-nots” continues to widen, creating social tensions contributing to political instability and dividing Philippine society into unequal classes.
6. Limited access to public services. Basic government services paid for by taxes (if paid at all by a distrustful citizenry) are curtailed. Universal health services are non-existent, and so is mass housing. Lack of employment drives Filipinos overseas, draining the country of human assets. Access to quality education essential to a well-informed citizenry in a democracy is limited. A recent example: though lacking in classrooms, low teachers’ salaries and unfilled permanent positions, the Department of Education diverted much-needed budget toward an “intelligence fund” — a confidential, unaudited lump sum allocation for questionable expenditures.
So, what now?The obvious solution is structural systemic change. This has been the cry of frustrated and angry Filipinos agitating toward a more inclusive and just system of governance. Since the 1987 Cory Constitution, every succeeding regime campaigned on constitutional and structural change on every permutation of “pagbabago.” All stillborn or aborted and discarded into the dustbin of legislative legerdemain — by the very people entrusted with this task, Congress.
Any government elected to office by a citizenry afflicted by the failures and conditions of democratic anomalies and who are themselves plagued by ignorance on the positive nuances of democracy will always revert to their populist tendencies — put back into political power, again and again, the officials who will best serve their individual and family interests, not the Filipino society. The Scottish thinker Alexander Fraser Tytler was succinct on this concept:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses…”
I propose to reverse this assessment and reorient our democracy with a mix of authoritarian practices and perhaps save us from ourselves.