It’s time the Philippines tried democracy
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2006-04-17
(This is a special article that was solicited last year and published recently by the Harvard Philippine Forum.)
Up to the 1960s, the Philippines was considered a showcase of democracy in Asia. But the truth is democracy remains elusive for over 80% of Filipinos who do not really have a voice in the crafting of national policy.

What the Philippines has is an oligarchy where a privileged elite of no more than 3% of the population – some say even less now – controls over 80% of the national wealth. To hold on to their economic empire, they have found it necessary to control the political process in the country. The relationship between economic power and political power in the Philippine has become so integrated that for many entering politics it has become the ticket to joining the club of the economic elite.

This integration of economic and political power is also the reason why the Philippine economy has deteriorated to where it is now when it used to be number 2 in all of Asia, next only to Japan, in the early 1960s. Political turbulence, starting with the imposition of a dictatorship by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, triggered an economic meltdown and tailspin. Through all the series of crises, the majority of Filipinos were hapless bystanders who were no different from the serfs of olden times in Europe who neither had a voice nor influence in the course of determining political and economic events as barons and earls decided national fates and fortunes.

US and Philippine models of democracy

Nothing best exemplifies the dysfunctional democracy in the country than the junking of the impeachment case against Madame Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last September 6, 2005 – by a vote of 158 to 51 – by Arroyo allies in congress. Despite the strong evidence and the obvious pattern of conspiracy to rig the 2004 presidential elections, and notwithstanding the consistent survey results that show 80% of Filipinos believe Arroyo stole the 2004 elections and over 65% want her ousted – the 158 ‘representatives of the people’ proved how impervious they are to public interest and opinion by quashing the case. It was a classic show of personal and party interest overriding public interest.

Compare that to the Republican Party in the United States in 1974 at the height of the Watergate controversy. When it became obvious then that former President Richard M. Nixon was liable for the cover up of the Watergate break-in, leaders of the Republican Party took it upon themselves to spell it out to Nixon that they could no longer support him in the looming impeachment process. The Republicans felt the overwhelming tide of public opinion going against them and feared that the outrage will bring the party down. Nixon had no choice but to resign on August 8, 1974.

It is the best proof that democracy exists when the elected representatives of the people behave as corporate managers who know that they serve at the pleasure of the stockholders. In the Philippines, the ‘company managers’ behave as if they owned the company instead of just working for the ‘stockholders’.

The arrogance and insensitivity to public opinion is rooted to the following realities of our pseudo-democracy:

1. The majority of the citizens are neither organized nor empowered to assert their will despite their dominance in numbers. They are also very vulnerable to monetary favors and can easily be divided by machinations of well-seasoned power players employing the divide-and-conquer principle of the Roman Caesars. In all the mad confusion and disarray, traditional politicians and their patrons easily get away with murder.

2. A well-entrenched economic elite controls political power. They finance the campaigns and arrange the back room deals that get people elected. A good man can get the majority vote on the day of elections but the well-financed candidate will likely ‘win’ once the votes are finally ‘counted’.

3. Media, the one entity that can galvanize positive action that would empower the majority, is helplessly tied to the purse strings of the moneyed class. Check out the people who are behind major advertising support for media and you will see an aspect of that influence. Take a look at the names of press writers hosting their own television shows or appointed to the boards of government-operated broadcast and print media and you will see the meaning of ‘paid hacks’ in action. Corrupt media practitioners are so predominant – they cancel out the efforts of the journalists with integrity.

4. The Filipino majority is poor, uninformed, poorly educated and easily manipulated by the sweet-talking political shyster. The poor had unequivocally repudiated traditional politicians when they rejected Ramon Mitra and Jose de Venecia in the 1992 and 1998 presidential elections, respectively. But in their desperation and in avoiding electing another traditional politician stereotype, they ended up turning to showbiz personalities bereft of qualifications and mostly lacking in moral character to hold public office. Joseph Estrada, ousted in office for plunder, shows the kind of self-destructive choices the poor tends to make.

The patronage system

Patronage politics has turned Philippine democracy into a farce. The kingmakers, the election ‘investors’ and financiers who are there for their own personal concerns, are the only ones with a real say on policy. The majority of citizens are but pawns in their power games, given the inability of the poor to organize themselves behind an enlightened leadership.

Taking off from the American colonizers, our entrenched elite are now our neo-colonizers. We were better off having foreign colonizers because it at least drew the line between the oppressor and the oppressed and stoked the fires of nationalism. But spotting the predatory neo-colonizer – who is a fellow countryman – proved most difficult for most Filipinos, especially considering how uninformed and poorly educated many of them are.

The neo-colonizer is only after expanding and enriching his empire. Any appearances of social concern are most likely for purposes of public relations and only because this will help him earn media brownie points, which in turn, will be good for business. To remain in control of his wealth, the neo-colonizer must also be in control of the political power and all its requisite instrumentalities. This is the very raison d’etre of patronage politics.

In the Philippines, we cannot complain about our democracy. There is simply none.

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