Why the Philippines is not a Democracy (Update 05-17-2016)

Why didn’t EDSA work? The formula was there: the military was agitating, the people were taking their grievances to the streets, and the priests were calling for an ouster. We felt we could make Arroyo bow down.

However, she didn’t roll down like an obedient dog, and instead, she clamped down on civil liberties. What the hell? Did she even believe in the democratic system? Did she understand what the responsibilities of her office entailed?

Oh, she understood. She understood perfectly…

Two weeks ago, the country commemorated the so-called “EDSA Dos” with little more than a muffled, bitter, mutter. Those who were there thought they had been betrayed, and many who were spectators now say that even then they knew better. Political scientists and sociologists have analyzed the event to death. One thing is at least consistent: everyone believes that society, the ideals that we left back in 2001, is no longer the same. All of EDSA seems to have been discredited.

Joseph Estrada was a symbol of corruption. He represented the unpresidential individual who rose through the ranks on the shoulders of the masses. He represented everything that we, as intellectuals and members of the middle class, detested. Vulgar, without taste, and a politico. And he fell from power due to his one fatal flaw: he was a good man. Estrada didn’t try to disperse the crowd. He didn’t act the way Marcos did in his brutal counter stroke against the demonstrations during the turbulent period forever immortalized as the “First Quarter Storm”. Soldiers weren’t ordered to fire on the crowd, and no arrests were made. Estrada even offered to conciliate.

As President of the Philippines, he didn’t quite understand the true nature of his office, and what it entailed. He didn’t quite understand what he needed to do that day, and at that point in time.

I was reading quite a lot of blog posts about EDSA Dos (or what I would like to call the January Uprising, but I’ll explain that later) and trying to come up with a reason why it failed. It seems easy to say fight, and fight again, though they may try to persecute you. It still is the best way. But there was something far deeper at the heart of the matter; and I had to find out.

Why didn’t EDSA work? The formula was there: the military was agitating, the people were taking their grievances to the streets and the priests were calling for an ouster. We thought we could make Arroyo bow down the way the Indonesians did with Suharto. Instead, she instituted the State of Rebellion Act, the State of Emergency Act, and various other decrees, which clamped down on civil liberties. What the hell? Was she Filipino? Did she even believe in the democratic system? Did she understand what the responsibilities of her office entailed?

Oh, she understood. She understood perfectly.

Southeast Asian governments belong to a class of their own. We often liken the Philippines to the Latin American countries, since we had the same conquerors and acquired the same temperament. But we did not fall to a series of military dictatorships, though we did endure a Marxist insurgency. Scriptorium likened the country to 18th century France in Louis XVI’s time and just right before the Revolution. But unlike that pre-Bastille France, the wealthy center of Europe, we are neither prosperous, nor at the center of our region.

It was two things that struck me with revelation: Postcard Headlines’ post about the march by the Sumilao farmers to Malacañang, and the recent news of the death of Suharto. Postcard’s blog talked about the endemic poverty and helplessness of the Filipino farmer in the provinces. They have been reduced to virtual serfdom by the wealthier landowners, who could buy the police and make things harder for those who resisted. Their only champion was the Church and the priests who at one point negotiated to reform the mining laws in the country.

We have the situation. Now comes the concept: Sukarno (and later Suharto) ushered in a form of democracy in Indonesia. The more appropriate term for this is “Guided Democracy”, or in Bahasa, Demokrasi Terpimpin. This concept has been used in Russia as well, but I will go to that. Indonesia toiled under these two dictatorships, but it was a relaxed rule. Civil liberties existed as long as it was not used against the government. The State did not control too much of the market or of people’s lives. The people were granted freedoms, but these freedoms were guided by the State.

“Guided Democracy” is the pattern that Manuel L. Quezon III tried to pinpoint in his blog. Southeast Asian countries, idolizing the United States, tried their best to create governments which they thought embodied the concepts of democracy. They fell to a similar pattern as Indonesia: Lee Kuan Yew became virtual dictator and puppet master in Singapore, Thaksin Shinawatra centralized control of Thailand, and Marcos held the Philippines with an iron fist. But it wasn’t a democracy. They wanted to tell the people that it was, and convince them that this was the American system. But it wasn’t.

It was an autocracy, oh yes–the same autocracy practiced by the European leaders during the 19th century, or by the Absolutist Monarchs in the 17th to 18th. Quite simply, a Democracy is where the People elect the leaders that would form the Government. This Government, in turn, would work to serve the People, having been chosen to represent them. An autocracy is centered on one man who has been granted the “divine right to rule”. Its concept of “democracy” is the granting of little freedoms by which the people are free to express themselves. This is not Democracy in its general concept, but it is the democracy that the people were given the privilege to hold.

So now the Philippines is an autocracy. Which autocracy? It was hard to tell at first, but the pattern is there: poverty throughout the country; recognition as a power in the region; a centralized, polarizing figure who views herself as “destined to rule” and “whom only God can judge”; militant students and intellectuals. The frequent military coups and even more frequent worker strikes. And serfdom.

My friends, this was Czarist Russia.The czars were fascinated with playing power-broker in the Great Game of Europe, and tended to hide the stark poverty and almost continuous famine in their country.The workers frequently rebelled (as in our EDSA Tres, or what I would like to call the May Day Uprising), and there were military coups from time to time (as with our Oakwood and Manila Pen).Of course, it’s not yet complete: We haven’t yet acquired the penchant for literary greats (our are as yet undiscovered or unsung).Countries and people in the midst of misery tend to sing the sweetest ballads, or write the best novels.

So there you have it.Our President is styling herself as a Catherine the Great (she already has the “Iron Lady” tag to prove it).She may or may not believe that her actions are what are demanded of her as an autocrat and as a Czarina, but these actions shall continue nevertheless.Those who protest are merely agitating against the “Czarist crown”; and these recent actions to curtail the media, or the clamping down on liberties, are merely the normal prerogatives of the Czarina in her exercise of giving and withholding liberties.In a Democracy, this would be an outrage!In our EDSA state of mind, it is!But we are not really living a Democracy, are we?

And if we really, really wanted Democracy, what should we do about it?

That, my friends, is for another post.

UPDATE 05-17-2016:   At the twilight of the “Victorious Revolution” (EDSA), I reread this often-read post with a provocative title.  I wrote this during the time of Arroyo, when I thought she had created a virtual autocracy in the Philippines.  But towards the end of the Aquino-EDSA administration, I believe it still does apply (and very much so) in the Philippines.

FIRST of all, we tried to follow the American model but did not adopt a Federal model of government.   As a consequence, power was centralized in the capital, Manila, and though there were supposedly three equal branches of government, the reality is we allowed enough “legal leeway” to provide the President “extra-executive” powers to control the Legislature (through the budget allocation–read: money) and the Judiciary (by way of appointment without Congress approval).  Therefore, any ambitious President can, within the ambit of his existing powers, restrict and suppress opposition.   Remember the Corona impeachment?  That was a naked display of power by the President using Congress as his weapon.

SECOND, the American model is unique in that the reality is it is a UNION of INDEPENDENT states, federalized under one government.   By this I mean they have their own set of local Congress, Supreme Court, and President (in this sense, a governor).   Their history/culture was that of colonies with largely legislature-centered governments.  By contrast, the Philippines in pre-Hispanic history was scattered into independent polities and kingdoms under datus or chieftains.   Power was centralized, and the local councils were advisory in nature.  When the Spanish came, they merely retained the datus in their seats of power, and introduced a central power seated in Malacanang.   The Americans retained basically the same system.  And that is what we inherited in the modern times.   Feudal, chieftain systems are generally ingrained in our culture, so we can see the pattern in local elections where power remains in the aristocracies and ruling families.

THIRD, even the American model of Liberal Democracy is in reality only partly democratic.   They are mostly a bi-party system (Independent candidates rarely–if ever–get elected to higher office), and the two parties are largely controlled by their respective establishments, so that candidates are largely vetted and approved by their parties.   So, yes, power is centered on the aristocratic, ruling families or an oligarchic cabal keeping power for themselves through mere rotation of candidates.

I wrote before in a previous post, that non-Western democracies often fall to autocracies or oligarchies.   That is because in a Democratic system, it is the aristocracy with the power and wealth (read: machinery) to mount a campaign can and will centralize power locally or nationally.   When the people become fed up with the oligarchic setup of the so-called democracy, they help put into power an autocrat which would ideally break the power of the aristocracy and speak for the people.   A king over the elite.   The only reason we did not like the autocracy of Arroyo was because she was an “outsider” not representing the traditional aristocracy.   From autocracy, we voted into office a representative of the elite/aristocracy: an Aquino.  When finally we tired of the apparent weakness of the aristocracy, we gravitated back to another would-be autocracy (the new President).

That, then, is the tragic cycle and reason why the Philippines is not a Democracy: it is ingrained in our culture to be feudally ruled by the datu/elites, or ruled by a centralizing autocrat, or a feudalistic system of both (king and lords).  It is not we are not mature enough for a Federal system without falling to the Feudal trap, it is simply not in our culture to have democratic Federal states, let alone a decentralized Republic.