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‘How Democracies Die’

Not with a bang, judging by cases autopsied in this book by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Foreign invasion, armed insurrection, and military coups now rarely strike the sudden, fatal blows.  Death often comes at the behest of a legitimately elected leader, through the gradual grinding down and degrading of democratic institutions.

Mass appeal, Levitsky/Ziblatt observed, is insufficient to enthrone the “strongmen” hostile to democracy; they need established leaders to provide credibility and support. These businessmen, technocrats and politicians may find strongmen manners and morals personally distasteful. But they bet on the strongmen as their best chance, not just for their share of wealth and power, but also to push the policy agenda they believe beneficial to the country. They ride the tiger, assuming they can direct its movements and moderate its appetites. If they fail, they become accountable for the carnage the tiger causes.

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The Supreme Court’s quo warranto (QW) decision illustrates another Levitsky/Ziblatt conclusion: A constitution is insufficient to protect democracy. Constitutional provisions require interpretation, ultimately by the Court. But justices are human: They laugh when tickled, bleed when pricked. They can act out of pride or pique, for self-preservation or profit. They can be cajoled, corrupted, coerced. In the QW case, the Court’s decision, assailed by respected law schools, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), and a majority of the senators, undermined the spirit of the Constitution and ethical principles.

Statements of assets, liabilities and net worth have prospective importance in deterring the use of public office for private gain. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s term surfaced no issue of unexplained wealth, such as led to her predecessor Renato Corona’s impeachment. Her SALNs as UP faculty caused the IBP no concern; no one has accused her of illegally exploiting UP to enrich herself. Her incomplete SALN submission for the Court nomination was not “discovered” five years after her appointment, the excuse for overriding the QW’s one-year prescriptive period. Knowing the facts, the IBP decided that she had substantially complied with SALN requirements. Using SALN and QW to avoid an impeachment trial privileges administrative procedures over the protection of judicial independence. And the justices who served as witnesses against Sereno and then insisted on sitting as her judges dishonored legal and ethical principles and dishonored themselves.

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The justices who maintained their principles deserve our gratitude for defending the unwritten rules and norms that Levitsky/Ziblatt considered crucial to reinforcing the rule of law. Mutual toleration, for instance, accepts policy disagreement as part of the democratic process for reaching consensus on the common good. This promotes the value of institutional forbearance, restraint in the use of power. Executive control over agencies like the Bureaus of Internal Revenue and of Immigration, or the police, does not justify their use to suppress democratic dissent.

Consider Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez’s threat, invoking the supermajority in the House, to deny opposition politicians their districts’ internal revenue allotment. Or the QW case, where a legal provision is twisted and tortured to fit the desired decision to expel Sereno from her post. Unrestrained exercise of power transforms politics into a winner-take-all, gladiatorial contest that offers no incentive for bipartisan   collaboration, polarizes the community, and provokes scorched-earth tactics.

Sadly, social media practices subvert the values of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. They encourage instead the tendency to reduce policy differences to personal wars waged with all available weapons. Easier to resort to name-calling and threats than to engage in evidence-based argumentation. Neither does the Duterte strongman style cultivate the virtues that reduce factionalism and promote civility.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dismisses concerns about the state of Philippine democracy, noting that courts function, police submit to civilian control, mass media operate. He sets a low bar. Let him show us instead how the Duterte administration has defended the principles on which democracy rests: separation of powers, judicial independence, rule of law, media freedom.

Democracy is not suddenly extinguished at the flick of a switch. The control mechanism is a knob or slider that one moves to adjust the volume on an amplifier or the brightness of the bulb. The administration believes we will get used to the gradual dimming of the light. Our challenge: to persevere bearing witness and resisting the gathering darkness.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard, Steven Levitsky, strongmen
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