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No Free Lunch

Democracy at risk

/ 05:05 AM October 09, 2018

Creeping signs of authoritarianism in our country lead many to worry that our democracy is once again under threat. Fellow Inquirer columnist John Nery recently put it in even stronger terms. The democracy envisioned in the 1987 Constitution is now in mortal danger, he asserted in a recent forum, “Democracy at the Crosshairs,” organized by the Eisenhower Fellows Association of the Philippines.

As a reactor in the forum that also featured Dr. Mahar Mangahas, yet another Inquirer columnist, I chose to address the topic through an economic lens, that being my own field of expertise. While both main speakers had political democracy in mind, this may or may not translate to economic democracy, otherwise known as “inclusive economic development,” a professed goal of the Philippine Development Plan.

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After having described our economy’s growth as “narrow, shallow and hollow” for many years, I’ve noted how signs of a more democratic economy have finally been emerging, starting in the previous administration. The data indicate that our economy’s benefits are now permeating more widely, leading to a more broad-based and inclusive, hence democratic, economy.

Unemployment is at historically record lows, now at 5.4 percent, and has come a long way from the double-digit rates we had at the restoration of our democracy in 1986. Wage and salary workers now make up two-thirds of our workers; it was barely half 10 years ago. Meanwhile, less desirable jobs as unpaid family workers and individually self-employed (usually informal) workers have significantly declined.

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Such improved quantity and quality of jobs has translated into a substantial drop in poverty incidence, down almost four points to 21.6 percent of the population in 2015, from 25.2 percent in 2012—the largest three-year drop seen in recent decades. Furthermore, the income gap between the richest 20 percent of Filipinos and the poorest 20 percent has narrowed to 7-to-1, from 12-to-1 at the time of the 1986 People Power Revolution.

Still, many Filipinos have yet to feel their lives uplifted by the economy’s new dynamism, even as the data suggest that their numbers are declining.

Does democracy in the political sphere also mean democracy in the economic sphere? Many of us may remember when Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared that the problem with the Philippines was “too much democracy” — implying that the path to the economic dynamism that Singapore achieved required a less than democratic political environment. Then President Fidel V. Ramos retorted that the Philippines was intent on pursuing a more durable economic development, with “democratization” being one of the “five Ds” underpinning his development strategy.

Still, it took 15 years after that little FVR-LKY tiff before sure signs of more inclusive growth, aka economic democracy, finally emerged. On why it took that long, John Nery may have the answer: He points to the critical role of strong institutions. With the common view that the politically embattled government in the previous decade had moved to systematically weaken our institutions, it may have impeded the emergence of a more democratic economy in the process.

Are the gains on economic democratization we have been making after 2010 now under threat? Recent events amount to what many see as a renewed deliberate and systematic weakening of our established democratic institutions, including the judiciary, the legislature, the police, the press, constitutional watchdog bodies, and more. Many see cronyism of the kind witnessed under the Marcos dictatorship now making a comeback, albeit with new characters. The threat is indeed real.

One might take some comfort from Dr. Mangahas’ survey numbers showing that the majority of Filipinos are of a sentiment rejecting the forces that would put democracy aside in the name of dubious goals. And as Nery asserts, those same sentiments must translate into concrete actions on every citizen’s part to uphold and protect the democratic institutions we cherish. These, after all, are our best shield against the evil forces poised to kill democracy anew, in this country we all love.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, Cielito F. Habito, democracy, Eisenhower Fellows Association of the Philippines, john Nery, Mahar Mangahas, No Free Lunch, Philippine economic growth
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