Are we still a ‘democracy’?
Almost two years ago, I penned my first full-fledged essay on Philippine politics, “The end of Philippine democracy?” Thereafter, my life was never the same.
I knew my writings would disappoint my parents, who always wanted me to pursue medical sciences (like my father and sister) or devote myself fully to the academe (like my professor mom) rather than enter, in whichever form, the murky and malevolent world of politics.
Shortly before we elected our 16th president, I nonetheless decided to devote my life of the mind, and more, to understanding the soul of our nation — and its increasingly polarized, besieged and emaciated political institutions.
And soon I found myself in the middle of the maelstrom of Philippine politics, as a deluge of troll armies, black propaganda, death threats and unimaginably crass insults generously greeted my works. For two years, I was involuntarily traumatized whenever a motorbike passed my car. As my mom asked, with horrified perplexity: “Son, why are they doing this, you aren’t even a politician?!”
Before this, almost the entirety of my popular and scholarly works and books were on global affairs, most especially the West Philippine Sea disputes and broader US-China rivalry in Asia. Yet, I sensed something fundamental was at stake in the 2016 elections, so important and transformative that I decided to plunge headlong into an entirely new line of work.
Over the succeeding months, I wrote, with a feverish sense of urgency, the first internationally published book on President Duterte, “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.” There are sequels in the making.
My palpable sense of urgency was anchored on the observations of those who reflected the alarming and irrevocable mutation of their societies in the preceding century.
As his country descended into totalitarian dystopia, the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci warned, “[a] common error in historico-political analysis consists in an inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural.”
Toward the end of that long century, Francis Fukuyama made a similar observation, emphasizing the need for “distinguishing between what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history.”
In many ways, I sensed that something similar was taking place in my country. As I wrote in my April 2016 essay, “Soon, Philippine (cacique) democracy as we know it may come to an end…”
I knew our democracy was endangered, precisely because it never fully matured. It was always aspirational rather than genuine.
After all, how can you even dare to speak of representative institutions when more than seven out of 10 legislators hail from political dynasties? How can you speak of dignity and development when, according to the World Bank, the 40 richest families took home 76 percent of the 6-percent annual economic growth?
Our proposed solution to such glaring democratic deficit, however, was real democratic reform, not a mindless return to discredited, disastrous forms of authoritarianism.
Keep in mind how, for every Lee Kuan Yew in human history, there have been a hundred Maos, Kims and Mugabes, who reduced their once prosperous nations to ashes of despair and death.
And yet, a plurality of our people placed their hopes of personal redemption and collective regeneration in authoritarian fantasies, with President Duterte’s cuss-laced, tough-talking rhetoric and style of governance serving as the harbinger of a new age in Philippine politics.
Yes, we still have elections, vivacious and boisterous as ever. As things stand, however, it’s highly likely that the upcoming elections will be the most lopsided in recent memory.
The opposition, desperately short on finances, volunteers and local governments willing to host their campaign events, is struggling to get even a single senator elected.
This not only puts into question the fairness and competitive nature of our elections, which is a minimum prerequisite for procedural democracy, but could also leave the legislature at the mercy of executive prerogative in the coming years.
Above all, what is most troubling is the shocking dearth of appreciation for the basic principles of human rights and civil liberties, as our country descends into an increasingly illiberal order. Are we now replacing “cacique democracy” with “new elite autocracy”?
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