Is this the end of Filipino liberalism?
A specter is haunting the Philippines—the specter of unfettered illiberalism. What the country confronts is not necessarily the dystopia of dictatorship, but instead a 21st-century version of what Fareed Zakaria famously termed as “illiberal democracy.”
To be clear, we will likely have “democracy” (the selection of top political leaders through relatively competitive elections) for decades to come. The whole ritual of electoral contestation has become too integral to the DNA of Filipino political culture.
That’s why even Ferdinand Marcos had to orchestrate a façade of democratic elections at the height of martial law. But as Zakaria warned as early as 1997, “… it appears that many countries are settling into a form of government that mixes a substantial degree of democracy [elections] with a substantial degree of illiberalism.”
What’s at stake, however, is our categorical fidelity to our liberal constitutional principles of human rights and civil liberties as well as institutional checks and balances.
Strip any political system of those elemental values, and what you will likely get is a toxic cocktail of violent demagoguery, imperial presidency and tyranny of the majority.
If there is one person that should be credited with perfecting this new regime, it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under his iron-fist rule, the former seat of the Soviet Empire has assiduously upheld a mirage of democratic elections.
In such regimes, elections are simply the means for empowerment and legitimization of the ruling elite, not a chance for effecting progressive change. Elections are designed to ensure that the opposition has no real chance of winning power in Russia.
Moreover, there are hardly any independent courts, institutional checks and balances don’t exist or never apply to the Kremlin, the constitution is in the eyes of the throne-holder, and civil society and the private media face the most systematic forms of intimidation, if not state-sponsored violence.
Sounds familiar? Well, we are already experiencing a foretaste of this regime, where an elected czar becomes the ultimate arbiter of law and order. After all, our President has called Putin his “favorite hero” for a reason.
The Dutertismo ideology, however, is only a symptom of a more fundamental gap in our democracy—namely, the dearth of widespread internalization of the Enlightenment Values.
As Sen. Leila de Lima recently told me, many Filipinos are yet to appreciate the doctrine of separation of powers.
“People should know that as senators of the republic, it’s our duty to check potential abuse of executive power” and to act as “fiscalizers,” she told me.
To many voters, a president is a de facto king who stands above the fray, and even the Constitution. Never mind that none of our contemporary presidents, including Mr. Duterte (16 million votes out of 108 million Filipinos), got more than a plurality of votes, which came from only a minority of the total Filipino population.
The “original sin” of our now-imperiled democracy is perhaps the unfinished Edsa Revolution. After toppling the Marcos regime, what our leaders failed to do was to inculcate a profound and lasting appreciation of human rights, civil liberties and the doctrine of separation of powers. Moreover, our chronically underfunded judicial and penal institutions were never empowered enough to properly dispense justice on the side of the oppressed majority.
As De Lima, a former justice secretary who is deprived of liberty sans any concrete evidence of misconduct, lamented: “Our governments didn’t prioritize the judiciary enough… But how can you have law and order and trust in democratic institutions without justice?”
Above all, the post-Marcos administrations fell short of addressing perhaps the greatest source of popular grievance: persistent socioeconomic inequality in a country where a narrow oligarchy has gobbled up both the national wealth and elected offices.
This is why the 2016 elections was largely a “protest vote.” Yet, instead of “real [good] change,” we have ended up with tens of thousands of unexplained deaths, corrosive institutional emaciation, and diplomatic crises with our closest allies.
Nelson Mandela had warned: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” As the great South African leader advised, however, the best way to defeat the tyranny of illiberalism is sustained and compassionate engagement with people, even those who disagree with you.
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