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COMMENTARY

Why the rise of authoritarianism?

04:04 AM March 17, 2020

“We have a great deal of interest in what happens to your democracy,” a Swedish diplomat once told me when I happened to drop by their Foreign Office in Stockholm. This was just months after our People Power Revolution. “You are quite unique in Asia. The others have no such tradition.”

There was a time when our intelligentsia thought that we were really a democracy. We are not one of those banana republics, it was said. After all, we are the oldest republic and America’s showcase of democracy in Asia. But then, by the mere stroke of a pen, Ferdinand Marcos turned the country into a nation of sheep. We were gathered, as it were, into one large pen, where all we could do was stand and bleat and whimper.

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Pundits very quickly latched on to the propaganda that we really like a strongman; it is in the culture. The lingering loyalty to Marcos and the rapid rise of an iron-fisted Rodrigo Duterte are proofs. But the picture is a bit more complex.

On the one hand, there is some truth to the observation that the people of this country have yet to see themselves as self-governing citizens who can hold their leaders accountable. Even while modern governance mechanisms are in place, they still behave as subjects giving obeisance to whoever shows power and strength, like feudal serfs beholden to a king.

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Our Institute once helped an Aeta community relocate to the town of Zambales in the wake of the Mount Pinatubo eruption. Forced to adapt to lowland culture, the tribal structure of leadership quickly unraveled and collapsed. When asked how they viewed leadership, the answers could be summarized as: The leader is “taga-utos” (one who commands) and the followers are “taga-sunod” (those who obey).

On the other hand, perceptive elements in the community attributed the breakdown of tribal leadership to the introduction of an alien system like elections as a means for choosing leaders. This ran against the old pattern of the tribal elders choosing leaders by consensus. “In elections,” said a native informant, “there are winners and losers. So the losers do not cooperate.”

This community is a microcosm of what happens when the people’s indigenous culture gets eroded by transplanted institutions. Consensus gives way to contestation, which is what we see writ large on the canvas of our national history.

The tribal chiefs evolved into the principalia, whose sense of accountability and responsibility shifted from their people to the Spanish colonizers, and ruled as their proxies. The Americans cemented this shift in loyalty by introducing a copycat political system whose levers of power they controlled. They sent as pensionados to the United States bright young people who were laundered into the “American way of life” and came back trained in liberal and bureaucratic rationalities that had no congruence with the cultural realities on the ground. It is not to be wondered at that our so-called democratic system is dysfunctional and does not really work for the majority of our people.

Note that the resurgence of the cult of the strongman is happening mostly in countries where the institutions are soft and there is great poverty. Newly democratized societies have yet to develop the norms and values that will support the democratic institutions that were put in place. As the Guatemalan sociologist Bernardo Arevalo puts it, “We have the hardware of democracy, but the software of authoritarianism.”

As practiced, the liberal democratic apparatus has not delivered, and so we are seeing the rising discontent of the underclasses and the deep disillusionment of those excluded from the growth seen after the supposed restoration of democracy. Very quickly, the ruling classes hijacked people power and hoarded the economic dividends arising from it. Our impoverished masses moved from hope to survival mode; kumakapit sa patalim out of dire need, a poverty of spirit that is part of the deterioration of our values and the general contamination emitted by the stench of corruption at the center of our governance.

Democracy is not dying in this country, if by this we mean the indigenous respect for collective decision-making by consensus. What is dying is the ineffectual system of checks and balances that quickly collapses when someone brashly captures power and holds hostage all the institutions by the skillful use of fear and patronage.

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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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