Was PH ever a true democracy?

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” observed the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. Perhaps, the same principle of retrospective redemption should guide us out of our profound political crisis.

The asinine trials that have accompanied the shuttering of our leading independent voices do not spell so much the death of democracy, but unmask its likely absence to begin with. After all, much has occurred in recent years that would have been unthinkable in any genuine democracy.


Perhaps it’s time for us to confront the wrenching reality that, at best, democracy has been our collective “aspiration,” rather than a lived experience worth fighting for against all odds.

I know how it feels to linger in an Orwellian system, where you constantly wonder about the safety of your very thoughts lest you carelessly slip through the wrong idea in private emails or informal conversations with the wrong people.


Fortunately, we have a long tradition of hard-fought press freedom, which has had few parallels in the region. I always told myself that even if ours is a poor country, at least we have been spared the ubiquitous horrors of totalitarianism.

Yet, ours has never felt like a genuine democracy. When my former professor Felipe Miranda once asked us to classify the Philippine political system, I couldn’t help but cite Aristotle’s notion of “oligarchy,” namely the unruly rule of a feckless few. To begin with, a sense of common humanity and shared duty among citizens is central to any democratic life. From Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam, countless thinkers have emphasized the centrality of “civic culture” and social capital to the endurance of democracies. Over the past four years, thousands of our countrymen have perished under a scorched-earth anti-drug campaign, which has yet to bag a single real “big fish.” In any democracy, one would have expected million-strong protests in response to such a bloody crackdown.

Perhaps there is the element of fear and the broader “shock and awe” under a fiery populist regime. But even if this were true, one would have expected almost universal criticism in the safety of privacy. After all, even in the most autocratic nations on earth, it’s not hard to find rich expressions of discontent outside state propaganda.

But a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that only 15 percent of Filipinos were categorically committed to liberal democracy. This means more than 8 out of 10 Filipinos have expressed openness to, if not outright advocates of, more authoritarian rule. This unmistakable penchant for strongmen is the upshot of public fatigue with the absence of a genuine democracy, in as much as it reflects the hollowness of liberal civil culture in our body politic.

Our traditional politicians and populists are less Machiavellian geniuses than keen exploiters of this structural reality. Subverting an oligarchy-cum-democracy is far easier than many think, precisely because there are limited institutional checks on any determined despot.

Yes, we do have freedom of expression, but what about freedom “after” expression? It took a decade before the Maguindanao massacre trial reached a semblance of closure. True justice is still elusive for countless Filipinos.

In the global Press Freedom Index, the Philippines ranks “below” absolute monarchies in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, and just above military juntas in Thailand and Myanmar.


And why would ordinary folks have faith in democratic institutions when, in the absence of true mass-based political parties, 178 political dynasties have dominated 73 out of a total of 81 provinces and at least 70 percent of elected legislative positions, far worse than even Argentina (10 percent) and Mexico (40 percent)?

How could we speak of “freedom” and “equality” when the 40 richest families in the country took home 76 percent of newly-created growth earlier this decade? Or “justice” and “accountability” in a country that ranks 113th in the Corruption Perceptions Index?

In “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously spoke of “positive freedoms,” namely socioeconomic justice, and “negative freedoms,” namely freedom of expression and assembly.

Ours is a “democracy” where we have had a semblance of the latter freedoms, much to the delight of the chattering classes, but without much of the former for the majority of our people. It’s time to build a genuine democracy beyond grieving for its fading mirage.

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TAGS: Horizons, Philippine democracy, Richard Heydarian
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