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No Free Lunch

A fake democracy?

Are we truly a democratic country? The Democracy Index compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit classifies the Philippines as a “flawed democracy,” defined as states scoring between 6 and 8 on a scale of 0 to 10. The index combines five categories of democratic attributes: (1) electoral process and pluralism, (2) functioning of government, (3) political participation, (4) political culture, and (5) civil liberties. We scored highest (9.17) in the first attribute (although I question this below) and lowest in the fourth (4.38). We also scored low (5.36) in functioning of government.

Numerical scores aside, and knowing that any index based on perception surveys can be subject to question from either side, it is perhaps more interesting to examine more qualitative indicators of how well we hew to the form of government we claim to have. I do not claim to be a political expert myself, but we can look at what the political scientists have to say on what it takes to be a democracy, and see how we measure up.

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Political scientist Larry Diamond identifies four key elements in democracy: (1) a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (2) the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (3) protection of the human rights of all citizens; and (4) a rule of law, wherein the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. What we have in place is a representative democracy, where our elected representatives deliberate and decide on the laws that would govern us, as against a direct democracy, where the people directly deliberate and vote for or against specific proposals or laws. The latter is extremely rare in practice, and Switzerland is most cited as the closest example of a direct democracy at the levels of the municipalities, cantons (the equivalent of states), and the federal state.

In a representative democracy such as ours, the theory is that our elected congressmen and senators embody the will of the people, premised on these elected representatives having won public office through free and fair elections, under element (1). But this is open to question in the Philippine context, especially on the latter adjective. In a country often characterized as lacking in political maturity and a well-informed electorate, and where political patronage and dynasticism are rampant, “fair” is not among the first adjectives that come to mind to describe our elections and their outcomes.

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Not surprisingly, we find our lawmakers seemingly ignoring, or conveniently forgetting, that it is their solemn duty to act and vote according to the prevailing sentiments of those they represent, and not merely on personal choice. And that choice can be driven by anything from financial gain, or perpetuating themselves in power (e.g., by currying favor with Malacañang or with campaign financiers), to personal relationships, or even vendetta. Freshest in our memories is the overwhelming vote to block renewal of the ABS-CBN broadcast franchise, while surveys by respected poller SWS showed that 3 out of 4 Filipinos favored renewal, with Mindanao showing even greater support with 80 percent. But none of that seemed to have figured in shaping the perverse voting outcomes in Congress. Could it have mattered if the survey results became public before the fateful vote (they came out a day after)?

This should remind us citizens that our democratic duties do not end with casting our ballots every three years, and simply assume that our elected officials will act according to our preferences. By our historical experience, chances are they will not. We thus have a similar duty to keep in touch with our elected representatives to make known to them our sentiments on issues of national importance, especially when legislation to address them is involved. Writing and petitioning one’s congressman to make one’s sentiments known is common and considered part of good citizenship in other democratic set-ups similar to ours; we should actively do the same.

Otherwise, we end up with a democracy only in form, but not in essence — maybe not fake, but a flawed democracy indeed.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, democracy, flawed democracy, No Free Lunch, representative democracy, unresponsive lawmakers
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