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Democracy in the time of Aquino

The concept of democratic deepening, with its corollary concepts of institution-building and democratic leadership, may help in assessing what went wrong with Philippine democracy under President Aquino that facilitated the triumph of authoritarian candidate Rodrigo Duterte.

Democratic deepening is the process of making democracy more democratic. If democratic consolidation happens when elections become the only game in town for relevant political players who can end democracy, democratic deepening is when the game is expanded to involve a far broader set of political and civil society actors (for example, more nontraditional political parties can now meaningfully participate in elections).

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It is also when the rules of the game involve not only elections but also, among others, protection of political rights and civil liberties not directly related to elections (for example, increased accountability of government officials, military and police to the public).

Institution-building involves the reform and strengthening of political institutions such as the bureaucracy, legislature, political parties, electoral system, courts and constitutional bodies that make democratic deepening possible.

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Democratic leadership emphasizes the importance of actors. Since political institutions are not strengthened by accident, democratic deepening also relies on the skills, intelligence, charisma and commitment of political leaders in improving the quality of their democracies.

In terms of preventing democratic breakdown, democratic deepening allows democracy to sink deeper roots (via more democratic political culture, inclusive political participation and effective state institutions) to better weather the storms of economic and political crises and of authoritarian challenges that may arise.

That democratic consolidation was reachieved under Mr. Aquino has already been argued. But democratic deepening was not as successful under him. Far from it.

For most of Mr. Aquino’s important institution-building reforms either got stuck in a Malacañang office or, without his leadership, were allowed to get lost in the labyrinthine halls of Congress.

The most dramatic example is the freedom of information bill, the legislation tailor-made for democratic deepening. It would have institutionalized Mr. Aquino’s personal anticorruption drive by legally empowering citizens in exposing government shenanigans through the increased access to information—transparency, accountability, citizens’ participation, empowerment and anticorruption all rolled into one great bill.

But the President simply dribbled it in Malacañang and then passed the ball to Congress where the House dribbled it to death in two Congresses, betraying both his campaign promise and the array of civil society groups that heroically tried to push the bill into law.

Not only did Mr. Aquino’s weak democratic leadership fail to engage in institution-building; some of his actions also resulted in the serious damage of institutions.

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The most disastrous example is his mishandling of the Philippine National Police. From Rico Puno to Alan Purisima, Mr. Aquino bungled the management of the police as he gave priority to friendship over professionalism, which undermined police reform, performance, image, discipline and morale. This culminated in the Mamasapano tragedy where he bypassed his own interior secretary and the PNP chain of command to deal with the Ombudsman-suspended Purisima on an ill-conceived mission that sent 44 Special Action Force troopers to their death and brought the PNP to an internal crisis just a year before the 2016 elections.

This damage is dreadful: The democratization literature emphasizes that police reforms are critical bureaucratic reforms in deepening democracy.

At least two reasons are given. First, protection from crimes is one of the most basic services that citizens expect from their democratic government. Second, the police are the most immediate representatives of the coercive power of the democratic government that ordinary citizens in their everyday life encounter and seek help from, or be abused by. Whether police are seen as inept and corrupt or competent and upright, public perception of them inevitably reflects on the legitimacy of the democratic leadership.

The lack of progress in democratic deepening was not lethal to democracy up to the third quarter of 2015. With democratic consolidation secured, it was business as usual for Mr. Aquino as the top three presidential candidates—Jejomar Binay, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas—sought his endorsement at one time or another.

But when Duterte finally decided to run in the last quarter of 2015, the warning of democratization scholars became urgent: that many democracies with shallow roots survive simply because no credible authoritarian alternative has appeared to challenge them.

For although Duterte was an authoritarian demagogue, he nevertheless had his “exhibit A” that made him credible to millions of voters. That exhibit is his iron-fisted, law and order success story in Davao City. And at the core of this exhibit is displayed what democracy under Mr. Aquino did not achieve: the coveted image of a disciplined police force that enforced the law, protected law-abiding citizens, and hunted down criminals (never mind how this was done and if they only involved blue-collar criminals).

While Duterte’s victory was far from inevitable at that time, it was Mr. Aquino’s failure to deepen the roots of Philippine democracy that made it more vulnerable to the ferocity of the coming authoritarian storm.

Gene Lacza Pilapil is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, democracy, Rodrigo Duterte
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