Friday, May 18, 2012

The Myth of Philippine Democracy

The Philippines as a nation is soaked in the blood of poor martyrs whose dream of a free country has been rendered almost impossible by a systemic disease. We do not even have a real representative form of government. The requisites of a democratic society – free and fair elections, civil liberties and respect for human and economic rights, are not enjoyed by the poor who constitute the majority in Philippine society. Three hundred years of domination has put the country into the brink of near death, unable to find its identity, its future destroyed by the remnants of the past.

The issue of colonial mentality is also one that we cannot set aside, for as Fr. Vitaliano Gorospe writes in The Filipino Search for Meaning (1974), "the democratic form of government we inherited from America was something alien and imposed from the outside and did not grow out of our own Filipino historical experience."(p.425) This has made Philippine politics the Golgotha of the disabled and the disadvantaged. What we have is a tyranny of leaders coming from the ruling class, the all too familiar names from landed families who have made governance a profitable business. This is the very reason why majority of Filipinos have remained poor and miserable.

The root cause of Philippine poverty is its dysfunctional democracy. Many of our "democratic" institutions have failed to deliver basic services to ordinary people. Filipinos need to understand that democracy is not only intrinsically important, but that it is also instrumentally vital (Sen 1999; Sachs 2005), e.g. people empowerment and the protection of basic rights, so that people can have access to opportunities that promote their well-being.

But what caused this country to become a case of a wasted democracy? First, I am tempted to make a clinical analysis based on social conflict theory, or the eternal struggle and the great divide between master and slave. But upon closer examination, the fall of the Berlin Wall has killed communism. Thus, I am more inclined to look into our political culture and find out if somewhere along the way, something happened in our story as a nation that has forever doomed our destiny as a people. Bishop Desmund Tutu remains instructive: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

The theorist Vilfredo Pareto (1902) was convinced of the fact that social inequality is a result of man as a biological phenomenon. He argues that “all humans are different, not only in their behavior and personalities, but also in their interests, abilities, aptitude and capacities”. Human nature plays a role in the conduct of political struggles and the evolution of societies. In view of this, people are governed on the basis of physical force or religion, or the only other alternative, by way of intelligence and cunning. This is something that we have seen in the manner by which the friars subjugated the natives, and in today’s political realm, the way dynasties control political power in the provinces. Those who control the political structure also control the economic system, e.g., monopolies, rent-seeking, cartels, etc., all to the detriment of the poor sector of society. Politicians owe a thing or two from their patrons, so public policy is defined by private interest and self-serving motives.

Gaetano Mosca, in his book The Ruling Class (1896), explained how and why an individual or a class of individuals, “might succeed or fail in achieving supreme power in society, and in thwarting the efforts of other individuals or groups to supplant them”. Mosca argues that people engage in a competitive struggle, a struggle where there are sure winners and inevitable losers in the eternal desire to attain power and wealth. This sociological paradigm of power maintains that the victors are crowned to become the ruling class because they prove to be stronger, be it by wisdom or by sheer intimidation. The wisdom of old, “that war is old men talking and young men dying”, means that one must climb the ladder to greatness in order to enjoy the vanities of life. Simply put, those who have the power will continue to enslave the poor, making the ruling class the sole beneficiary of the country's wealth and resources. Big corporations control not only our natural resources, but also our human resources. Big corporate names employ our intelligent graduates, but the working class are mere instruments for the wealthy to amass huge piles of cash enough for them to land in the Forbes' list of the wealthiest.

The sociologist Robert Michels emphasized the importance of the psychology of political organizations. In Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchic tendencies of modern democracy (1925), Michels notes that “the fact that humans seek to acquire political power and, once successful, maintain their position in order to pass it on to the next generation is a central factor in the historical tendencies of human societies to generate aristocracies,” which means, ultimately, that “oligarchy depends upon what we may term as the psychology of the organization itself, that is to say, upon the tactical and technical necessities which result from the consolidation of every disciplined political aggregate”. This explains why the country, until today, is still the sick man of Asia. The ladder of success is only available to rich children, and so the majority, if not all, poor children do not stand a chance to improve their status in life. Graduates from expensive elite schools naturally enter the corporate world while those who finish in less stellar programs and colleges do the eternal recurrence of being no more than a part of the working class, and simply earning the minimum wage.

Subjugation and the rule of the elite

The story of domination in Philippine history can serve as our vantage point in understanding the origin of the system of patronage politics in the country. Before the Spaniards came, a prevailing class division existed in Philippine society. The chieftain or datu acted as the head of the village, the maharlika was the nobility, the timawa is the free man, and the alipin or slave was at the lower end. But unlike the sovereign and his subjects in Europe, the datu, does not act like a monarch. He is, firstly, a moral leader (See Ocay 2010).

Prior to the Spanish period, no central government existed. This became a problem for Spain as the Philippines is an archipelago. Power must be centralized to optimize its potent force to subjugate. To gather and concentrate power in one central authority, pueblos which consisted of different barangays were organized in which a friar acted both as a religious leader and as civil administrator. The design of the town plaza is even crucial to this type of administration. The church is near the town hall, signifying the authority of the friars over the affairs of the people. In order to secure the control of the natives by the friars, chieftains were appointed as cabezas de barangay, who are in turn under a gobernadorcillo. To ensure the loyalty of native leaders to the Spanish authority, they were allowed to take “kickbacks” from the tributes collected from the people.

The Spanish authorities, in cooperation with the Spanish friars and the native leaders, organized pueblos into haciendas. This explains the who’s who in Philippine society. The landed few since then continued to dominate the economic and political life of the country. And not much changed when the Americans came. The Americans collaborated with the ruling class in order to protect the former’s colonial interests. The teaching and use of English, for instance, benefitted the Americans more than the Filipino as this ensured the transfer and influence of Western culture and ideas. When the Americans gave us our independence, they left us with a presidential form of government, a system which simply promoted the interest of provincial political elites and the oligarchs from Manila. Provincial elites are expected to deliver votes to national candidates. The oligarchs financed the campaign. The elected leader, thus, owes to them his position. Paul Hutchcroft and Joel Rocamora write:

"The logic of Philippine politics became driven to a very considerable extent by the politics of patronage: dividing the spoils among the elite and expanding the quantity of spoils available to the elite as a whole. Local elite patrons used a variety of means – kinship, personal ties, and the offering of jobs, services and other favors – to build a clientele composed of those from the lower social classes which constituted a large vote bank." (Hutchcroft & Rocamora, 2003)

The evil of crony capitalism

After being ranked second economically to Japan during the 1950s, Ferdinand Marcos ushered a new era in the ultimate abuse of power to bring the country's economy to a poisonous disrepair. Marcos' twenty years in power put the country into the brink of death - massive external debts, human rights abuses, economic stagnation, insurgency, and other innumerable human calamities. It can be argued that Marcos was the ultimate manifestation of the desire for absolute power. Intelligent and eloquent, he mesmerized Filipinos into thinking that he is the man who will make the country great again. But such was a mere product of propaganda and the cunning use of the state political machinery. Martial law became the climax of a brutal abuse of political power. Marcos demanded loyalty, and loyalty was duly rewarded, albeit at the expense of the human rights of people whose very lives have been sacrificed.

The aim of Marcos in imposing martial law was to take control of the economy. He wanted to put an end to the rule of the traditional elite families who run the economy through their conglomerates. According to Jose Abueva, “Marcos observed that the oligarchic elite manipulate the political authority and intimidate leaders, while the masses, because of their poverty, dependency and lack of organization, perpetuate a populist, personalist and individualistic kind of politics” (Abueva 1979). While Marcos sought to “institute reforms in a political, economic and social system marked by an increasing concentration of power, wealth, and opportunities caused by and resulting in the rule of the oligarchy,” (Ibid.), his intention was really to steal from the traditional elite in order to transfer ownership to himself by means of his cronies.

Crony capitalism wasted whatever economic gains the country did attain in the years prior to the rise to power of Marcos. The new cronies simply replaced the traditional oligarchs of the past. Friends and family members controlled the economy, effectively ending competition and free market forces. His autocratic rule killed whatever democratic gain there is to speak of by suppressing any opposition and freedom of the press. Civil society was rendered inoperative when Marcos used the military to silence any dissent. Marcos made Philippine political parties “incoherent and unstable”, with the lack of accountability even to this day as its primary deficit. (Carlos and Lalata 2010)

After Marcos, People Power offered a ray of hope for the country when Corazon Aquino was installed into power in 1986. However, the fact of the matter is that the moment, while borne out of the resistance of the people against the authoritarian regime of Marcos, became the mere restoration of the old order. Hutchcroft and Rocamora argue:

"Aquino saw her primary duty as restoring the structures of pre-Martial Law democracy. Despite the major changes, the political system that Aquino reconstructed with the 1987 constitution restored many political institutions that can be traced to the 1935 constitution most importantly a presidential form of government that went back to the political system built by the American colonial authorities and Filipino leaders." (Hutchcroft and Rocamora, 2003)

The legacy of our colonial past

We can count with our fingers the biggest and most powerful and ergo, the most influential in Philippine society. Political patronage in this regard is not a phenomenon brought forth by human destiny. Patronage has become the very instrument to ensure that those who are in power, both in business and in politics, perpetuate themselves. While our foreign conquerors have left us a long time ago, those to whom they entrusted the government of this nation continued to take advantage of their privileged position while keeping the poor in their miserable condition, forever without a voice nor the strength to assert themselves. Majority of the poor look up to their elected officials with high esteem and are unmindful of the fact that they are simply token pawns in the whole concept of political bargaining. Think, for instance, of public roads built because they lead to the rest house of a public official or worst, highways paved in order to increase the value of land owned by politicians or their benefactors. Even local folks celebrate the implementation of these projects, seeing such as a gift from the elected official to promote their well-being.

Political patrons coerce the poor voters to put into office their protégés. Coercion here may not be necessarily by force or violence, but through subtle goods which deprive voters of an intelligent choice. In turn, political patrons influence those who are elected to return the favor. They enlarge their power to influence policies by putting into positions the politician who will protect his business interest. This means that elections become a mere zarzuela for mutual benefit. The electorate, on the other hand, becomes an expendable collateral damage, and is never a real participant in the political exercise. The presidency is conscious of its duty to fulfill its commitment to the people. However, the office is compromised by the fact that it has to enforce state policies against benefactors who finance one’s ascent to power.

Political patronage indicates the weakness of Philippine political institutions. As early as 1970, Fr. John Carroll has written in the book Philippine Institutions, that “Filipinos desire for a higher standard of living”, and the failure of Philippine institutions is due to “unmet expectations”. (Carroll 1970) Philippine political parties lack perspective and ideology. Our political institutions, while paraded as republican and autonomous, are not grounded in the principles of justice and fairness. Justice demands that we give due favor or a preference for the disabled and disadvantaged while allowing others to pursue their goals on the basis of merit or desert. Fairness, on the other hand, requires that people possess the opportunity to serve or get elected. This means that the apparatus of power is open to all. The very basis of any democracy is the freedom of choice, which is at the very core of one’s political existence – the consent of the people to be governed.


The reason why we are a basket case for democracy is that Philippine politics is about "the abuse of individual liberty and a rugged individualism that has sacrificed the common good for individual and private interest." (p.426) The problem of poverty, while inherently social, is to a very large extent political. Since politics is about the use of power, then the way power makes itself manifest in the economic and social dimensions must be studied. From a democratic point of view, power must be for the benefit of the disadvantaged. But since we do not have a real democracy, power, it can be said, is misused and abused to benefit a chosen few. This is not, under God's name, what we intended society to be. Indeed, political reform begins with our basic institutions. This means that people must feel that they have a stake if we are to grow as a nation. Fr. Gorospe notes that "the key to social reform is the organization of the masses." (p.438)