The Manila Times - Is the Philippines a functioning democracy?

News & Interviews
20 October 2020

By DR. DANTE A. ANG | The Manila Times

THE recent revelation that Supreme Court Justice Mario Victor Leonen, a member of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), prejudged the election protest of former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. against Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo is yet another example why I think the Philippines, to be generous, is not a well-functioning democracy. If truth be told, it is undemocratic.

Democracy is defined as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

Abraham Lincoln’s immortalized quote best describe it: “Democracy is government of, by, and for the people.”

If the Philippines is not a democracy, what form of government then do we have?

Democracy is only but one of the five forms of government, according to the Greek philosopher Plato. The other four are: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy and Tyranny.

In his book, The Republic, Plato distinguishes one form of government from the other: “Aristocracy is rule by the best.” By the “best” he was referring to the scholars or philosophers of his time; “Timocracy” is honor and victory where victorious generals rule the land and are worshipped as gods by the people; “Oligarchy” is rule of the rich and the poor have no share in running the affairs of government. It is values- and wealth-based.

Tyranny as we know it refers to strongman rule or rule of the fist or bullets, where dissent is absent, government is militarized, and the people are terrorized. Tyranny is synonymous with martial law. But there could be tyranny without martial law or martial law without tyranny. Some would argue that martial law without tyranny is incongruous. I disagree.

Surely, there are countless examples of countries that are undemocratic but far from being tyrannical as we understand it. In this instance, governments have put a lid on the so-called freedom of the press or of expression, yet their countries have lifted their people out of extreme poverty and progressed beyond imagination. I guess this can be the subject of another essay at another time.

It is not easy for me to categorize the Philippines as undemocratic; it comes close to what Plato described as an “Oligarchy” or “rule by the rich.”

Let me explain briefly.

The elections

They are supposed to be free, honest, and fair. But are our elections, past and present, all of the above? Elections are expressions of free will, of people choosing their leaders in an environment of free, honest and fair process. But when they are coerced, their votes bought, or terrorized (as in many areas, especially in Mindanao) or cheated of their choices (as in the case of Smartmatic, among other pernicious acts) can we honestly say that the results of the elections mirror that of our people’s choices?

Even President Rodrigo Roa Duterte was reportedly cheated out of a few million votes and were it not for his overwhelming lead over his next rival, he would have “lost” in the 2016 elections.

Duterte was an exception. He ran and won with no particular party affiliation, no national leaders of consequence supporting him, and no personal money to throw around. He shunned “bigtime donors.” He was voted into office on the crest of massive support from the masa.

A highly competent but poor candidate has zero chance of winning an election for a local or national position. To run for the Senate, for example, at today’s money, would require no less than P700 million at a minimum. I know of a candidate who reportedly spent some P1 billion in the 2010 elections and still failed miserably.

The Party-list

To address this anomaly, the framers of our 1986 Constitution had come up with the Party-List program so that the poor can be represented in government and their voices heard. An excellent idea whose time has come; but no, our Honorable Congressmen bastardized it beyond recognition so that its noble purpose was undermined by these so-called Honorables. We are back to square one, and worse. Under the Party-List system, and which was affirmed by our Supreme Court (shame), the rich and the powerful can run under the guise of representing a marginalized sector, which we all know is BS.

Political dynasty

Another bastardized provision in our Constitution is the prohibition against Political Dynasties. Again, our Honorable Congressmen and Senators and local government officials honor the Constitution more in the breach than in observance. Positions of power are handed down from father to children, or from brother to brother, or from spouse to spouse, and what have you.

These politicians hide behind the notion (yes, only an idea because the so-called voice of the people is merely illusory) that the voice of the people is supreme. Let the people decide, so goes their favorite, nauseating mantra. The result is obvious: only the rich and the powerful can run for public office; the marginalized have no chance at all; never had. Bottomline: To hell with the Constitution.

Elections are won and lost with cash, lots of it. When voters and teachers who man the polling places are bought and coerced, and when our Comelec officials are themselves doing the planning and rigging of the electoral process and cheat unsuspecting candidates in favor of the other party, can we honestly call the results of the elections the “expressions of our people’s free will?”

Election is a process by which people choose their leaders in what is termed “representative democracy,” where our chosen leaders represent the will of the people. Absent free will, there is no election; and if there is no election, there is no democracy.

Justice delayed; justice denied

Justice is another key characteristic of democracy. Leonen’s behavior is hardly consistent with the spirit and intent of the law. It is deplorable, if unlawful. How can Leonen claim he is rendering justice when he has already prejudged the Marcos vs. Robredo case even before it could be heard in earnest by the members of the PET?

In the instance of Marcos vs. Robredo, the case has been languishing with the PET for years on end. It has been sleeping the sleep of the dead for some four years now, and to think that the 2022 election is just around the corner. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the old adage goes.

Justice delayed is not fair to both the petitioner and defendant but maybe more particularly unfair to Robredo herself. Until and unless she is declared the ultimate winner for the vice presidential race, some critics might view her as a presumptive vice president. It may be unfair but it is not a remote possibility.

If I were Robredo, I would pull all stops to hasten the deliberation and the decision of the PET. If she is finally declared the ultimate winner, the nation will celebrate with her. But, if the PET junks her and validates Marcos’ claim, then she should embrace the verdict and effect a smooth transition of power and move on. The same goes for Marcos. He should bow to the wisdom of the law should the PET frustrate his appeal.

Justice is equitable and should be rendered blindly for or against friends or enemies. Otherwise there is no justice; and if there is no justice, there is no democracy.

Leonen? Well, he is nowhere near being a friend of democracy which brings me back to my musing: “Are we ready for democracy?” You tell me.