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Philippine ‘democracy’

Benjamin R. Punongbayan Benjamin R. Punongbayan
Philippine ‘democracy’

By Benjamin R. Punongbayan

DEMOCRACY can be defined in a variety of ways, from definitions with varying complexities to a rather simple one. Let us pick a basic and simple definition: a form of political association among the people of a state within a defined geographical area where sovereignty resides in the people who express such sovereignty by voting to select the leaders of the government of the state.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his book, Republic, considers a democracy an inferior form of government and holds the view of its likely deterioration into despotism.

Later philosophers have expressed their thoughts about the structures of government. Of particular note are those of Polybius (Roman era) regarding checks and balances, and Montesquieu (18th century) about separation of powers (both referenced from The Great Political Theories [Vol. 1], edited by Michael Curtis).

The most popular country that adopted democracy as a form of government right from its founding is the United States, with its systems of separation of powers (executives, legislative, and judicial) and of checks and balances.

Then the Philippines became a US colony during the term of President William McKinley. Succeeding US political leaders, urged on by Filipino nationalists, prepared the Philippines to a path towards independence. In doing so, the influence of the US was very strong in developing the government structure of the nascent independent Philippines. The resulting Philippine government structure, as promulgated in the 1935 Constitution and retained in the existing Constitution, is substantially a mirror image of the US federal government structure. However, I thought a big mistake was made when the members of the Philippine Senate were made to be elected at large in the whole country. This is very different from the US (Federal) Senate, to where each US state sends two senatorrepresentatives who are elected statewide by each state. It was an unfortunate oversight. It was not a case of differentiating a federal senate from a national senate. The underlying principle is whether the members of a country’s senate (the second legislative chamber) are to be elected geographically (by province or by region, in the case of the Philippines) as it is in the US Senate (two senators from each state).

Interestingly, in my review of the present structures of the state senate (different and separate from the US or Federal Senate) of large US states (California, New York, Texas, and Florida), I find that the state senators in these states are elected by district (one for each district) and not statewide. There are indications that these structures had developed later than the time when the Philippine 1935 Constitution was promulgated. What I want to emphasize is that, even in a US state government itself, the senators in the state senate are presently elected geographically and not statewide.

More interestingly, I find that California imposes term limits for their state legislators. It has the novel practice of requiring a term limit of 12 years for a legislator, the period of which is counted in any combination of four-year state senate and two-year state assembly terms.It appears that this term limit is counted cumulatively and not necessarily consecutively.Therefore, when a state legislator completes a term of 12 years, they cannot run for either the state house or state senate anymore. We should adopt a similar requirement to prevent our own legislators to hop from the Senate to the House or vice-versa and turn around again, ad infinitum.

To this day, the members of the Philippine Senate continue to be elected nationwide. As a result, the provinces have a weaker voice in the Philippine Congress, because the perspectives of Philippine senators are not about specific provincial concerns, unlike their US counterparts whose perspectives are about the concerns of their respective states. Each Philippine senator takes the role of a national spokesperson and postures themselves as the probable next President. No wonder that the national government has been given the sobriquet “Imperial Manila,” in spite of the presence of the people’s provincial representatives in the House.

That said, there is a much bigger concern, though. It is clear to me that Philippine “democracy” has turned into a government of oligarchs, a condition that may turn into despotism as anticipated by Plato. It happened before, during the time of Marcos.

The reason is clear. Voting, the people’s expression of their sovereignty, is not being exercised properly. And our leaders do not seem to care; they probably like it that way. There are two main causes of this existing condition: a voter’s lack of adequate information about relevant issues and problems to enable them to make an informed judgement about who to elect; and vote buying. These two factors actually overlap.

A voter’s lack of adequate information is a consequence of widespread poverty and applies to most voters. As a result of poverty, a large majority of the present adult population did not finish high school and many of them did not even go farther than elementary school. Because of this handicap, they tend not to have interest in acquiring a good understanding of important current problems and issues, not to mention the already existing political, social, and economic conditions. They generally do not read newspapers, which are mainly published in English. The television shows they watch are slapstick programs during the daytime and movies throughout the day. Since they provide the biggest audience for television, television broadcasters match their programs to their tastes and, therefore, continue to produce similar shows over and over. This audience, seldom, if not at all, tune up to programs that deal with political, social, and economic news, views and issues which are expressed in English. In any case, such programs are now rare on mainline TV and are mostly found on cable TV, to which most of the poor do not have connection.

The other cause relating to most voters’ lack of adequate information is the unfortunate existing lack of use of a common language. The government, both national and local, deliberate in English and issue their communications in English. On the other hand, most of the population do not have the appropriate level of understanding of English, because of inadequate education or, simply, they do not use the English language at all. As a result, they are unable to appreciate the deliberations in government; communications issued by government; and news, views, and reports in print media and English TV programs. Had we developed a common language for common use, whether such language be Filipino, English, or Spanish, Filipinos, even the poor ones, may have a better understanding of current events and issues.

Countries in Southeast Asia that were similarly colonized as the Philippines had conclusively dealt with such an important issue. Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, right at the time of its independence, chose a native language, Bahasa Indonesia. Similarly, the former French colonies, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos use a native language. Among the British colonies, multi-ethnic Singapore, whose population is predominantly Chinese, chose English. Multi-ethnic Malaysia, predominantly Malay, had decided on Bahasa Malaysia, which is similar to Bahasa Indonesia, many years ago. In Myanmar, the official language is Burmese, a native language.

The lack of adequate information among voters leads to their inability to make well-evaluated personal choices. Instead, they go for name recall, which created the development towards movie and TV personalities getting into electoral contests. Moreover,these voters are also easily influenced and swayed by strong local leaders to support these leaders’ choices, enhanced by vote buying.

Vote buying, the other cause of improper expression of people’s sovereignty, is now common, particularly in elections for local government officials and House representatives. There are standard prices for vote buying in each province or region, depending upon the position being contested. The government is not doing anything about it.

So, under these circumstances, what are the possible solutions? The short-term solutions are obvious, but could not be promulgated and, if already promulgated, could not be implemented, because the decision makers, members of the present oligarchy, will not relinquish their hold on power and so lose their superior political advantages. The framers of the present Constitution did recognize the problem and included provisions in the Constitution that may provide solutions. They provided for the adoption of an anti-dynasty legislation but, which, sadly, has been totally ignored by legislators. They also provided for mandatory term limits, but this requirement cannot stand alone. It has to be paired with an anti-dynasty law to work effectively. Note that these remedies do not even directly deal with the problem. These are indirect measures that merely reduce the size of the problem, because the direct solution of improving the education of the voting mass will take much time, especially under present political circumstances.

The adoption of a language for common use is highly desirable. But it needs a strong leader who recognizes the underlying issue to get the solution, which is necessarily long-term, done.

Vote buying is right in front of our eyes for some time now. But those who can deal with it, don’t.

So, under these circumstances, the only alternative is to wait for the Filipino voters to get better educated and, thus, acquire the discernment to exercise properly their sovereignty by making an informed judgement when making choices in electoral contests. That, of course, will be a very long wait.

We are not a democracy today. We are under an oligarchical rule, with its consequent unchecked abuse of power and promotion of self-interest and the inevitable effects of limiting the sustainability of political and economic growth and development.

We, the sovereign Filipino people, now find ourselves inside a straitjacket. We will stay that way for generations, if we continue to be indifferent. Must we?


Benjamin R. Punongbayan is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo, one of the Philippines’ leading auditing firms.