Elections in the Philippines: Illusion of democracy?

May. 17, 2007

By Sonny Africa
IBON Research Head

MANILA — No one disputes that the Philippines is mired in economic and political crises. There is endemic poverty that despite government hype everyone knows is nowhere near being overcome. Around 65 million Filipinos struggle to live on P96 or less a day, according to the latest 2003 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) of the National Statistics Office (NSO). The net worth of just the ten richest Filipinos is equivalent to the combined annual income of the poorest 49 million Filipinos. The situation can only get worse with corporate profits rising even as joblessness is at a sustained historic high.

At the same time is public dismay over a political landscape strewn with issues: illegitimacy, continuing bureaucratic corruption, patronage and self-serving politicians. Worst of all are the unabated political killings and disappearances of over a thousand Filipinos daring to struggle for a more humane future and an end to the countrys chronic crises. This is just in the last six years.

There are perhaps those who believe that the May 2007 mid-term elections offer a path to resolve the countrys ills. They are unlikely to be very many. Probably much more common is a well-founded sense of despair that the elections are a momentary spectacle that in the end wont mean any real change in governance much less in the country.

The most attention is given to the widespread electoral fraud and violence which are barefaced subversions of the democratic process. These are things already familiar to most Filipinos whether of the fading generation with a recollection of the so-called two-party system pre-Martial Law, of those born during the Marcos dictatorship, or of the generation who believed that they were favored for growing up amid a flawed but at least restored democracy under Aquino.

Unfortunately the despair actually has much deeper roots that strike down to the essential character of democracy in the Philippines: it is in many essential respects a false democracy that cannot but result in perpetual social crisis. The fraud and violence during elections are just some of the symptoms of the deep-seated social problem of elite domination of Philippine political life. Even including the appalling phenomenon of political dynasties, of trapo patronage and of brazen opportunist turncoatism still only gives part of the picture.

The problem with the countrys politics is that it remains fundamentally elite-dominated and so overwhelmingly about governance for and by elites. This is a problem that dates from the birth of the Philippine Republic at the turn of the century, continued through the American colonial period, and has alarmingly persisted under post-war neocolonialism until today. On the face of it the last hundred years appears to have seen democracy unevenly but surely taking root with, despite the Martial Law interregnum, inexorable forward progress. However the Philippines regrettably has yet to make the truly qualitative democratic breakthrough.

This is not to deny the many partial gains that have taken place for there is certainly an accumulation of positive steps. It is rather to underscore that, despite all these and the opportunities they open up, the essentially undemocratic character of the countrys politics remains. Philippine politics is changing, but it has yet to really change. Forces for democracy and more broad-based citizens participation in governance that genuinely serves their interests are increasing, but they have yet to overcome elite power.

Great resistance

Fortunately the undemocratic character of Philippine politics is being challenged. In ever-increasing numbers, Filipinos have defied the false freedom of choice offered by elite-dominated elections. Indeed the increasing violence with which this challenge is put down is back-handed testament to their ever-mounting successes. These all build up towards the much-desired qualitative change in Philippine politics.

At the core of this challenge is the understanding that Filipinos are kept in grinding poverty by elite domination of economic and political life. At the national level this is a set-up that big foreign powers such as the US favor. Lasting Philippine economic backwardness guarantees them a source of cheap labor and natural resources, as well as an outlet for recycling their surplus capital. It also guarantees that the country is weak enough to be subordinated to larger imperialist geopolitical and strategic objectives in the East Asian region.

However this unjust situation is also what has given rise to the greatest hope of overturning it. Social movements have formed and gather strength with the aim of replacing elite domination with a more democratic system that gives primacy to the interest of the majority of Filipinos.

The rise of social movements is important in the countrys attempt to establish a democracy. Their most vital contribution is the painstaking attention to building political consciousness at the grassroots. This is a political awareness that pays rigorous attention to addressing the roots of the countrys stifled modernity. Accompanying this understanding is moreover a commitment to organizing and direct participation in concrete struggles to build a democracy.

Ruling elites have worked to keep these in check and tried to put down their threats to the established order. On one hand they have not been able to prevent important victories such as the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and the ouster of the corrupt Estrada presidency in 2001. At the same time they are especially careful to preserve their parliamentary bastions of elite power.

In 1946, six congressional representatives of the Democratic Alliance (DA) known to be opposed to unequal treaties with the US were prevented from taking their seats following trumped-up charges of electoral fraud and terrorism in Central Luzon. Especially working with allies in the Nacionalista Party (NP), they would have been enough to deny the three-fourths majority needed to ratify treaties in Congress.

In 1987, the Left-leaning Partido ng Bayan (PnB) which fielded candidates at the senatorial down to the local level came under violent attack by state forces. Six congressional candidates were assassinated, six other provincial coordinators killed, and hundreds more party leaders and members attacked and harassed. PnB offices were bombed and rallies disrupted or broken up.

The year 2001 saw the breakthrough of Left politics in Congress with the progressive political party Bayan Muna (BM) taking the maximum three party-list seats available to it in the House of Representatives. Strengthening and expansion continued in 2004– with six seats going to BM, Anakpawis (AP) and Gabriela Womens Party (GWP). Political elites have however responded with a systematic and increasingly violent crackdown not just on these parties which have decisively won seats in Congress but also on the larger social and mass movement that they represent and draw their strength from.

Crisis and authoritarianism

The last six years have been brutal particularly for progressive and democratic forces. Most dramatic are the outright attacks on the mass movement and progressive political parties, including political killings, enforced disappearances, and assassination attempts. The attacks are wide-ranging and include black propaganda and vilification campaigns, illegal arrests, interrogations and torture. There are also pseudo-legal attacks on national leaders involving trumped-up rebellion and murder charges.

The suppression of dissent has at times taken on a legal fa?ade falling just short of outright Martial Law. There was the calibrated pre-emptive response declared in September 2005 against protestors aside from a more assertive implementation of the Marcos era no permit-no rally. Executive Order (EO) 464, also declared in September 2005, prevented officials from appearing before investigations of high-level government electoral cheating and corruption. Presidential Proclamation 1017s legally ambiguous state of national emergency was declared and sent the political signal that the Arroyo regime would not hesitate to mobilize its full powers against any and all opposition.

It is also worth mentioning how the deepening economic crisis and the shrinking of economic spoils from power also appear to have had another effect. The faction of the elite not in power– the mainstream political opposition– has also to some extent been subjected to political repression albeit to a much less degree than the democratic mass movement.

The post-election scenario augurs even more dangerous times for democracy. The National ID System has already begun to be implemented even if only on a limited scale so far. The National Security Plans (NISP) Oplan Bantay Laya II has already been drawn up with targets going beyond alleged terrorists to also include revolutionary armed groups and civilian Leftist organizations. All this coincides with global US military aggression waging a self-declared war on terror that, among others, aims to secure the Philippines as a key strategic location in East and Southeast Asia. There have already been massive increases in US military aid and intervention under the Arroyo regime aimed at eliminating not just armed liberation movements but also nationalist opposition to the US military presence.

The political situation is most obviously about Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo fighting for sheer political survival. She is beleaguered by issues of illegitimacy following the fraudulent 2004 presidential elections, by the persistence of high-level and grand-scale corruption, and by the economic problems caused by retrogressive free market policies. There is widespread public dissatisfaction which already resulted in two impeachment moves and a vigorous ouster campaign.

The current administrations survival is now critically dependent on securing greater political control through the mid-term elections. Particularly important is control over the House of Representatives to forestall another impeachment move. Its comprehensive campaign to survive includes another episode of massive electoral fraud, using public funds for electioneering, brazen patronage politics, harassment of local opposition politicians and even subverting of the party-list system. The political killings and attacks in turn are aimed at maiming, if not decimating, among the most organized and effective forces demanding real change. The regime also seeks support from the US by promising charter change to further open up the economy and to allow the wholesale return of US troops.

However the political situation can also be seen at another level: as an elite-dominated system striving to preserve itself amid deepening economic and political crisis. The Filipino people have been engaged in a centuries-long struggle that is creating the real foundations for democracy. Against them are elites threatened by the rumble underfoot who are reacting viciously to preserve their rule. The hundreds of thousands of volunteers mobilizing across the country to watch the polls are engaged in a noble effort. However the fundamental social change sought will only come when millions of Filipinos are able to genuinely claim political power and put in place a true democracy. IBON Features

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