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Siling Labuyo: Democracy is Alive!

“Democracy is alive!” was former Sen. Mar Roxas’ reaction to the “Marcos pa rin!” chants of Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos’ supporters who were gathered at the COMELEC. Shedding the yellow with a light blue shirt, Roxas ended his political semi-retirement with the filing of Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) for senator. Roxas retort, albeit from the spur of the moment, captures the essence of elections today in a free society.

What makes democracy alive, however, goes beyond the live circus associated with the filing of the CoC by aspiring candidates, or the elections themselves. Philippine concept of democracy is often confused by the citizenry because many of the things going on in the country are undemocratic. If undemocratic practices are allowed to exist, does that make it the new normal for democracy particularly if the end justifies the means?

While elections have a way of entertaining the Filipino voters, the rampant vote-buying and cheating in every election cycle make a mockery of expressing the people’s will with the fraudulent results. Traditional politicians have mastered this art and has allowed their dynastic families to remain in power and to maintain a political sphere under their control. If the outcome of an election is the result of a fraudulent election, is democracy still alive in the society?

While Filipinos take pride of having a democratic state, the form of government chosen has failed the Filipino people with the perversion of the society, the courts and the legislative processes. French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville argued that democracy is not just a fixed set of governing institutions but rather, it is a way of life. He went further, that for democracy to survive, it is imperative for people to recognize its fragility and to defend it.

Tocqueville’s wisdom is apropos to the Philippine situation. Filipinos tend to focus on the “functioning” structural pillars (executive, legislative, judiciary and media) of democracy, but seem indifferent to the ill products of such democratic structures. The sacking of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and subsequent installation of her archenemy, Justice Teresita De Castro to her vacated post highlights presidential emasculation of the highest court of the land through a prohibited Quo Warranto pleading by the Solicitor General. Prior to that, an impeachment vote courtesy of the Speaker was pending at the lower house.

Biased media was an important factor in demonizing the former chief justice. But the Sereno case is just one case but is symptomatic of the intemperate administration of justice in the Philippines that favors the rich and powerful. Jails are crowded but mostly poor inmates incapable of hiring expensive lawyers to buy their freedom. Media personalities critical of the administration has become endangered species.

Graft and corruption is perhaps one of the biggest threat to democracy because it cuts across most of the agencies of the government with public works and highways and customs leading the way. Thus funds for the public good is hijacked by corruption.

The disproportional sharing of wealth among the citizens is not only the product of capitalism where many of the oligarchs have catapulted themselves to the billionaire class while the bulk of Filipinos remain below the poverty line. Capitalism is not necessarily a bad thing, but perverting the society with money provides these oligarchs unlimited power.

Filipinos clearly needs to have a differing perspective on democracy. Perhaps going back to the birthplace of democracy – Athens, Greece during the time of Pericles and Socrates will enlighten Filipinos of the intricate relationship between “society” and “government” in ancient Athens. This is an important civic lesson as it relates to the upcoming elections and the future of Philippine democracy. An important distinction is the fact that democracy was born before the birth of Jesus Christ which means religion as we know today was not an overt factor in the formation of democracy.

Democracy is a political system based on representative government meaning citizen participation in the political process, citizens enjoying basic freedoms, and transparency of political acts and process in general. During the times of these two great men, Athens espoused these very pillars of a democratic state: government, business, religion, and family.

Athenians allowed their government to kill (military, police), write laws (congress) and enforce them (various government agencies) – much like what we have now. Taxation then was a novel idea of taxing the wealthy to finance society and government activities that included war. They created courts and judges from lots on a daily basis thus preventing subversion of the system. Being part of the jury pool was mandatory. There were only two elected positions: strategoi (generals – military knowledge was required) and the treasury. Back then, only the wealthy qualified for the treasurer’s portfolio because if money is embezzled, the government recoups from the individual’s own wealth.

Athenians recognized that to sustain a society, people and government need to be economically prosperous and allow people to come together to seek the economic benefit they need to sustain families and the government. Without business, it is impossible to grow and move food around society, and impossible to secure the physical blessings of liberty.

When the Philippine billionaire list grows longer while majority of Filipinos remain hungry and unable to sustain the basic family needs, however, the business models are broken. Duterte’s “Build, build, build” program is laudable but to finance it means financial burdens on the backs of the poor through taxation (TRAIN 1 & 2 and long term financing of foreign debt from China) and expensive prime commodities. But there are no Platonic public figures in our midst who would articulate the problematic relationship between public debt and public misery.

Athens, for all its democratic glory (arts, literature, architecture, and warfare) was an imperial city-state. Led by military generals, Athens was constantly engaged in conflict with other city-states vying for supremacy. The Peloponnesian War with Sparta (27 years) pretty much bankrupted Athens due to overspending and public debt. That war taught us that the de facto leader Pericles’ pursuit of the war as a matter of pride was an anti-thesis to his humanistic ideas and demonstrated the dangers of a persuasive, nationalistic, charismatic, and idealistic leader (such as Duterte, Aquino) as much as the dangers of the democratic government.

In 7th century Athens, there were no religions as we know it today but citizens were guided by a moral compass and citizens performed public and private duties guided by standards of personal conduct in exchange for their citizenship. Pericles was a great statesman who championed equality and allowed poor Athenians (those who joined the military campaigns) to seek and occupy government offices or positions. Demokratia (rule by the people) became their religion. Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle provided counter balance to Pericles with questions about the role of states and subjects that further defined democracy and paved the birth of civil society.

Religious groups in the Philippines wield enormous clout in government today. While Catholics dominate, other religions have found a way to exert their influences in policy making. Despite such moralistic representations, religion is clearly not suffused in every aspect of public life as graft and corruption, immorality, and drug addiction consume society.

Plato’s “Tragedy of Athens” reminds us to critically look at the existing Philippine constitutional government (versus federalism) and explore the risks that the Athenians never confronted: that modern democratic faith in election, voting, and low qualifications for citizenship as the fundamental act of modern democracy. Philippine democracy today betrays a significant difference between the conception of democratic citizens’ duties and that of the Athenians. The character of that electorate, and not the particular form of government, will always be the central “political” issue facing any people that rely on the vote.

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