An Experiment in Democracy



The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many unspoken truths about Philippine democracy that force Filipinos to rethink. For a young democracy, the Philippine situation under President Rodrigo Duterte brings us to a fork in the road where one path leads us to the American model while another presents an uncharted course.

The American model tells us that despite its glorious past, the democratic infrastructure has proven to be inept and a failure in containing the spread of the virus. The experience brought to question as to whether Americans has too much democratic entitlement that the very thought of enjoying Constitutionally-given rights collides with the greater public health? Does the exercise of the First (speech/assembly/redress of grievances) and Second Amendments (to bear arms) conflict with and endangers the greater good?

In the American case, President Donald Trump has exposed the weakness of a Republican Democracy by asserting a more robust interpretation of the powers of the presidency under Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution. With a pliant and corrupted Justice Department, Trump abused his Executive Power to achieve political ends. Despite built-in guardrails such as impeachment, Trump has shown the limits of democracy to restrain his unfettered disdain for bureaucracy and governance.

Trump’s response to the pandemic tested the merits of federalism and how its failure led to further political division of the American people. Clearly, Trump failed to live up to the spirit of federalism by his failure to provide national leadership during the crisis. The constant complaints of inadequate PPE, ventilators, hospital beds as the country grappled with the pandemic exposed a president’s unwillingness to use the government’s awesome powers under the Stafford Act and the Defense Production Act.

Trump’s and the federal government’s slow response exposed procurement intramurals that magnified the issues involved. That even with a generous subsidy package, the red tape and corruption in the bureaucracy further impeded of what was supposed to be a veteran approach to the pandemic having been through various natural calamities of huge proportions like Hurricane Katrina.

The silver lining of all these is that there is a presidential election in November that could usher in new leadership or that if the president is reelected, that he would no longer be saddled by running for reelection and somehow bring the country back to normalcy post-covid’s new normal.

Filipinos should look closely at the American democratic experiment and for that matter, liberal global democracy that has been in decline for decades. Such decline has ushered in populism that brought leaders like Trump, UK’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and of course, Duterte into power. The road to the American Model is unfolding before our eyes and it is not a pretty sight. The European Union’s refusal to accept American tourists because of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic offers a cautionary tale on the disorder that could ensue absent American leadership in the global stage.

A macro view of the global response to the pandemic favors young democracies like New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany for that matter versus the populist-led countries like the U.S., U.K, and Brazil who are on top of the pandemic mortality/morbidity lists. One commonality among the young democracies is the swiftness and unanimity of the country’s approach. The older or more established democracies seemed hobbled by its own governance where the branches of governments could not rise to the level of unity needed to overcome the crisis. Just in the matter of social distancing, wearing of mask; states differed that a singular approach was not achievable. The Philippines’ approach under an autocratic and populist leader Duterte seemed to be a hybrid of the young and old democracies. Armed with emergency powers, Duterte was able to achieve decisions faster than that it would take under a bureaucratic rule.

But Duterte’s emergency powers can only last for so long and post-covid, Filipinos will have to decide what the new normal will look like. The other path to an uncharted territory offers hope for the country. Is federalism Filipino style the answer to the question? The outcome of the presidential election in 2022 will serve as a barometer as to where the country is headed. But at the moment, Filipinos are conflicted.

The constant criticism of Duterte’s responses to the pandemic and pursuit of its independent foreign policy with regards to China, are further dividing the country between the president’s and the vice president’s (Leni Robredo) supporters. Duterte is pro federalism and pro-China while Robredo is the opposite.

While Robredo opposes the switch to federalism, she supports Mindanao’s, Subic’s and Hong Kong’s autonomies. What gives? Federalism creates autonomous states and a Filipino style federalism means a system that could be more pro-Filipino. These autonomous regions are prime examples of how progressive regions can become without much interference from the national government.

Philippine liberal democracy is more of an illusion created by the influence of the oligarchs. This is not to say or to discredit the contributions of the Aquinos and heroes of EDSA for the restoration of democracy in the country. The People Power revolution of 1986, however, was a turning point that Filipinos failed to capitalize on as the poor became poorer while the rich, well, many became billionaires. With widespread graft and corruption in government, the gap grew so wide it swallowed people’s nationalistic aspirations for a truly democratic state. The high level of mistrust and contempt Filipinos have for the democratic pillars of society confirms this.

The country being mostly agricultural would have benefitted from a truly aspirational land reform but the Aquinos, Cojuangcos, Lopezes, Ayalas, Zobels and rich landowners who became honorable people’s representatives could not overcome such divide. Filipinos became export commodities as they littered global diasporas as domestic helpers and borrowed labor, for lack of opportunities at home.

The Philippine society now mirrors that of the United States where people’s rights to assembly and right to bear arms in defense of democracy conflicts with public health. Where search and seizures and use of police power are brought to a crossroads. Is this part of a new normal?

Is Philippine democracy still a representative democracy where the people’s will still reign supreme? Or was Philippine participatory government illusory with the façade of partisanship that the oligarchs capitalized on to buy off politicians and elections? Or that the corrosive subtleties of majority rule democracy really undermined liberty and promoted oppression by elected leaders, corrupt judiciary, unelected bureaucrats all in the name of “the people” and “general welfare?”

The time for looking the other way is over. Duterte is eccentric and is despised by Robredo supporters for being a strongman and being chummy with China but does that negate the bills he signed into law: Universal health care, free college education, tax-reform, Bangsamoro Organic Law, ease of doing business, environmental policies, expanded maternity leave, better infrastructure nationwide, freedom of information, anti-drug war, and land reform? These are the kinds of measures true liberals will die for that previous liberals in power could not accomplish! Et tu Brutus?