Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 1



“Of what good is democracy if it is not for the poor” – President Ferdinand E. Marcos (19)


Many could probably care less on the niceties of the words that sound foreign to the ordinary Juan. Liberal versus illiberal democracy, do they even matter? In the case of the Philippines, it should matter. The bigger question, however, is whether the Philippine current crop of presidentiables has the gumption to wade into such complicated self-education?


It matters because the Philippines is a country who has espoused the core tenets of democracy but its citizenry still lacks the maturity to comprehend the intricacies of such exercise given years of colonial exploitation and strong Catholic Church influence. Every politician who runs for office promises the moon in an effort to woo voters. Voters are immature and unable to discern what democracy can do to improve their lives, they succumb to the unbelievable entreaties of savvy candidates. Just voting alone, is a failed exercise when attended with bribery, intimidation, and misinformation.


In the history of the Philippines, perhaps only three men truly grasped what an ideal Philippines should be like. Jose Rizal, through his writings, illustrated the morass the country was in as a consequence of Spanish colonization. Rizal posited based on the work of Gregorio Sanciano y Gozon, a Chinese Filipino that the indolence of the Filipinos was a consequence of the oppressive conditions under the Spanish rule and not because Filipinos were inherently lazy. Both agreed on the need for economic reforms.


Over a century later, President Manuel L. Quezon recognized this in his Independence Day speech when he said, “I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” His belief was that a badly run government by a Filipino can be changed. The undercurrent of his philosophy was that leaders who are puppets of foreign governments will not have the welfare of the Filipino at heart.


Ferdinand E. Marcos echoed passions from the past through his writings as well. “Today’s Revolution: Democracy,” a book written by former president Ferdinand E. Marcos was about defanging the oligarchs who were controlling the country’s economy and elections. What he saw was an orchestrated move by the oligarchs with their wealth and power, fanning the flames of insurgency as a counter to the Marcosian revolution.


”What good is democracy if it is not for the poor?” Was a rhetorical question he asked aloud questioning why the wealth of the nation is only enjoyed by the people on top of the pyramid? He saw a widening gap between the rich and the poor at the expense of the people on the base of the pyramid and no regular elections can change that fact. Marcos knew that this was part of the American strategy to engage the oligarchs in running the country and maintaining a liberal order.


He also saw a government beset by corruption aided by willing employees. The sloth that Marcos referred to as having afflicted civil service employees was Rizal’s “indolence” as a byproduct of an ineffective system. Marcos expanded on this in his book, “Notes on the New Society,” that what the country needed was social engineering. Marcos envisioned a new society that embraces a liberal democracy akin to Rizal but run like hell by Filipinos, as Quezon would have loved.


Marcos was clearly sold to the idea of liberal democracy but not to how it was being run, applied or practiced in the Philippines. Martial Law became the unsuspecting vehicle to affect his social engineering experiment. After a three year successful experiment, indeed, all hell broke loose as Lord Acton’s old dictum that power corrupts, indeed corrupted Marcos absolutely.


Today, 35 years after Cory’s revolution to “restore” democracy called “People Power,” the country is still wrecked with massive corruption, a civilian government workforce still needing of reform, oligarchs still not playing by the rules that allows more billionaires to join Forbes list, a health care system unable to meet basic health needs of the poor much less the pandemic, failed check and balance, land reform still a bridge too far, political dynasty’s growing tentacles, and a country influenced by narcopolitics.


Liberal democracy is a Western contraption introduced after World War II as an effort to ensure a world order (that they have control over) that would prevent the recent wars they just went through. At the same, the West wanted to cultivate countries before their image and enable capitalism to flourish. The Philippines is a representative democracy patterned after the United States: elected representatives, civil liberties, independent judiciary, organized opposition party, rule of law, and people vote in elections. The Philippine situation, while not perfect, meets the elements of a representative democracy.


In simple terms, liberal democracy means free and honest elections marked by the rule of law, separation of powers between the three branches, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, religion, freedom of assembly and to own property. These very basic tenets are guaranteed under the 1987 Philippine Constitution. In form, the Philippines has a functioning democracy where these rights are guaranteed. If liberal democracy is good for the country as envisioned by the West, why is the Philippines continuing to struggle to secure the fruits of democracy?


Well, the answer lies in between the lines. Liberal democracy encompasses a bundling of economic, military, and humanitarian doctrines interwoven as to create its own persona immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice. In practical application, we deal with capitalism and the evil that comes with it (i.e. greed), basing agreements and surrogate wars, and the ill-effects of global poverty that breed contempt and discontent.


Elections are held but dictators and authoritarians are duly elected who take liberties of their hold on the other branches to the detriment of its citizens. Some even pass laws to restrict certain freedoms including going after journalists and political opponents unfriendly to them. Legislators who promised to prioritize the welfare of its constituents but unable to even conceptualize a health care system that guarantees a basic human right. The spectrum of illiberal democracy highlights the weakness of a democratic state.


In the Philippine context, one can say that despite the holding of fairly fair and honest elections, it never got the desired constitutional outcomes with the likes of Marcos, retired general Fidel Ramos, Cory Aquino and son, former senator Benigno Aquino Jr; movie star Joseph Estrada, economist Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and a small town mayor, Rodrigo Duterte. (To be continued…)