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Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 2

“Society exists only as a mental concept, in the real world there are only individuals,” Oscar Wilde


One of the hallmarks of a free society is the holding of free and fair elections, and post EDSA; the Philippines has had five elected presidents including Cory Aquino who became revolutionary president by virtue of “People Power.” All served a 6-year term as mandated by the 1987 Cory Constitution. When you look back to their respective administrations and their collective contributions to the practice of Philippine democracy, one can’t help but agree with Socrates.

Socrates hated democracy, Plato deeply distrusted it, and Aristotle feared it! Three great Greek philosophers could not agree on the virtue of democracy. Despite their philosophical differences, their ideas became mainstream and here we are - embracing the very complicated idea of a liberal democracy these philosophers argued about.  

Socrates believed that voting is a skill and not some random intuition. Well, Socrates was a dreamer. He envisioned a mature voting population and a government ruled by competent, virtuous, and intelligent people who would capture his progressive views. The rule of the wise, he called it – an ethical leader like himself who could be king.

In Plato’s “Republic,” he believed that elected leaders should have the expertise but the opposite often happens in a democracy because of the rise of popular spinsters who can effectively manipulate public opinion and his/her rule ends badly like the movie actor the country had for a president. Plato believed that championing equality in a democracy will expand the lower class because equality brings out candidates who are motivated by personal gain.

Aristotle, on the other hand, envisioned a leader who is a product of lawmaking and basically, a lawyer lawmaker who understands the intricacies of the Constitution and would govern a constitutional government. But he feared that such a perfect leader may not exist and therefore, having a second fiddle could lead to tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule.

Herodotus, a Greek historian came away with an evolving version of democracy through his studies of the Persian Wars while in Italy. In his masterpiece, “Histories,” Herodotus chronicled the “Constitutional Debate” between participants of a coup in Persia where he used their characters to express his views in a fictional debate. He clearly disliked monarchy and subscribed to the idea that men are equal before the law, and that the conduct of election should be used as a tool for reelecting good leaders and disciplining bad ones by denying reelection or worse, deposing them.

These Greek philosophers were looking at a small city-state such as Athens where control is easier achieved especially with a military component. Herodotus thought that democracy can sprout even in the Arab world. Modern liberal theorists, however, argue that the philosophers’ vision of a city state is incompatible with modern states that better define the relationship between the state and the governed. The Western idea of a liberal democracy presupposes that the spontaneous coexistence of social and economic order (Laissez-faire) happens like magic, as if by an invisible hand.

In sum, these great men were credited with having laid the foundation for Western civilization anchored on liberal democracy and capitalism. American democracy has become the beacon for emerging democracies although its own history is littered with aristocracy, slavery, and individualism. Today, American democracy dimmed a little with the January 6 mob attack on Capitol Hill, the very heart of American democratic institutions.

Yet, many aspiring Filipino politicians continue to use it as a benchmark for assessing Philippine democracy’s growth or failure to thrive. It is in this context that the late dictator’s legacy has emerged again as a campaign issue because of the son’s audacity to seek the highest office. The older Marcos, despite his tarnished legacy, was a genius who studied and understood history much like Herodotus did. His vision for a new society will eventually be judged by history but with the son promising to carry out his father’s vision offers hope for the future of the Philippines.

And why not. Filipinos are very much still grappling with the fact that Philippine democracy is not as pristine as the elite would want the populace to believe. A guy named Donald Trump exposed the weaknesses and trivialities of democracy in America and the fallacy of so-called conservatism as merely a hidden desire for resurgence of White Supremacy and racism with assistance from the Religious Right.

The illusions and realities of liberalism clearly change with the type of leader at the helm, proving the insecurities of the Greek philosophers. And it is so true in the Philippine situation that the process of exorcising the demons of liberal democracy is very much still an ongoing exercise. Hence, to understand liberal democracy in an illiberal state like the Philippines, is to comprehend the past and present struggles for freedom. Rizal raised in “The Philippines a Century Hence,” a continuing challenge for future presidents to deliver the country to the Promised Land.

Frankly, Philippine democracy has been broken from the get go even after the country declared itself free. Quezon’s “running the country like hell,” was a good zinger at the expense of the country’s nearly 20 million Filipinos living in abject poverty, the beneficiaries of the hellish administrations Philippine democracy has produced.

American presence and meddling in the country’s affairs remains an albatross that is difficult to overcome for any leader willing to embrace Uncle Sam. Marcos tried to do a course correction with Martial Law and the introduction of a Parliamentary form of government but was deposed before he could complete his experiment.

When Cory Aquino led a bloodless coup and became a revolutionary president, she ditched the 1973 Constitution thinking that was part of the problem. The new charter had broad appeal because it contained nationalist (i.e. people participation (partylist), termed president, and limits on presidential power) and economically protective provisions.

Her term, however, was wrecked with 10 coup attempts by mutinous soldiers who were dissatisfied with her rule. She would have been deposed if not for the Americans. The rebels cited Aquino’s weak leadership and inability to deliver the promises of the EDSA revolution. Rampant graft and corruption continued, bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency went unabated, and worse; Aquino’s release of the communist leaders and the lenient treatment of communist insurgents stoked right-wing rebellion.

The much touted Partylist system became the vehicle for Leftist and communist organizations to go mainstream and enjoy the lard of pork barrel they once detested. The multi-party system further degraded the ability to truly determine the will of the people with presidents winning only by a mere plurality of votes and proved the system susceptible to vote-rigging.

Cory Aquino’s preferential treatment of the oligarchs and her inability to implement land reform epitomized a system tilted in favor of the wealthy. Aquino’s legacy includes the Hacienda Luisita and Mendiola Massacres that were democratic distortions emblematic of the political system’s failure to address systemic inequality. (To be continued.)


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