Elections in the Philippines: Illusion of Democracy?

The closing of voting precincts sees the end only of the first salvo of election cheating with the wholesale manufacturing of the eventual outcome still to come. The problem, however, with the Philippine electoral exercise is much deeper.

IBON Foundation
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 15 May 20-26, 2007

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 ($2.06, based on an exchange rate of P46.60 per US dollar) or less a day, according to the 2003 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) of the National Statistics Office (NSO). The net worth of just the 10 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 there is public dismay, given the political landscape strewn with issues: illegitimacy, continuing bureaucratic corruption, patronage and self-serving politicians. Worst of all are the unabated political killings and disappearances in the last six years of over a thousand Filipinos daring to struggle for a more humane future and an end to the country’s chronic crises.

There are perhaps those who believe that the May 2007 mid-term elections offer a path to resolve the country’s 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 won’t 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 (before September 21, 1972), of those born during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship (September 1972-February 1986), or of the generation who believed that they were favored for growing up amid a flawed but at least restored democracy under Corazon 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 the appalling phenomenon of political dynasties, of trapo (short for “traditional politician”; Filipino word for “rag”) patronage and of brazen opportunist turncoatism gives only a small picture.

The problem with the country’s politics is that it remains fundamentally elite-dominated and so overwhelmingly about governance for and by the elite. This is a problem that dates back from the birth of the Philippine Republic at the turn of the century, continued through the U.S. 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 country’s politics remains. Philippine politics is changing, but it has yet to really change. Forces for democracy and more broad-based citizen’s 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 U.S. 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 gathered 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 country’s 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 country’s stifled modernity. Accompanying this understanding is moreover a commitment to organizing and direct participation in concrete struggles to build a democracy.

The ruling elite 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 U.S. 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.

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