A dangerous illusion

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Not only most Filipinos 25 years old and younger have no recollection of the martial law period. Some of their elders who were around during the14 years of one-man rule by Ferdinand Marcos don’t either.

What they remember instead is a period of clean streets, “peace and stability,” “low prices,” “efficient and honest governance,” and “better times” over-all. They compare the dreadful present with the martial law period as they remember it, and they see chaos, rampaging poverty, criminal inefficiency, and corruption everywhere. They thus denigrate People Power, whether at EDSA in 1986 or 2001, as a failure and a fraud.

Some go farther. They want someone similar to Ferdinand Marcos back. They argue that Philippine “democracy” hasn’t worked, and that, it is too much of it that has led to the country’s present state. What the country needs is another strongman like Marcos, another “man on horseback” who will impose order and discipline, put an end to political bickering, and focus the country’s energies on development.

Twenty years after EDSA 1, authoritarianism remains an attractive option to many Filipinos as a consequence of the country’s poverty. The attraction is based on a dangerous illusion and on several false assumptions. One is that the present is not linked to the martial law period, and is not in fact a result of it. Another is that democracy was magically restored upon the demise of dictatorship. Still another is that democracy is synonymous to holding elections and to the repeal of the repressive laws of Marcos rule.

Widely thought to be an anomaly due to one man’s ambitions, martial law was the natural child of a political system dominated by a handful of families, to be part of which one ran in elections decided primarily by money, influence and intimidation. From 1947 when the first elections were held in an “independent” Philippines, how much money a candidate has–to conduct a “credible” campaign, but even more crucially to buy voters with and/or pay the goons to intimidate them–has always decided the outcome of Philippine elections. These were not democratic exercises, but mockeries of democracy.

Marcos himself became president in 1965, and again in 1969, through the same means, although in 1969 he had the added advantage of access to government funds and facilities, just like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had in 2004. Few remember that Marcos was himself a beneficiary of the very system that, in the book ghost-written for him, Today’s Revolution: Democracy, he claimed he wanted to reform.

Equally few are those who remember that the 1936 Constitution made it easy for Marcos to place the entire country under martial law, shut down Congress and the mass media, and imprison his political enemies, student, labor, and peasant leaders, and militant Church people.

The martial law period wasn’t a break from the past, but its continuation. The difference was that Marcos had torn off the masks–of “free elections” decided by money, and of a “free press” that was easily bought or coerced– that concealed the political system’s basically undemocratic character.

But the cancellation of elections and media regulation did give Filipinos the illusion of stability. No elections–or, when these were once more held, elections under the shadow of military bayonets– meant that the passions normally provoked by partisan politics were not in evidence. The elections supposedly held during the period were signs of stability only in that they were sham elections meant to affirm Marcos and company’s supposed mandate from the people.

The regulated media, on the other hand, made sure that “bad news” was kept from the public. This explains why the energy and rice crises of the period, the war in Mindanao, the arrests, imprisonment and torture of dissenters, dissension within the military, and other “bad news” were mostly unknown at the time and unremembered today.

The authoritarian period did come crashing down during the four days of EDSA 1 (February 22 to 25). But EDSA 1 did not dismantle the political system that had led to, and made inevitable, the Marcos dictatorship. The economic and political interests that regained political power or that managed to hold on to it after 1986 instead restored the system.

Almost immediately were the consequences of the restoration evident. Although the 1987 Constitution was distinguished by the effort, mostly by the liberal and left-wing members of the Constitutional Commission that drafted it, to institutionalize the lessons learned from the martial law experience, the succession of administrations that followed Corazon Aquino’s learned quickly enough that its provisions are easily ignored.

In the latter enterprise the present administration has been especially adept. It has tried, and often succeeded, in denying the citizenry the rights guaranteed it by the Bill of Rights, particularly those of free assembly and free expression. Over five thousand foreign troops are on Philippine soil despite its prohibition in the same Constitution, even as the killing of political dissenters continues as a matter of government policy.

The same administration is focused today on amending the 1987 Constitution to rid it of those provisions meant to broaden civil liberties and political participation. In that sense, in both practice as well as intent, it is a legatee of the Marcos period, and is no more democratic than the government that in 1986 fell at EDSA.

Those who see the disorder, incompetence, corruption and human rights violations over which it presides will do well to see it as a direct descendant of the Marcos period. In that sense is the choice today not a matter of rejecting “democracy” and choosing authoritarian rule, but an impossible choice between two versions of authoritarianism linked to each other by the same political system that made them possible.

Filipinos should abandon the authoritarian option as a dangerous illusion that has never brought them the peace, stability and prosperity they have longed for, and instead seek to achieve the authentic democracy that has so far eluded them. EDSA 1 was but a step in that direction. Countless other steps need to be taken before that goal is realized. But the point is to be clear about that goal, and to reject the siren song of authoritarian rule as the way out of this country’s woes.

(Business Mirror)

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