Dictatorship in democratic garb

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Speaking through a joint statement, several opposition groups warned the other day that an “Arroyo dictatorship” could follow the approval of House Resolution 1109 .

Their fears, said the United Opposition, Gabriela, Bayan, and Gloria Step Down Movement, among others, were not groundless, given the country’s experience with the government of Ferdinand Marcos, who managed to establish a dictatorship in 1972 by placing the entire country under martial law.

Civil society groups, progressive religious people, sectoral and mass organizations, lawyers, and others have issued similar warnings before. Alarm over mass apathy was and is their subtext, public apathy in these isles of fear not being without precedent.

The Marcos dictatorship was made possible by, among other factors, most Filipinos’ being in a state of denial up to the very moment when Marcos declared martial law. In the early 1970s many Filipinos, including journalists and political analysts, did not really believe a dictatorship possible, because they thought Philippine democracy to be stronger than any individual. It turned out that if the individual was president of the Philippines, and was determined, ambitious and ruthless enough, he or she could turn the seeming strength of Philippine democracy, such as it was, into the instrument of its own ruin.

Marcos thus used the Constitutional provision empowering the President of the Philippines to declare martial law – meant to protect the Philippines from invasion, insurrection and lawlessness – to dismantle what passed for democracy in the Philippines and to establish his own lawless regime.

For its elite bias and the narrowness of representation in government, Philippine democracy on the eve of martial law was flawed. But it at least protected, if only on paper much of the time, such rights as those of assembly and free expression, as well as press freedom. It also had a system of checks and balances, enshrined in the co-equal powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, which, however, was already under serious threat by the time Marcos was ending his second term. It also had regular elections.

In too many instances were those elections tainted with fraud, vote- buying and terrorism. Philippine elections were held up as indicators of democratic reality, but the truth was that they were more often wild orgies of unrestrained spending, cheating and violence especially at the provincial level.

Running for reelection in 1969, Marcos proved, as some of his predecessors had done before him, that the national elections were not immune to the same manipulation. But Marcos’ efforts were so much more extravagant than theirs that he made “overkill” a household term overnight.

Reelected by a landslide, and assured of a second four-year term, it turned out that Marcos had other plans than to leave office in 1973. Failing to ram through a new Constitution that would allow him to run again that year, he declared martial law a year before his term was to end.

Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s own saga and temperament invites inevitable comparisons. Like Marcos, Mrs. Arroyo ran a campaign in 2004 to which the label overkill equally applies. She cobbled together a vast alliance of various groups united by no principle except self-interest, flooded the country with billions, and made sure that her votes would not only be counted, but doubly, even triply “protected” by engaging the services of a certain COMELEC commissioner.

Like Marcos, Mrs. Arroyo doesn’t have a democratic temperament either. It’s evident in her impatience, her total confidence in the correctness of her views and acts, her lack of transparency, and her contempt for public opinion. And as far as corruption goes, she and hers have already exceeded the wildest expectations, and only time can prevent her from surpassing the Marcos record.

This leads us to one of the reasons why she and her allies in the House of Representatives have refused to give up, despite the admission by some of their own members, that there’s hardly any time left for it – meaning amending the Constitution. The consensus is that Mrs. Arroyo wants to stay in power beyond 2010 via the replacement of the presidential system with a parliamentary one in which she could be prime minister because she doesn’t want to face the barrage of legal suits over her acts as president once she’s out of office.

Maybe. But staying on beyond 2010 wouldn’t hurt her and her family’s prospects of amassing wealth to equal that of Marcos either.

But does Mrs. Arroyo have to establish a dictatorship to stay in power beyond 2010? She doesn’t, for the simple reason that the dictatorship various groups have been warning the country about for years is, for all intents and purposes, already here, except that unlike the Marcos dictatorship, it was established without the benefit of a proclamation.

Still unlike the Marcos dictatorship, it was established without abolishing Congress, and has in fact been realized with the criminal connivance of that body, primarily the House of Representatives. As in the Marcos dictatorship, the Arroyo dictatorship has also managed to put in place a Supreme Court in which the majority will uphold its wishes, as it is likely to uphold the constitutionality of HR 1109.

But again unlike the Marcos dictatorship, the present dictatorship is in place without any official diminution of such rights as that of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. As in any dictatorship, however, what’s on paper hardly applies to reality, and the military and police, with their apparent understanding, are the primary instruments through which this dictatorship achieves its purposes, which explains why demonstrations can be violently dispersed, journalists can be prevented from doing their jobs and even murdered with impunity, and protesters and activists can be arrested without warrants, detained, tortured, murdered and made to disappear in a country that still dares call itself a democracy.

(BusinessWorld)

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