Fear itself

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HIS prose may be too fancy for some people’s taste, but former Chief Justice Reynato Puno was right, as usual. Never having been in the best of health, Philippine democracy’s on a stretcher on its way to the Intensive Care Unit, and could be in its last gasps.

A system in which a handful of families has monopolized political power for decades, in which Congress is “the domain of elites (sic) and dynasties,” is hardly democratic. The marginalized, said Puno in a speech during the celebration of the centennial of the University of the Philippines College of Law, are still “underrepresented or unrepresented.” Adequate, competent representation is the key test of whether a system is democratic or not, and the Philippines has been failing that test since Commonwealth days.

Consider the members of Congress, many of whom are either landlords and warlords, big businessmen, or professionals in the service of various interests domestic and foreign whose wives, husbands, children and other relatives as well as themselves have been in and out of government for decades. Consider how many fathers and mothers sit in both houses of Congress together with their sons, cousins, daughters, aunts, uncles, etc. Puno’s diagnosis is correct, but will his proposed cure — constitutional amendments — work?

Consider the autocratic behavior of a certain Eulogio Magsaysay at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport last December. Magsaysay is a congressman representing a group that dares call itself a party list, the Alliance of Volunteer Educators.

(What in the name of CHED is a “volunteer educator”? Is that someone who volunteers to teach without being vetted or accredited by a competent body? Or is that merely a convenient catch phrase to send people like Magsaysay to Congress via the “marginalized” backdoor? As the Partido ng Manggagawa’s Judy Ann Miranda was asking last week, “What underrepresented sector exactly does Magsaysay’s AVE speak for? It appears that Magsaysay as an advocate of the marginalized is as fictional as Mikey Arroyo’s being a representative of tricycle drivers.” )

The party list system is supposed to enable the “underrepresented or unrepresented” to have their voice heard and to fight for their interests in Congress. But here was one party list congressman acting like the king of the world rather than the spokesman of the marginalized, screaming vile epithets at PAL customer service agent Sarah Teresa Ocampo because he could not be seated together with his family in a PAL flight.

The COMELEC accreditation of dozens of groups of dubious qualifications as representatives of marginalized, underrepresented or unrepresented sectors has savaged the party list system, in the most telling demonstration of the truth that it isn’t so much the absence of laws intended to democratize Philippine politics and society that’s destroying Philippine democracy.

But neither will it do to simply say that it’s a matter of implementation. What’s crucial is the good will and determination of those in power — whether in Congress, the judiciary or the Presidency — not only to have appropriate laws passed, but also to implement them as they were meant to be implemented. What has happened, and what is still happening, is that every law not matter how well intentioned ends up being implemented, if at all, in favor of the interests of the “elites and dynasties” that have monopolized political power in this country before and since 1946.

The reaction of some congressmen to Puno’s call for constitutional amendments is typical. Nowhere in Puno’s suggestions for amendments is there one on the economic provisions of the Constitution. But Maguindanao’s Simeon Datumanong and some of his fellow congressmen glossed over Puno’s critique of the system of representation and instead focused on amending the economic provisions of the Constitution. The provisions Datumanong et al. have in mind are those banning foreign ownership of land, among others.

It is almost certain too that while Puno did not mention for amendment the Bill of Rights and the provisions that make it difficult for a Philippine president to place the country under martial law, those congressmen (and senators) who yearn for the good old days of dictatorship will seize the opportunity to mangle the Bill of Rights and to make it even easier than during Marcos’ time to put an authoritarian regime in place. We already saw some of that in the suggestion to amend Article III Section 4 (“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances”) by inserting the phrase “the responsible exercise of” between the word “abridging” and “the”.

Puno correctly realizes that, the key element in democratizing Philippine society being the democratization of power, it will require putting in place a system through which the poor, the powerless and the marginalized will be genuinely represented in government so they can fight for their interests. That truth has been known for decades. It is frequently asserted, and paid lip service to, by even the most vicious representatives of the elite and elite interests. Nothing much has changed anyway, despite the party list system and the liberal pieties of Supreme Court decisions. The former has instead achieved precisely the opposite, enabling the already powerful and overrepresented to broaden their power and representation in Congress.

Will constitutional amendments make Congress more representative? What’s even more crucial, will amending the Constitution put Philippine “democracy” on the road to health?

Not while the country has the very same people who have benefited from its ailments and near-demise to do it. Many Filipinos including Puno opposed amendments during the term of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo out of fear that amendments would only keep her in power. But it’s not only Arroyo the country has to fear, nor fear itself, but the entire political class whose history more than anything else reveals that it is committed solely to preserving and enhancing its interests. We need to remind ourselves that, as of last count, there were four Arroyos in Congress, a Marcos in the Senate, another in the House, and two others in provincial and local government.

(BusinessWorld)

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