The passing of elite democracy

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The filing of certificates of candidacy (COCs) by those running for the Senate ended two days ago on October 17. As usual, the media focused their attention on high-profile and so-called “nuisance candidates.” But they failed to mention that the outcome of the May 2019 elections, particularly for the House of Representatives and the Senate, will be crucial to the survival of this rumored democracy.

At stake is the fate of the opposition indispensable to the imperative of frustrating the ruling regime’s authoritarian ambitions. The results of next year’s elections will either complete the destruction of the system of checks and balances on which it has been focused since day one of the six-year term it wants to extend beyond 2022, or strengthen opposition forces and influence in government enough to prevent the further abuse of executive power.

The first result would be another nail on the coffin of the protracted democratization process that began with the Revolution of 1896. The second could help enhance the quality of politics and governance that is sorely needed in a society once again trapped in another acute stage of the centuries-old Philippine crisis.

Only a government — if not the sum of it, at least some of its parts — capable of rational thought and intelligent planning can craft and implement the measures needed to address the multitude of problems the country is facing. But that has not happened, among other reasons because the Duterte regime has so debased public discourse that its profanity, simple-minded solutions to complex problems, lawlessness and violence, non-accountability, and the demonization and dismissal of critical thought have dumbed down rather than enlightened what would otherwise have been the informed citizenry needed for the survival and development of any nation.

In keeping with its primitive concept of governance in which power has no purpose other than itself, the Duterte regime is fielding, and has encouraged, candidates whose election to the Senate is unlikely to raise the already basement-level quality of Congressional deliberations. Their names are better forgotten, but they include a Duterte gofer who has been campaigning for months without any sense of propriety, and who, once in the Senate, is likely to be even more abusive. There is as well a throwback from the Stone Age who has no program of government other than his obsession with restoring the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal liability to nine years old, and who has practically admitted that he knows nothing about anything else.

As alarming as the possibility of their adding to the less than distinguished majority in the Senate already is, an alleged lawyer is also in the same company. One of his most violent advocacies is the total extermination of the entire Muslim community. In the aptly named Lower House, among the party list candidates is one of the country’s leading purveyors of false information (“fake news”) online who has done more harm to the rational discussion of public issues than a roomful of cheap lawyers.

The continuing threat of despotic rule, the ongoing ruin of the system of checks and balances — and overall, the urgent need for a semblance of intelligence in government — have driven a number of men and women who are committed to the defense of human rights, the rule of law, and the people’s welfare to declare their own candidacies. But because most of them don’t have the billions of pesos, the political machinery and the name-recall needed to win elections in this “democracy,” only a very few, if at all, are likely to emerge victorious in May, 2019.

Despite their many flaws, elections in this troubled land continue to be regarded by many as the sure signs that democracy is alive and well despite the many threats posed to it by both past regimes and the current one. The unchallenged assumption is that the ultimate expression of the rule of the people — their supposed capacity to decide upon whom they have chosen to delegate their sovereign powers — is every three years revalidated through “fair” and “generally peaceful” elections in which “only” a few dozen people are killed.

The reality is far from the ideal. The people’s capacity to express their sovereign will is premised on both their freedom from fear and their being adequately informed. But Philippine elections have always been decided by money, intimidation, violence, and the command votes controlled by local warlords and political dynasties.

The information the voters receive — on the issues that confront the nation, the backgrounds and the track records of candidates, their platforms of government if any — is either incomplete, inaccurate or distorted, thanks to, among other factors, a mass media system that thrives on revenues from political advertising every three years.

The capacity to pay for media exposure either through overt advertising or its less than evident versions, such as a candidate’s paying to be interviewed as part of a radio or television news program, and, in this Internet Age, the mobilization of an army of keyboard trolls, is of course premised on how limitless or minimal are a candidate’s campaign funds.

The result of this anomaly is evident in the election to office of those who have the money but who do not have the country and its people’s interests in mind, as well as the vision, wisdom, knowledge and skills public office demands. Instead of enabling anyone with these qualifications to be in government, every election has reinforced the dominance of the handful of families that have monopolized political power in this country since Commonwealth days.

If there is at all any democracy in these isles of contradictions, it is the elite kind in which only a few personalities and their families, although they speak and act in the people’s name, have the public visibility, the opportunity, and the means to win political power.

The phrase “elite democracy” sounds like an oxymoron, or a contradiction in terms. Democracy after all means the rule of the majority, while the word “elite” refers to the handful of men and women whose special attributes — whether in skills, knowledge, or, in the Philippine case, in wealth and power — make them dominant within a particular population.

Despite the seeming contradiction, however, the phrase aptly describes what has passed for democratic rule in this country from 1946 to 1972 and from 1986 to the present: it is the rule of the few rather than of the many.

As challenging as an election is to those aspirants for public office who do have a vision of an alternative state and society, it should nevertheless be an opportunity to enlighten citizens on their responsibilities, the governance issues that should concern them most, and the need to look beyond the dynasties for solutions.

Elections should also broaden the involvement of the citizenry in their own governance so as to change the rule of the political elite into the rule of the majority by putting in office those individuals who can truly represent them and fight for their rights and interests. But as limited as it already is, even Philippine elite democracy has been severely damaged over the last two years by a thoroughly reactionary regime focused on its total destruction through the elimination of all opposition. The elections of May 2019 can either help delay or halt its impending demise, or complete its transformation into something far worse: a de facto tyranny.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Comelec.

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