Independence day comes at a critical time this year.

It’s not just because the country still doesn’t have a president-elect thirty-one days after the elections, and is unlikely to have one when Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo’s term—actually Estrada’s unfinished, 1998 mandate—ends on June 30.

Filipinos are also reeling from the steady spiral of oil-product prices, which, besides making transport more expensive, is also fueling an inflation rate, already accelerating because of election spending, that’s the highest in three years.

The latest figures from the government itself can’t mask the fact that poverty is much worse than it’s ever been in the last five years, with more and more people from the lower middle classes sliding into the ranks of the poor.

Despite the most self-serving government claims to the contrary, corruption is unabated, the May 10 elections being one of its most telling indications. Clouds of bankruptcy and/or an economic crisis worse than 1997’s are also massing in the horizon.

Filipinos are leaving the country in even greater numbers. Some are driven by nothing more than the desire to prosper even if it be at the cost of the country of their birth. Others are forced by the lack of economic opportunities to look for them elsewhere, even in areas of brutal conflict like Iraq and Afghanistan, from which some have returned in crates. Still others leave for societies in which, as in fascist Italy in the 1930s, the trains run on time.

While all this is happening, the political and economic elite wrangle among themselves over which faction among them will wield power in the next six years and appropriate its spoils.

Congress is the most visible arena in this contention, where creatures who’ve been violating the Constitution cite its provisions, the rule of law is invoked by the most notorious law-breakers, and the worst inheritors of dynastic power loudly proclaim their fealty to the sovereignty of the people.

There is of course the chaos of the canvassing and the even greater chaos it is promising to bring to this country and its people. The spectacle and the fears for the future it has raised have provoked howls of despair and lengthened the lines for emigration.

It is also in Congress and its two houses where both the reality as well as the wisdom of representative democracy is being seriously challenged, as the sons and daughters, the cousins and wives, the sisters and nieces and nephews of the retired political lords of the realm assume their seats this July together with clueless celebrities and the celebrity-endorsed.

The theme for the independence day celebrations this year has something to do with a “strong Republic”—which must surely be ironic, since the most basic republican institution of all, that of representative democracy, is in shambles in this, the 58th year of the restoration of Philippine independence, and over a hundred years since it was won from Spain.

It’s not just because the congressional circus once again raises serious doubts about the devotion to country and the competence of the so-called representatives of the people. It is also because being elected to any office including Congress now depends on factors other than the will of the people, and thus taints with doubt every elected official.

Meanwhile, in the countryside last May 10, the “protectors of the people”—the police and the military—were protecting the political elite by intimidating, harassing and even killing members of party-list groups they had identified as threats to elite power.

Not to be outdone, the Commission on Elections sought to protect dynastic power by deferring the proclamation of the winner in the gubernatorial elections in Isabela. But what’s worse is that systematic fraud, with the collaboration and partisanship of the bureaucracy including the police, the military and certainly the Comelec, has not only tainted elections. It has also opened to serious question the viability and even the reality of Philippine democracy.

The state of Philippine governance and of its institutions, and the fact that the country has continued to retrogress despite independence and supposedly democratic rule, has been giving both independence and democracy a bad name for decades.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was the most vocal in denigrating what’s happening in the Philippines, to explain which he has argued that democracy is a hindrance to authentic development in Asia. Filipinos as well, among them industrialist Raul Concepcion, incidentally the brother of the National Movement for Free Elections’ Jose Concepcion, have used the same argument.

Lee and Concepcion agree that democracy creates gridlocks and therefore prevents effective governance because of its openness to criticism and emphasis on debate. It’s an argument that first of all assumes that what obtains in the Philippines is indeed democracy and not an artfully disguised plutocracy—or the rule of a handful of elite families and their adjunct functionaries. The advocacy of strong-man rule implicit in the argument at the same time denies the negative example of the Marcos period, when the country did have an authoritarian government, but did not develop anyway.

The fact is that societies have been known to develop under democratic governance as well as under authoritarian regimes. What does seem critical is the commitment of the ruling elite to national goals—which first of all it must have the sense and the imagination to identify—and the strength of its political will to carry them out.

Some commentators have indeed concluded that what the country lacks is the equivalent of the “responsible elite” whose presence is evident not only in most of the Philippines’ neighboring states, but also in its giant neighbor China. But they can’t pinpoint why the Philippines alone is singularly lacking in this crucial element.

They forget that the Philippines has had the unique experience of being the only Asian colony of the United States. Alone of all the colonized countries, the Philippines was governed by that country primarily by nurturing among its people the illusion that it was for their own good, and their country’s future as a bastion of “liberty” and “democracy”—the very same buzz words the United States has used and is still using in its wars of conquest, of which the most recent is being waged in Iraq.

The consequence of the use by the US of the methods of “soft power” to disguise the use of violence and coercion– such as compelling the use of the English language in the educational system at the turn of the century—has resulted in the development of a political, economic and intellectual elite that regards the Philippines as both a literal and figurative halfway-house to other countries, particularly the United States.

Because they speak English and are familiar with Western culture, the loyalty and affection of the Philippine elite is reserved for whatever Western country will better serve its interests. They have no allegiance to a country they regard only as an airport from where they depart for other places—preferably in reality, but certainly in their minds.

Quite apart from the political and economic chains that continue to bind this country to its former colonizer, Philippine independence has never been real where it matters most: in the minds of those who comprise the ruling system, and even among the ruled.

Neither has Philippine democracy ever been as authentic in the sense of its being a rule by the majority. One has only to look at the congressional roster to discover that not only are most of the Representatives of the People millionaires, their names have also been in the congressional roster for generations.

Christianity, George Bernard Shaw once observed, has not failed because it has never been tried. Neither has independence or democracy in the Philippines.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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