Although media repression is a close contender, what’s happening to the six party-list representatives demonstrates, more than any other event in the last two weeks, how quickly the democratic space has contracted, and how fragile indeed is Philippine democracy. But it is also likely to fuel further crisis.

Five party-list members of the House of Representatives are trapped in the House, unable to leave its premises because of the threat that they will be arrested. The offenses they’re accused of committing include acts of resistance to the martial law government of Ferdinand Marcos.

Crispin Beltran, the sixth colleague of Representatives Rafael Mariano, Teodoro Casino, Lisa Maza, Joel Virador and Satur Ocampo, is already under detention at Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame–for supposed rebellion in 1985, or some 21 years ago, against the then Marcos dictatorship.

All six are the nominees of party list groups Bayan Muna, Gabriela Party List, and Anak Pawis, all of which admit to a left-wing platfom. Together these groups managed to get some 2.7 million votes in the last elections, which is something of a feat. Anything “left” is regarded with fear and suspicion by many people in the Philippines, especially the middle classes and their wealthier fellow citizens.

But “left” may not be as sinister as it sounds to some Filipinos. It is shorthand for a way of looking at Philippine society that emphasizes the social, economic and historical roots of its problems, and proposes a program to address them focused on structural reforms.

The party-list groups Ocampo, Casino, Maza, Virador, Mariano and Beltran represent are thus committed, among others, to the making of an authentic land reform program that would abolish tenancy, and a foreign policy based on mutual respect and benefit rather than dependency and patronage.

It’s not exactly most people’s idea of what a leftist program would contain, conditioned as they have been to imagine that leftists are fire-breathing dragons who want to demolish everything, but don’t have any alternative to offer.

Some “leftists” may indeed conform to the stereotype. But even the most radical groups, once they become part of the existing political system, tend to embrace reform and gradualism. Legislation is the product of consensus and compromise, and participation in the processes of law-making is not a revolutionary act. Because they’re already inside the system and participants in those processes, Bayan Muna and allies’ effort to have their platforms discussed and their programs adopted can only be reformist.

The party- list system could very well have been conceived to invite those previously outside the system into it, where perhaps they can be convinced that the system still works. By mandating the party-list system, the Constitution recognized that Philippine representative democracy is burdened by the dominance of the dynastic elite to the exclusion of the poor. Revolution as a political option is based on, among others, the assumption that the political system is so corrupt and so compromised by the interests that control it that it has become incapable of changing anything or even of working well. The party-list system would disprove that view.

As limited as it is, the party-list system is based on the realization that widening representation–or even merely seeming to widen representation–could convince rebels and insurgents to abandon the armed option in their efforts to transform society. The party list system contains within it the simple suggestion that the system could still work– and even radicals have a place in it.

The lessons of the Marcos period were instructive in the system’s inclusion in the present Constitution’s provisions on the composition of the House of Representatives. From 1972 to 1986 Filipinos by the thousands joined the New People’s Army and/or the Communist Party not only for survival, but also because Marcos had shut down all the avenues for political participation in the legal sphere to every sector including the traditional opposition parties.

But the overthrow of Marcos through EDSA 1 reversed the conviction that the political system would remain the monopoly of a narrow wing of the political elite. As a result, many of those who had joined the NPA, and those who had either actively sought membership in, or had been recruited into the Communist Party, resumed a legal existence. Some chose to pursue in reformist non-government and even government organizations the same goals that had driven them into the NPA and/or the CPP.

Of the post- EDSA 1 administrations, that of former general Fidel V. Ramos was ironically the most acutely aware that attraction rather than repression works best in disarming insurgencies and turning radicals into reformists– and even into politicians. The application to policy of that basic awareness led to the Ramos government’s peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari’s conversion from MNLF revolutionary to ARMM governor, and the signing of a joint agreement with the National Democatic Front pledging mutual compliance with international humanitarian law. The Ramos administration was thus distinguished by relative stability and even some economic progress.

What’s happening now to the party-list representatives accused of rebellion is the result of a policy the exact opposite of Ramos’. It is obviously aimed at excluding the legal left groups from parliamentary engagement. It completely rejects the intent of the Philippine Constitution to widen representation and to help address, though in a limited way, the roots of rebellion that include the non-representation of workers, farmers and other marginalized groups in Congress.

By barring legal left groups from the parliamentary road, the policy is confirming the armed left’s thesis that the elite-dominated political system will not tolerate attempts at reform no matter how limited. Together with the systematic assassination of legal political activists in the Philippine countryside and the suppression of free expression, press freedom and freedom of assembly, the policy is also declaring that only the armed path can lead to social change. In the short-term it is contributing to the political instability the present regime is trying to check. There is no reason in this madness.

(Business Mirror)

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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