The future of Philippine democracy (Philippines Daily Inquirer)

In her book, Political Booms, Lynn T. White of Princeton University explains that the Philippines has just about the longest experience of free elections in the developing world-yet this voting has not done much over many decades for the quality of governance there.

White puts the blame on the system of domination in the Philippines that has fueled its brand of money politics. However, she writes that the political stasis in the country traces back to the time of American occupation in which then-Governor General William H. Taft simply perpetuated the system put in place by the country’s Spanish conquerors who instituted principalias in order to control the local population, creating the hegemonic relation between feudal lord and slave.

In fact, White writes, the US, running a colonial regime, had sponsored elections at every administrative level in the Philippines since the twentieth century’s first decade. Yet, the tragedy is that Philippine democracy has done little for the poorest sector of the population. Patronage politics points to the fact that Philippine elections are all about the interest of those who intend to control and exploit the economy, which includes the harmful extraction of natural resources.

According to White, elections in the Philippines have not produced governments that have made [the population] much richer, better educated, better housed, or healthier. Intellectual voters have pinned all the blame on the masses of poor voters who are often accused of being swayed by money. But this point is rhetorical. Indeed, we need voters who are educated so that they might be able to make mature choices. Yet, dynasts and their cunning conspirators in the bureaucracy have perpetuated a patronage system in order to strengthen their grip on power.

Liberal democracy as a political framework is grounded in the autonomy of individuals. As such, political parties need to be strengthened in order to actualize people participation. The empowerment of people is meant to secure fair representation. Ideally, local parties are supposed to be instrumental for the population to be able to stake its claims on crucial state policies. Yet, the problem is that political parties in the Philippines are not grounded in the principles of democratic governance. Political parties here are weak and ephemeral, to use White’s description, because they are created out of political expediency on the part of prominent and moneyed personalities.

The absence of authentic democratic governance in the Philippines is due to the concentration of power in the hands of the elite. Paul Hotchcroft and Joel Rocamora have written that the weakness of Philippine institutions is in view of the perpetuation of the domination of imperial Manila through the support that the national leadership gives to local tyrants and provincial elites. Elections in this sense are a farce. In exchange for favors, political elites in the provinces deliver votes to national candidates.

This has stifled economic growth in the countryside. For so many years, a big slice of the allocation for infrastructure projects in the national budget has been confined to the National Capital Region. White says that Thailand took a different route when it utilized its national budget to improving infrastructure in the rural areas, thereby promoting the growth of local industries. She notes that while the Philippines enjoyed robust economic growth second only to Japan during the early 1950s, the succeeding decades saw its economic growth plummet, with zero growth rate in the first half of the 1980s during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. Its neighbors, especially Taiwan, enjoyed almost-double-digit economic expansion.

White points to the absence of effective power distribution as the cause of the Philippines’ stagnation. As is often the case, local clans and those with whom they are in cahoots essentially prevent the entry of competition in local businesses. Local regimes owe their position to local business elites. For this reason, they are not interested in encouraging local entrepreneurship. Instead, they break their covenant with the electorate by protecting the economic interests of local capitalists. This has resulted in what Alex Magno calls a disarticulated economy, which has caused massive income inequalities, insurgency and rebellion in the South.

The power of democracy is grounded in free elections. Free elections give meaning to the real autonomy of the people. The future of Philippine democracy depends on how the people will value their vote. Thus, it is the civic obligation of every Filipino to correct the anomaly of political power in our democratic system by disavowing the politics of money and greed.