By: Czarina Medina-Guce
For many months now, there is increasing talk of ‘challenges’ and ‘attacks’ to Philippine democracy. Deaths attributed to the war on drugs cannot be moved to the courts, as case build-up is difficult with a scarcity of evidence and willing witnesses emerging from the climate of fear and impunity. Criticism is punished: opposition Senator Leila de Lima is still jailed without a definite progression of her trial process, while opposition Congressmen were removed of infrastructure budget allocations. Media firms critical of the administration are singled out through license revocation threats or tax cases. And most recently, the Constitution was circumvented when an impeachable official, the Chief Justice, was removed without an actual impeachment. These, to name a few.
While dealing with seemingly different issues, all these events fall under a democratic backslide phenomenon. The term democratic backsliding refers to the regression of democracies as the state uses legitimate, democratic means to curtail or eliminate political institutions and principles, such as, rule of law, lawful opposition, freedom of the press, and checks and balances. Historically, democracies are threatened by military take-overs or violent breakdowns of governments, as for instance the imposition of Martial Law and outright curtailment of civic rights during the Marcos years. But the phenomenon experienced now is rather strange; the Philippines is still a standing democracy, and yet signs of authoritarianism are creeping all over.
So, are we still a democracy? International metrics say yes, but a “flawed democracy”, as per the global Democracy Index. We are “partly free”, as per the World Freedom Index. Our civic space is “obstructed” as per CIVICUS Civic Space Tracking. Our democracy is here, but we are not doing well, to say the least.
Drawing from literature and comparative studies, we can argue that the Philippines reached the limits of our democracy, and with the regression happening, is now at a political plateau. How did that happen? What are enablers of democratic backsliding?
First, Philippine democratic institutions have always been controlled by the political and economic elite, with little (or co-opted) space for redistribution of power to benefit the genuinely marginalized. This elite capture goes way, way back before Martial Law years, as the ‘modern’ democratic institutions only legitimized the power of the old elite – the landed, the rich, the armed. While elections are regularly conducted, the power control of political elites and dynasties have persisted, in some areas worse than others. But these elites continue to control laws, processes, and even political culture, to only reaffirm their dominance through and through.
That is why Congress is composed of politicians whose profiles do not represent the demography of their constituents, as shown in the seminal analysis, The Rulemakers. That is why election outcomes are transitions among a group of surnames, or friends of their friends. And with weak political parties, what we have been seeing is what literature calls “political settlements”. This means the political elites are just negotiating and fighting it out amongst their groups and subgroups; changing or expanding ‘groupmates’ to increase their chances of longevity and to dodge accountabilities, regardless of what institutions and laws are compromised. And how compromised our democratic institutions have indeed become.
Second, there are little to no incentives for genuine democratic principles and values to be upheld, to supposedly steer behavior of political actors, interests, and institutions themselves to do ‘the right thing’. For all intents and purposes, the consciousness of Philippine democracy has not figured out what ‘the right thing’ is, not when the power players have been motivated by power consolidation and longevity. Nor when even elections, a fundamental exercise of democracy, are considered as means of re-distributing resources (vote-buying, also bidding and selling), instead of being the people’s way to hold non-performing or corrupt officials accountable.
Moreover, the principle of accountability itself is rarely asserted, as anti-corruption efforts are increasingly becoming a tool for political vendetta, and institutions for accountability (such as the Office of the Ombudsman) are undermanned and lacking punitive and enforcement powers. It is hardly possible to talk about prevention of power abuse and corruption, when incentives and punitive measures are not in place, or not working efficiently enough.
Hence, Philippine democracy is stuck and sliding back. But beyond these, the more fundamental argument is that the enablers of democratic backsliding are not new. They have existed for many decades, across regimes, and are deeply ingrained in institutions and processes. And because our democratic institutions have been long captured and stretched, they – the institutions – are barely holding up with this new set of more intensified battering. Many may be shocked at the lengths by which our democratic institutions are being attacked, but shocked we should not really be. The signs, the enablers of democratic backsliding, have been right there all along.
Our democratic institutions are weak and weakening still, and we need to re-problematize our foundations. All these attacks to democracy are likely to happen again and again, in varying intensities. Or increasing intensities, most likely.
It must be noted that democratic backsliding is a phenomenon observed all over the world. Studies have observed it in countries such as Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia; Thailand, Cambodia; Hungary, Turkey, Egypt; and the United States; – with some in worse contexts or under longer periods than the Philippines. This is not to say that we should be less concerned just because the phenomenon is everywhere anyway. We should be, instead, even more alert and focused on the great insight-mining and solutions-seeking project that we, and the world, have to undertake.
That means, we are not nearing the end of democracy. Perhaps we are just entering Philippine Democracy Beta version. How to set it up, what foundations we rebuild, what solutions we develop – these will take us many years and likely many conflict-ridden conversations. And yet, that is the necessary path we should brace ourselves for. Because acknowledging dissent is essential, because plurality of voices is core, because fortitude is necessary, to build back and better our democracy.
This blog discusses parts of the working paper, “Democratic Backsliding and Shrinking Civic Spaces: Problematizing Philippine Democratic Institutions”, written by Czarina Medina-Guce and Ana Martha Galindes, released on February 26, 2018. The author will also discuss the paper in full in the Social Weather Stations Kapihan session on May 30, 2018, 4PM. (Interested participants may RSVP through this link.)