Thirty-five years after the assassination of Senator Ninoy Aquino, has his dream of building a republic on the principles of liberal democracy reached a similarly bloody conclusion?
The era in Philippine politics from 1986 to 2016, bookended by two Aquino presidencies, was meant to deliver a stable democracy. Yet, what we find today is very far from it.
Uneven development, creating large disparities in wealth, a multi-ethnic society, and a geographically dispersed population has made many questions whether liberal democracy can work in the Philippines.
These doubts have created two camps, each emphasizing an aspect of liberal democracy at the expense of the other. On the one hand are the pro-Duterte groups (ka-DDS), which are veering towards illiberal democracy. On the other hand are the dilawan (yellow army) under the Liberal Party, with their disdain for populism, leaning towards an undemocratic liberalism.
Duterte’s belligerence towards the Western rules-based order – he cursed at Obama, the EU, and UN, said he would chart an independent foreign policy, open towards Russia and China – suggests that the Philippines would become an illiberal democracy under his watch.
Two years into his presidency, these fears seemed to have materialized with several thousand murders as part of his crackdown on illegal drugs. This is coupled with intimidation of the press, involving the Philippine Daily Inquirer (under previous owners), ABS-CBN (facing non-renewal of its franchise), and Rappler (facing a closure order), and prosecution of vocal critics such as Senator Leila de Lima and leftist parliamentarians. (READ: From Marcos to Duterte: How media was attacked, threatened)
The biggest worry is that through constitutional change, Duterte could extend his term beyond 2022. It could happen since Duterte remains very popular. To his followers, he represents a circuit breaker to all that came before.
Following the 1986 People Power Revolution at EDSA, democracy was reintroduced, but this simply restored old political families and wealthy oligarchs. The concentration of power made the state susceptible to manipulation by vested interest groups, whether legal or illegal.
The media, which previously provided the citizenry with a common worldview, has now been supplanted by an army of pro-Duterte bloggers, alleging media bias in favor of dilawan ideology. Many of them belong to the post-EDSA generation.
Some dilawan senators sought to silence these new voices, branding them “fake news.” As proceedings wore on, it became clear how difficult it would be to regulate the market of ideas without curtailing freedom of expression.
This showed a growing disdain for democracy. The second EDSA revolt was another example. The dilawan in 2001 successfully unseated the then popularly elected President Estrada, and legitimized the power grab through the courts and media.
This undemocratic streak, seeking to undo the people’s will, persists under President Duterte. It creates a highly polarized world, where either party is paranoid over what the other might do to take or retain power.
And so, the dream of Ninoy seems just as elusive as ever.
But, perhaps things are not as bad as they seem. Just as the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, the children of EDSA could be on the cusp of something brilliant.
Through the years, programmatic policies were put in place to address social need. Free tuition at the tertiary level was introduced this year. Universal healthcare is gradually being phased in. Cash grants for the poor have likewise been expanded. Under the government’s infrastructure program, a jobs guarantee could be effectively realized.
Such programs were impossible in the early post-EDSA years, because of crushing debt left in President Marcos’ wake. As the nation gradually climbed out of this sinkhole, fiscal capacity grew, making room for such spending. And it will become increasingly so with tax reforms that successive governments have enacted. (READ: [OPINION] Did EDSA fail us?)
Programmatic policies are the antidote to populism. Instead of running to their padrino (political patron) in times of need, citizens can rely on services rendered by a professional bureaucracy. This gives them every chance to succeed, and lead a comfortable life.
The assumption here is that public goods will be evenly spread across our 7,100 islands, which is clearly not the case. To ensure consistency, we need a way to take from each locality according to its capacity and distribute, according to need.
Local government units (LGUs) currently retain a portion of national taxes collected. To fund their expenditures, they need to augment this with local revenue sources. A poor locality will have limited capacity to raise such revenue to pay for its services.
A new framework is needed to enable the national government to top-up LGU revenues so they may provide services at the same standard as wealthier localities. Such a system is proposed by the ruling PDP-Laban under a federal constitution, but it may also be devised under a unitary setup.
The newly approved Bangsamoro Organic Law will serve as a test case. Aside from keeping its mining royalties, the regional government will receive fiscal transfers disproportionate to its revenue-raising capacity. If this model succeeds, other regions could follow suit.
Only when programmatic policies are in place, and basic services are equitably distributed, will the foundation for a stable liberal democracy be set. We must not allow present political bickering to distract us. Civic faith must be restored.
Divisions between the ka-DDS and the dilawan are illusory. Each of them in fact holds a missing piece that, combined with the other, forms a stable liberal democracy – one with a strong, modern state, observing the rule of law, that is democratically accountable.
This was the impossible dream Ninoy pursued, that ultimately cost him his life. Many others have shed their blood, sweat, and tears pursuing the same dream. Let us not let their sacrifice be in vain. Let us reignite that bayanihan (community) spirit, so evident at EDSA ‘86 to finally bring our people home, into their Promised Land.- Rappler.com
Emmanuel Doy Santos, a policy analyst who dabbles in international development, is known online for his blog and Youtube channel The Cusp PH. He tweets as @cusp_ph.