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Under Duterte, Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy is failing

While the Philippines is labeled as a democratic state, the current political climate suggests otherwise.

Philippine democracy is in crisis.

When the Philippines gained independence from the United States, it became one of Southeast Asia’s first democratic nations. Decades later, its legitimacy was challenged during martial law, but the title was reinforced in the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos, denying authoritarianism. 

Recently, various metrics on civil liberties and rights, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index report, point out that the Philippines has developed a “flawed democracy” due to elite dominance, institutional weakness, and rampant abuse of high-level government positions.

An eroding system

Enrico Gloria, an assistant professor in the University of the Philippines Diliman Political Science Department, describes this “de-democratization” as a “gradual weakening of our democratic institutions and norms.”

This decimation of the state may also be found behind a guise of strengthening it, usually to grant authoritative powers to a single position, Gloria posits. 

Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy Director of Research and Impact Dr. Björn Dressel identifies four factors in this phenomenon. First is the subtle dismantling of informal democratic norms—lessening confidence and causing public disillusionment. 

The second determinant is an interpretation of laws in bad faith, which is when previously prohibited behavior is allowed and the law is weaponized, Dressel explains. What follows is more concrete than the previous two: the “hollowing out” of institutional enforcement mechanisms such as the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, and even the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

Lastly, de-democratization happens when the law is changed to legalize procedures to achieve autocratic ends. When there is an attempt to change the charter as well as other critical laws that uphold democracy, Dressel warns that it might be a sign of erosion.

However, backsliding in the Philippines is nothing new. According to an article by Department of Political Science and Development Studies Full Professor Dr. Julio Teehankee and Associate Professor Dr. Cleo Calimbahin, previous administrations already showed such manifestations from corruption scandals to media repression, revealing a “defective democracy.”

Iron fist

“What is puzzling is that democratic backsliding came about with quite strong bouts of populism, especially after relatively successful presidencies,” says Dr. Jurgen Ruland, an International Relations professor emeritus at the University of Freiburg. This, according to Ruland, may be caused by the public’s mindset of unequal representation in the political system due to elitism.

Throughout history, the highest seat in the palace has been taken by “men of and for the people” who promise change or progress in mitigating socio-economic gaps. These changes, however, are often accompanied by undemocratic decisions and may lead to the imposition of an absolute order.

And while Filipinos have always been in favor of the democratic rule, the continuous support for this particular political strategy may imply otherwise.

Duterte follows a narrative wherein citizens have to abide by the President’s words as if they are being disciplined, similar to how parents discipline their children. Ruland explains this type of leadership falls under the “organic state theory” in which the political system is patterned to a family setting, with the leader as the father and the citizens as children.

“It’s shaped by corporatist ideas, with virtues such as unity [and] social harmony, which [leave] little space for pluralism, negotiation, [and] political contestation, and that is a typical context for the blossoming of populism,” he expounds.

This tolerance enables submission to authority and order over the rule of law, contradicting Filipinos’ support for democratic values. Gloria, whose research includes flawed systems in weak democracies amid crises, states this may imply that mere preservation of democratic principles does not necessarily guarantee genuine development.

“We continue to be a weak and unstable democracy because of our weak social and political institutions [which] owe their weaknesses, to begin with, [to] how Philippine society is organized,” he adds. 

Countering the regress

“There’s no military actor coming—no coup d’etat waiting. But in the background, there is militarization, increasing securitization, [and] increasing use of violence. And [it] is now becoming an accepted norm,” Dressel stresses.

With the 2022 national elections on the horizon, Calimbahin urges an improvement of the “mechanisms of horizontal accountability” to re-establish the country’s democracy. Through this, Dressel says that attacks on the oversight agencies, abuse of impeachment processes, and weaponization of the law can be caught in action.

However, he highlights that “democratic institutions are only as good as the citizens that are willing to come out and defend them.” The country can change its electoral laws, the charter, and its leader, but Ruland argues that “the main impetus must come out of society.”

The country has had good symbolic participation in democracy—in elections, in protests, and in social media. But this should be continued beyond the voting booths. “It’s important that you have a vibrant civil society, a vibrant landscape of watchdogs that force accountability on those that govern,” Ruland says.

Ultimately, Gloria advises, “At the very least, participate in ongoing discussions [and] conversations on what a Duterte alternative should look like…specifically articulate and manifest their preference for a united opposition.”

By Kim Balasabas

By Rheine Noelle Requilman

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