Uphold democracy

By Eileen, Master in Public Policy student, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 

The long and painful sufferings of the Philippines from colonial powers and dictatorship have influenced the Filipinos to embrace and uphold democracy. We, Filipinos, often quote Abraham Lincoln to make sense of “democracy” – it is “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Technically, as a democratic government, the prime power is vested in the majority of us who, by law, have the duty and the right to choose someone to hold public office through free elections.

Democracy reminds us of our power to choose our government, or even oust it. In some way, it gives us hope that one day the voting public will get to cast votes more wisely and the country can leapfrog from then on.

In his inaugural speech, Duterte reaffirmed that the government draws power and strength from the people. Underlining the importance of unity, he emphasized that no leader without the support of the people he leads would ever succeed.

Understandably, a formerly colonized nation would almost thoughtlessly adopt democracy if it was packaged as defender of liberty to choose one’s own leaders and therefore have a voice at how the country should run. Nonetheless, others have argued that the country could have been better off if we adopted the opposite system – authoritarianism. We ought to remember, however, that when we finally had a taste of dictatorship, it only pained our nation. The Philippines, therefore, is a good example for what many political scientists claim: no system of government can ever ensure success.

By and large, the Philippine government is not genuinely “of the people, by the people, for the people” for a number of reasons. Fraud during elections remains rampant; and the welfare of the citizens is not being promoted at adequate levels such that the right to a basic standard of living is being violated.

For more than a century, oligarchs have been ruling the political and economic arenas of the country which means that for more than a century majority of the crucial decisions of the government have been for the interest of the ruling class, mostly indifferent to the needs of the more vulnerable members of society.

A social norm called “padrino system” (patronage) – the opposite of meritocracy – is deeply embedded in Filipino culture and politics. The padrino system is a value system where one gets the advantage because of familial or friendly ties. This norm captures nepotism and cronyism. For obvious reasons, it helps the ruling class keep their power and influence intact.

This norm also explains why there are so many incompetent individuals in our state agencies. People get hired because they were the son, or daughter, or cousin, or friend of this or that (influential) person.

Unfortunately, even the Filipino voting publics are vulnerable to patronage. They tend to cast their votes in favor of the celebrity or the political elite who has given them (small) gifts. Until now, political achievements of candidates still do not seem to influence publics’ voting behavior. The people only consider their short-term needs while the country’s well-being and the people’s long-term needs are overshadowed.

Another relevant social norm is “utang na loob” (the norm of reciprocity). This value system creates a far more disastrous social practice – the Filipino habit of returning the favor regardless of the nature of the request received. Even if the favor is against one’s principles, or is against the laws of the land, he or she is pressured to do it for the sake of paying his or her “debt.”

Note how Duterte started his inaugural address and compare it with how Obama started his. Duterte’s first words were: “President Fidel Ramos, sir, salamat po sa tulong mo (thank you for your help) making me President.” Obama’s were: “My fellow citizens:  I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you’ve bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”

With strong “padrino system” and “utang na loob” value systems, how can a public servant remain faithful to his or her public duty?

Systemic corruption and the incompetence of public officials are some of the main factors for our crumbling democratic institutions. The public, who once clamored for democracy, is now experiencing what experts call “democratic fatigue.” As such, the public has developed the “strongman syndrome” and voted for a strong leader – Duterte – who promised genuine change.

What the country needs is a meaningful, genuine democracy. And for this, circumspect systemic reforms are requisite. More importantly, we should abolish the padrino system and take on meritocracy instead, and only practice “utang na loob” within what the laws and the code of ethics allow.

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