Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Government by the people

Why (do) movie actors get elected” by the “average Filipino voters”? Prof. Randy David asks.

His own answer: “The poor who vote for movie actors are not lost in adulation; their eyes are as open as those of the educated. They invest trust, and they expect to be able to collect on their investment. It is futile to remind them that the work of a senator is to craft laws and to debate national policies, rather than to serve as a funnel for doles. For the fact is, the great majority of our legislators today measure their usefulness by the amount of projects they bring to their constituents rather than by the quality of their interventions on the congressional floor.”

David goes on to argue: In such a political system, “intelligence and experience or competence in statecraft are of little value” as the “virtues that matter are generosity, approachability, and a strong sense of empathy.”

I have grappled with a similar question before. With somewhat different take, in a commentary of mine published by Inq7.net on December 3, 2003 as the “King of the Philippine Movies,” Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ) was making a run for the presidency, I wrote:
. . . the movie in the making [Da King who would be the man] is having a bad review before the plot line is even finished. “How can a high-school dropout tackle international trade, the budget deficit, or the aberration of the currency, for instance?” the tabloid Philippine media asks, as if suggesting, quite unwittingly, the incumbent as well as her predecessors has done a stellar job on these charges. . . .

. . . who among the other presidential aspirants has ever captured or reduced the intricate issues of presidential politics into a mass appeal in the pre-campaign trail? If at all, it is the patriarchs of Philippine society that put the political and economic issues in esoteric terms as part of their mechanism of control over the political life of the nation. With the looming FPJ presidency, some feathers are certainly being ruffled, those of the economic elites in particular. FPJ as president has the potential of producing a people power narrative that promises to return a larger measure of that control to the ordinary citizens. That’s where the epicenter of the “jitters” is coming from . . .

. . . FPJ in effect said, the real issues are “sincerity,” “dedication” and “love of country.” And also, if successful, the governance style he has indicated to adopt will be pretty straightforward. He will serve only as acting president and a team of experts will run the Office of the Presidency. That’s enough safety net.
It was David also who called our attention in 2004 to a controversial speech by Washington Sycip, a well-known Filipino business leader. Sycip, by implication, spoke about governance in the Philippines supposedly by those with superior “intelligence and experience or competence in statecraft” before a forum of corporate leaders where he unabashedly broached the desirability of an authoritarian rule in lieu of the present Western-based democratic institutions.

Now, a couple of weeks ago, Sycip replicated himself before the Management Association of the Philippines:
Economic freedom with effective enforcement of laws and long term planning for needed infrastructure has been the success story of East Asia. Political freedom gradually increased as income levels rose. The widely praised four “tiger economies” of Asia all had authoritarian governments that were able to eliminate hunger and increased spending on education. Elements of democracy came naturally with a growing middle-class.

Taiwan’s growth was under martial law and South Korea developed under a military dictatorship. Prosperous Hong Kong and Singapore do not seem to be suffering from a lack of democracy. In fact both westerners and Asians admire the discipline of Singapore! (Italics mine)
Upon suggesting that one root cause of the problem could be “an overdose of democracy, Western style,” Sycip, lest he be misunderstood, is prompt to clarify: “I want to make it clear that I am for democracy but food, education, housing and health care for the poor should have first priority.”

How is Sycip’s democratic posturing different from FPJ’s dream of providing three square meals a day to every Filipino family based upon the principle of “sincerity,” “dedication” and “love of country”? I guess the difference is not so much as to the end - the attainment of the common good - as the means to achieve it.

Isn’t Sycip as well as those who support his ideological frame basically saying: We agree on the common good but since we have the intelligence, experience, competence in statecraft, we are better qualified than the average Filipino to achieve it; so, why don’t you allow us the exclusive right of governance? This may not be democracy in the Western traditions, it may be added, but in the end even that conception of democracy would follow suit as matter of natural course.

In FPJ’s plan, the way I perceive it then, the peoples’ representatives would still retain control of the “final say” and the delegation to “experts” was only as to certain secondary decisions, somewhat similar to a company president saying “Our goal is a productivity rate that is double or better than last year’s – you have my ok to use every reasonable means within the company rules to achieve it.” On the other hand, what Sycip seems to espouse is ceding the final decisions on a process oriented towards the common good to a select group of individuals, the “guardians,” if you will, in Platonic discourse, or the “moral and intellectual aristocracy” according to Filipino politician and jurist Jose P. Laurel.

In a large-scale democracy of 85 million people like the Philippines democratic governance can only happen through representation. And government by representation or republicanism, as now called, is deemed to exist if at a minimum the average citizens retain a firm measure of control over their elected representatives. This control process is made possible through free, honest and frequent elections.

It is therefore of the essence of democracy that adult citizens - whether they are movie actors, basketball stars, news anchorpersons, world champion boxers or fledgling politicos and lawyers, economists, political scientists, industrialists or trapos - should be presumed as sufficiently well capable to vie for public office or participate in the democratic process of governing the state. A political governance system that holds or practices a contrary ideal is non-democratic.

Let’s take the case of Hong Kong, an autonomous territory, so they say, of China. On March 25 this year the city-state will hold an election for its chief executive. Of the seven million Hong Kong inhabitants, a group of only 796 voters - in turn selected by the tycoons of industry, commerce and the professions - is enfranchised for the electoral exercise. Balloting will be secret, but the winner, Donald Tsang, is already known. Beijing and the tycoons are widely expected to engineer the elections in Tsang’s favor and versus Alan Leong, who is being endorsed by the Island’s pro-democracy activists. But then again, since opposition or dissent is somehow permitted within the framework of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, some “elements of democracy,” to borrow Sycip’s phrase, are passed around to be at work, not to mention the appearance of “rule of law.”

What of Singapore? The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been the ruling political party in Singapore since 1959 having won all parliamentary seats in at least five elections or at certain times allowing only a token participation by the opposition (one or two opposition seats in the parliament) and has thus dominated Singapore’s “democracy.” Over the years, Singapore has been criticized by reputable international organizations and individuals, and by the US State Department for suppressing dissent and free speech. Reporteurs Sans Frontières ranks Singapore 147th out of 167 countries on press freedom in its 2005 report, citing as ground the complete absence of independent newspapers, radio and television stations. Only recently, blogger Li Xueling has run a piece claiming that PAP is “mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics.” Like Sycip, former prime minister and now senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew was once quoted as saying that Singapore is better off sans “liberal democracy.”

According to democracy scholar Robert Dahl, the historical evidence is overwhelming attesting to the fact that the interests of those who are denied to participate in governance will not be advanced by those who govern. Who will speak up for you or your group, Dahl asks, if you are denied your voice or excluded from participation?

Political contests in the Philippines have yet to be severed from the same old squabbles of competing warlords. But the political success of some entertainment and sports celebrities not rooted in the political dynasties of the old gentry are signs of shifting allegiances of the masses from traditional power and wealth to their newly found champions like Erap (screen idol and former president Joseph Estrada) and Manny Paquiao(top-rated world boxing titleholder). At the very least, this phenomenon is also an expression of the masses’ rejection of elite ideology despite its intense promotion with all the wherewithal at the elites’ disposal.

The masses believe they are allowed participation in the political process when they succeed in enthroning their heroes whom they expect to look at issues not through the prism of some highfalutin party ideology but through their (the masses) own. This is how republicanism is understood by the people. The majoritarian principle based on this self-interest of the masses is somehow the antidote to the pursuit of the so-called rational self-interest of the dominant group in the context of liberal democracy. When freedom of expression and access to alternative or other sources of information than those plied by the government or the dominant group, particularly on political matters, hold full sway, there’s greater opportunity to gain civic competence on the part of all participants. Compromises or consensus among competing interests based on the enlightened understanding of critical issues may then take place in the quest for the common good, or at least, as hoped for by Sycip, “a common program to reduce poverty and develop a larger middle class.”

On the other hand, whether or not the majority has in fact voted a true champion is another story. Today, average Latin Americans are increasingly having good fortune in putting their bets in, say, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales who are seen to be stepping up to the plate to challenge the prevailing socioeconomic order and orthodoxy. If the final say remains with the people, does it even matter should Chavez or Morales ultimately turn out to be poor choices? As long as the elections of representatives are fair, honest and frequent, chances are the principals will learn their lessons in democratic governance.


Anonymous gledwood said...

That is a very perceptive posting. Thankfully we don't get showbusiness encroaching on politics that much over here...

I found your blog quite at random by pressing that next button. It's a very interesting read you have here...

If you want to visit me I'm at gledwood2.blogspot.com. You're most welcome to drop by if you like but it is a very different blog from yours.

All the Best now


February 20, 2007 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best exercise of democracy is in out-of-cycle PEOPLE.POWER, not the every 4-years or every 6-years election cycle. Whenever the ruling politicians overstep, then there should be riots in the streets to immediately restore the power to the people. [The question, of course, is which minority-group-people's desires will be implemented by PEOPLE.POWER. Will it be the desires of the minority military clique? The desires of the minority ethnic Chinese or ethnic Malay? The desires of the minority middle class? The poor? They get manipulated... what else is new? ]

February 21, 2007 12:23 AM  

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