Pepe Panglao, Journalist, Manila, Philippines
Many in the Philippines hope that through elections they can get rid of corrupt and abusive officials and in so doing bring about a brighter future. Out with the old and in with the new, all in one fell swoop. No need for a lengthy process of incremental change.
If only democracy were that simple. But it is more than just that. Lessons from the history in the Philippines—and elsewhere—show us all too clearly that cutting the head of the hydra will not kill the beast.
The changing of leadership is, of course, a fundamental safeguard built into the democratic process, a protection against prolonged dictatorship and a chance for political renewal, but in itself it cannot guarantee improvement in people’s lives. Unless there are also serious efforts to discuss and address why public officials and politicians are failing the electorate, the electoral process will be meaningless.
The reasons for these failures need to be identified: what is it in the system that is lacking or failing? In the run-up to elections, those vying for office can make any number of promises, but they and their constituents know, as things stand, that these promises will likely not be realized.
The question is how can democratic process yield results when the ideals of democracy, transparency and justice do not exist in a system?
Despite the extent of corruption in political and administrative life in the Philippines, most members of society have opted not to speak out against it. But who can be blamed for not talking? It takes great courage for persons to divulge what they know as in so doing they expose themselves to retribution that may well cost them their lives. Not only is security extremely difficult to come by; the serious delays in prosecuting officials discourage
This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Deafening Silence, written for UPI Asia Online under a pen name. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website: www.upiasiaonline.com/human_rights.
the public. Even in many ordinary criminal cases, people refuse to testify due to fear. Without transparency, justice and accountability, is the simple holding of elections every few years going to make a difference?
Interestingly, the expectations of the country’s political system among Filipinos living abroad are apparently very different from those within the country. For example, the turnout for overseas absentee voting in Hong Kong, where nearly 100,000 live, is extremely low—around three per cent. This signals a near-total rejection of the electoral process on the part of Filipinos in Hong Kong.
Most of these persons have been forced to leave their country to find employment and still have families in the Philippines. Their lack of participation cannot be put down to disinterest, but rather perhaps that for the most part they do not believe that change will come as the result of elections. They are dispirited more than disinterested.
Elections in the Philippines will only have meaning once they are accepted as being part of continuous development, and not a holy grail themselves. The systemic problems crippling life there need to be addressed before changes in leadership can make any tangible difference.
Filipino workers denied labor rights
Often when Filipino workers demand fair compensation and benefits, all that they get in return is termination of employment, starvation, violent attacks by armed thugs and police officers, and false and arbitrary charges in court. This lawful exercise of demanding rights has become dangerous, especially where transnational corporations are involved and the violence met by aggrieved workers is so enormous that it has made them feel helpless, traumatized, and frightened.
One such incident occurred against striking workers at C Woo Trading, Inc. (formerly Chong Won Fashion, Inc.) inside Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZ), Rosario, Cavite this June 2007. The company supplies apparel products to the US-based retail giant, Wal-Mart. The workers had been striking for nine months demanding increased wages, benefits, and better working conditions while the company was persistently refusing their demands despite lawful orders. During this time, some of the workers had to give up their fight due to the violent and harsh conditions and uncertainty about what may happen to them.
Although attacks were expected, what happened in June was boldly executed and shocking. Hired killers wearing balaclavas, armed with knives and long firearms violently attacked several workers inside the supposedly secure factory premises. How the attackers were able to get inside the factory is still unknown. The police, who reportedly have a grudge against the workers, are not keen on investigating the incident and have shown no responsibility towards the workers. An independent investigation into the possible involvement of the police in the attack has not been carried out.norm, reason is”
The workers are only demanding what is rightfully due to them—fair wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions. But the company’s foreign investors have been manipulative, taking advantage of the weak and corrupted administrative system, police and quasi-judicial labour courts.
Where brutal attacks on the jobless and suppressing rightful protests are the norm, resulting in starvation and frightened workers, reason is in decline. They can only serve to encourage other abuses of workers who are forced to accept poor conditions because of a weak, corrupted, and dysfunctional system that is no longer able to protect and uphold the rights of its citizens.
Hints for Thailand from the Philippines’ history
The military coup in Thailand last September was reminiscent of similar events in the Philippines in decades past. The struggle of Filipinos against dictatorship in those days shaped what the country has become today, although two decades later its institutions still face deep problems.
Like Thailand, the Philippines has witnessed military coups, conspiracies to grab power and attempts to destroy its constitution and democratic institutions. When the Marcos regime fell in 1986 there were numerous coup attempts. But the people’s struggle to frustrate any attempt to seize power, and the judiciary’s firm assertion of authority, played a major role in the country’s most critical period.
When Marcos was in office, the constitution gave him enormous powers, including those to declare martial law, allowing him to rule over every aspect of life for two decades. Marcos had crafted it himself and had it ratified through a referendum in the early 1970s. It left the entire country hostage to one man’s ill will and manipulation, in conspiracy with his cronies. It emboldened him to wield power ruthlessly and gave his government legitimacy despite its atrocities.
This scenario is repeating itself through the referendum in Thailand, in which people have been called upon to ratify a constitution crafted by members of an assembly handpicked by the military junta.
In the Philippines, had there not been such an enormous outpouring of support by the people for the transitional government during the 1986 People Power Revolution, Aquino would not have been able to exercise the government’s powers. These included the removal of provincial governors and mayors, giving it a free hand for reform, and the convening of a Constitutional Convention with members—though handpicked by Aquino— drafting the present 1987 Constitution.
At that time, the Aquino government’s considerable power emanated from the people’s desire for democracy. Subsequent attempts by the military and Marcos loyalists to take over did not succeed, nor did coup attempts in following years. The key to the new constitution’s strength has thus been that it grants power to established institutions with the people’s support.
The Philippine experience in fighting for democracy is of course by no means a perfect example. The country still faces many problems that could threaten its political institutions. However, the lesson that people in Thailand can perhaps gain from it is that public expressions of intolerance for military takeovers or threats to abolish the constitution can ultimately have effect. None of the numerous attempted coups in the past 20 years have succeeded. Those responsible have been held accountable for their illegal acts, particularly by the judiciary. They have been charged, detained, prosecuted and given prison sentences.
Over the years, a number of prominent attempted coup- makers have themselves joined the democratic process, seeking and winning elected positions and taking part in the affairs of the government. They too have ended up in submitting to the democratic system and acknowledging that officials must have a mandate from the people through elections, not through extralegal methods.
The Philippines too went through a political crisis involving allegations of corruption like those leveled against the former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his allies. The former president of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, had to step down as a result of such accusations. The legislature impeached him and the judiciary prosecuted him. The military did not intervene or attempt to take power or abolish the constitution, as happened in Thailand last year when similar moves were afoot against Thaksin.
The judiciary in the Philippines has also asserted its prerogative to uphold the constitution. When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of emergency in February 2006 and subsequently issued General Order No. 5 to the armed forces, which included provisions reducing protection of civil and political liberties, the Supreme Court ruled that part of her declaration and order were unconstitutional. This was the result of challenges by the legal community and concerned groups to the order.
Although the Philippines’ political system contains weaknesses, two decades after the fall of a dictator, and despite a long colonial history, it continues on a democratic path. This indicates an enormous shift in the mentality of the people. They have discovered they can play a part in running the affairs of state and holding their leaders accountable.