The paradox of democracy
Before calling this a day, let me write down what I believe is the paradox now faced by our besieged democracy.
In a concise but sharp article for The Atlantic, journalist Sheila Coronel described the conviction of Rappler’s Chief Executive Officer and executive order Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr. on flimsy charges of cyber-libel in the spirit of the claim that their verdict, in effect, snuffs out Philippine democracy.
This goes against another equally sturdy point raised by a few freedom-loving citizens, among them journalist and Philippines Graphic editor-in-chief Joel Pablo Salud, that democracy does not die with these subsequent occurrences in the parched land where Rodrigo Duterte rules with impunity.
Yet, the question I wanted to raise lies on neither statements.
It’s a question borne out of one seemingly inconsequential sentence on Coronel’s piece — the one where she wrote that her first connection with Ressa was forged in 1986, in an era of what she succinctly wrote as “democratic rebirth” after 20 years of Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal dictatorship.
Here’s the question: do we even have a democracy to cherish, to begin with?
Popular imagination of democracy involves a vibrant civil society, strong institutions, entrenched requisites of checks-and-balances, a free press, and constitutional safeguards on civil and political rights.
Nothing wrong with that.
In fact, that spirit infuses the draft that became what we now defend as the 1987 Constitution.
(Note: the Charter has no expiry date, unless Duterte’s Congress super-majorities succeed in usurping influence to push through with Charter Change.)
But here’s the catch: on a broader scope of definition, the Philippines was — and is still — far from realizing genuine democracy, in the most basic of its spirit.
While debates on the merits of Ressa’s conviction and even the constitutionality of the anti-terror bill rage on, landlessness and an impending agricultural crisis stalk farmers in the countryside. The novel coronavirus pandemic’s browbeating of the economy leave workers on the throes of sudden retrenchment or unemployment, if not even lover wages. Students now stand at the crossroads of a decision of whether or not to pursue education through alternative, although exclusive, means. Even the established view that rape are caused by rapists alone, neither by mini-skirts nor revealing clothes, are now put into question by — to borrow novelist Lualhati Bautista’s words in Dekada 70 — “male chauvinist pigs.”
To stretch the point further, even the most virulent acts of trampling upon basic democratic rights persisted long after Marcos was gone — from Mendiola massacre in 1987, less than a month before People Power’s first year anniversary, to the rampant extrajudicial murders and abductions of activists and journalists under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s atrocious regime, up to the same degree of political persecution and unresolved killings under Benigno S. Aquino III’s administration (remember the Lumad killings in 2015 and the Kidapawan massacre?).
In fact, some of the fiercest generals and lieutenants of the Duterte government — or its policies — hailed from the administrations prior to his, who ascended to power from the ashes of the Marcos regime. The generals in his National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the grandest machinery of state terrorism under Duterte, have already figured in some of the most brutal undertakings under Gloria Arroyo and Aquino.
Eduardo Año is implicated in the enforced disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos and the Paquibato massacre under Aquino; Hermogenes Esperon, the regime’s National Security Adviser, was the chief driver of Arroyo’s murderous Oplan Bantay Laya counter-insurgency pogrom. Ricardo Visayas, Duterte’s first military chief-of-staff, was touted by human rights groups as “Palparan’s protege” who figured in the 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre that killed 7 farmers. The very model of NTF-ELCAC stemmed from Arroyo’s Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), created through Executive Order 493 in 2006 that became the factory of trumped-up charges heaped against activists and critics of Mrs. Arroyo’s regime.
(On June 26, it will be 14 years since University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan went missing after men under Palparan’s watch abducted them, along with a farmer, in Bulacan on 2006).
All of these atrocities happened years after the supposed “democratic rebirth” that ushered in after the martial law dictatorship was turfed out of power.
Which brings us back to Duterte, the prodigal son of Philippine democracy who took the degree of fascism to the highest level — thirty thousand times higher than Marcos’ despotic regime.
In a time when both the economic and sociopolitical rights of Filipinos have been teetering on the edge of liquidation, we should face the imminent question of our times: by vowing to “defend democracy” from the relentless assaults of state fascism, do we even realize that that democracy is incomplete at best, and an illusion at worst?
Democracy, as a concept, have proven itself to be one binding social construct across social classes; the example of Edsa’s “peaceful uprising” brought this to the fore.
Yet, the actualization of that democracy is another thing — and this is where, I believe, we collectively failed; but, more so, the pathetic excuses for leaders we now have — who banked on the promise of rushing to democracy’s defense only to slug it out in a single whimper.
Because this similar “democracy” was distorted by post-EDSA administrations who refused to push for agrarian reform, national industrialization, the unconditional release of political prisoners (and in fact added them in numbers that gradually topped the magnitude of Marcos’ concentration camps), the dismantling of contractualization, and perpetuated the abuse of indigenous peoples struggling to defend their ancestral lands.
These are the same presidents who sued journalists for libel, closed down Manila Times because of an unflattering report, advocated for a draconian cyber-crime law with a dangerous insertion of libel provisions, arrested activists on the perilous but false premise of “anti-communism,” and shunned warnings from the rights community (and even the United Nations) about the deterioration of human rights in a manner that Duterte only exceeded in terms of vitriol.
Post-Marcos presidents only pretended to be in defense of human rights — while Duterte reversed the trend and publicly denounced the idea of bourgeois-democratic rights to further his vision of authoritarianism.
Hence, the question of how should we define democracy before we trumpet the slogan of its defense is integral because it practically shifts the guidepost upon which we base our current struggles.
Democracy is not democracy when a few overlords dominate this country — on all spheres.
In any case, the recent assaults on that fragile ground we ascribe to be “democracy” — from ABS-CBN’s shutdown amidst a militaristic lockdown to Maria Ressa’s conviction — should push us even further into asking hard questions about an ideal we supposedly defend against the caprices of the tyrant in Malacañang, because ascertaining if this democracy is a genuine one and not a mere bourgeoisie ideal completes our job of taking the defense of this democracy into our own hands.
More so, in the struggle to achieve and reclaim this democracy from forces that seek to diminish it, there has to be a recognition also of the need to defend whatever is left of our democratic spaces under Duterte and all presidents before him — because, without these basic rights that the 1987 Constitution enshrined, we would not be able to attain the deeper democratic aspirations that go beyond individual rights and liberties. I would not be even able to write this if not for the democratic rights we are tasked, now more than ever, to safeguard — the same rights Duterte and all other post-EDSA governments trampled upon and transgressed, time and again.
In our struggle against today’s gradual slide to totalitarianism, the paradox of democracy should not be left out wanting — unless we don’t give a rat’s ass about this irony biting us on the back even long after Duterte is out of presidential power.