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With P-Noy’s “New Dawn for Democracy,” what future awaits Philippine democratization?

With P-Noy’s “New Dawn for Democracy,” what future awaits Philippine democratization?

Jan 14, 2012

With P-Noy’s “New Dawn for Democracy,” what future awaits Philippine democratization?

By Jerik Cruz

Mr. Benigno Simeon III Aquino’s ascent to Malacañang stands as one of the most significant political events in recent Philippine history. President Aquino or P-Noy himself declared the occasion of his proclamation last June 10 as “a new dawn for democracy.”   What does this new dawn signify to the process of democratization—when the day breaks out and the light shines on the president’s promise, will there be genuine hope or real disappointment?

Throughout the electoral race, Mr. Aquino courted the prospect of democracy to a degree unmatched by any other presidential candidate. This was expected—it was in his blood, as one campaign advertisement touted.  His decision to run largely motivated by the popular support he received after the demise of his “democracy icon” mother, P-Noy’s campaign featured innumerable pledges of loyalty to the legacy of his parents. Moreover, at a time when the preceding Arroyo administration was being compared to the Marcos regime, there were high hopes that an Aquino victory would bear many of the same promises that the People Power Revolution once sought to fulfil—the progressive redistribution of wealth and power, the cessation of patronage politics and institutionalized corruption, the respect for civil and political rights and the restoration of formal democratic institutions.

But now that the people have decided and elected Mr. Aquino,  one must now wonder if his present government will bring reality to the campaign promise or will it remain captive of the trappings, interests and ideologies of the flawed democracy that his mother helped rebuild, and which Mrs. Gloria Arroyo had exploited to the extreme. For contrary to what Aquino’s spin doctors have so far concocted, the Aquinos’ legacy to post-1986 democracy remains a contested issue in Philippine history.

Just as the EDSA Revolution brought new life to the promises of democratization, it equally reneged on those promises by failing to address many of the deeply-rooted contradictions of the pre-Marcos electoral democracy. Rather than putting a stop to patronage politics, post-EDSA history saw the resurgence of political clans and elites that were sidelined throughout the Marcos years. Formal elections were restored, but remained structurally biased towards traditional politicians and marred with violations of human rights. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), once the nominal “centrepiece” of the Mrs. Corazon Aquino administration, had been widely recognized as an orphan program. Nothing brings its inadequacies closer to light than an examination of the present state of inequality in the Philippines: more than 20 years after the reinstallation of liberal democracy in the Philippines, the country’s Gini Index  has worsened from about 40.0 to 44.0.

If one wishes to inquires after the prospects of furthering democracy under P-Noy, then one must necessarily ask: is the president presently in a position to overturn the structural skew of power and wealth that has historically tipped the activities of the government and the economy overwhelmingly in favor of the elites? Will he be able to unravel the neoliberal policies hoisted one after the other upon the Philippine state since the time of Mrs. Aquino? Are the priorities of the current administration constituted in a manner that will allow a genuine grassroots agenda to be fully articulated in government policies and programs? In short: will P-Noy be able to surpass the limits of democratization experienced since the collapse of the Marcos regime?

Already there are signs that the promises of deepened democracy may remain just that—promises.

An undemocratic undertow?
For one thing, there was nothing “new” in how the 2010 elections were conducted. Although the recent polls featured the novelties of the PCOS machine, they were still conducted in a milieu of unequal wealth and power, with episodes of fraud, intimidation and coercion resulting from actions of national and local politicians bent on retaining their dominance over their territories and rival elites. In post-EDSA politics, formal liberal democracy had been restored through electoral exercises, but though more groups could now participate in the elections, this had not guaranteed genuine participatory democracy as those who have amassed more sophisticated, and oftentimes, more unscrupulous political machines, often won.

The Cojuangcos, the other half of P-Noy’s bloodline, have benefited from this so-called liberal democracy owing much to their political-economic base in Tarlac province. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork conducted by Lisandro Claudio on the “politics of fear” shrouding the automated elections in Hacienda Luisita, Claudio arrived at the conclusion that Aquino’s win in ten of the municipality’s 11 barangays partially owed to intimidation tactics executed by the Liberal Party’s local agents in the Luisita vicinity . “If you stick to your principles, forget about eating,” wrote Claudio, a history professor in Ateneo de Manila University and political blogger, referring to the risks incurred by voters who would choose to rave against the corps of the Aquino-Cojuangco machine.

Throughout the archipelago, the May 2010 exercise witnessed the re-election of hundreds of political families to national and local offices, except for a handful that had lost thunder due to their stigmatized alliances with the Arroyos. According to a Vera Files report, political clans and bosses have come back “stronger than ever”  in the recent polls, their victories similarly stained by countless grassroots accounts of the use of violence, vote-fraud and terror techniques in voting precincts. Meanwhile, alternative, reform-minded aspirants like Grace Padaca and ‘Among’ Ed Panlilio of the Kaya Natin! Movement have been shut out by the stratagems of their more traditional competition.

Factious government
This early, P-Noy’s administration—several weeks short of its 100 days—has been characterized by infighting between elite factions. There is the so-called “Balay”, comprised of Liberal Party supporters of the president, and “Samar”, comprised of Aquino’s family and relatives. The mishandling of the Quirino Grandstand hostage taking has been partly attributed to this division that resulted in confusion over who is in charge of what.

Even during the campaign period, such factions were noted in the “Noy-Mar” and “Noy-Bi” dispute between the Hyatt 10 and the Cojuangco Kamag-anak Inc . As had been the case with P-Noy’s mother, elite competition will very much become an integral part of P-NOy’s political reality. In her nine years in Malacanang, GMA effectively splintered the Philippine ruling class in her frenzied bids to retain power; and thus, with the sudden vacuum generated by the Aquino inauguration, there is every reason to expect many of those disaffected by GMA to claw for a piece of the action in the new administration.

Yoly Villanueva-Ong had this to say about Mr. Aquino’s electoral campaign. In her article in a major daily, she said that in the campaign committee, “Nobody knew who the final decision maker was… The NCG [the non-conventional group] was hobbled by infighting among the groups and pressure from the Liberal Party that wanted to tackle the ‘pragmatic’ issues such as alliances, national and local slates, face time with power blocs.”

If this had been truly the case, then all the more there might be the risk that the actual pressures that mobilized the Aquino candidacy may diverge from his clean, moral and democratic public image. Furthermore, although he was elected with an overwhelming mandate, there is nothing as well that precludes the same rivalries and motives from besieging his administrative team anew.

Naturally, it will be of concern to P-Noy’s camp to mitigate such friction, especially given the broader constellation of interests and fault lines in the rest of the Philippine government. As political analyst Reihanna Mohideen had already contended, “A key agenda of the new Aquino presidency will be the unification of the hitherto badly fractured ruling class.”  At this point in time, she argued, one of the chief imperatives driving forth the Aquino agenda boiled down to the building of a solid, workable governmental base in order to ensure its administrative clout and stability in the future. At several points, however, this will likely involve compromising on how far an expanded democratization project can reach.

Already the administration’s pursuit of expanding its circle of political alliances has been slammed by critics as exposing the real agenda of P-Noy’s political vehicle—the Liberal Party—raising concern that the new historical moment may be sabotaged with the same political malaise epitomized by the political appointments of the Arroyo administration. In the Senate, this has been evidenced by the Liberal Party’s fragile alliance that sent Juan Ponce Enrile back into the Senate Presidency. In the Lower House, Makati Rep. Neptali Gonzalez II, himself a former member of Lakas-Kampi-CMD, had previously claimed that 255-257 out of 286 representatives have “coalesced” with the LP, many of them of the same trapo lineages that have long obstructed progressive politics in the Philippines . Before then, even more publicized camp-hopping during the campaign period had been observed from key Arroyo officials, such as economic adviser Joey Salceda or former NEDA director Ralph Recto, who had helped cement Aquino’s electoral victory with the votes from their bailiwicks.

In this way, the present conjuncture spells a critical period for P-Noy and Philippine democracy, for as UP Law Dean Raul Pangalanan wrote, “Noynoy is in danger of… taking the trapo path, the enemy’s path, which he had foresworn.”

Implications of economic policies
It’s not only through politics that democratization can be measured, but through economic policies as well.

The new government’s burgeoning uncritical dependence on the private sector is something to watch for. It is known, for instance, that P-Noy enjoyed overwhelming support from the Makati Business Club throughout the presidential race. It is further known that during his SONA, Mr. Aquino bannered the cause of increased public-private partnerships (PPP’s) in order to propel economic development while circumventing his administration’s budget blues. “We will meet our needs without spending, and we will also earn,” Aquino pleaded on behalf of the arrangements, fomenting a “new and creative approach to our longstanding problems.” Strangely enough, what he failed to mention were the attached strings of such partnerships and such dependencies.

In truth, there is nothing new at all about PPPs in the Philippines—from their financial justifications to their dubious track records. From the time of President Corazon Aquino until that of Mrs. Arroyo’s, variants of PPPs have been pressed upon incumbent presidents by multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank as part of structural adjustment packages enacted locally. As components of broader neo-liberal reforms in government, PPPs in the Philippines have almost always entailed the ceding of essential public services such as water access, power, telecommunications and infrastructure into the hands of the local and foreign corporations, through privatization.

What is disquieting about P-Noy’s emerging economic policies is that in almost all the economic plans he has so far unfurled, one continually hears about reliance on the private, more often, the corporate sphere. For the agricultural sector, he has called out for the “help of the private sector”, most likely corporate agribusinesses, in solidifying food supply chains for export production. To create jobs, he has pushed for “the growth of the industrial sector” and for pushing forth a new wave of small to medium-size enterprises, even while keeping mum on the adverse impacts of trade liberalization, especially on the silent majority of livelihoods conducted in the informal economy. None of these policies so far signifies substantial commitment to much-needed asset redistribution in favor of the poor and the marginalized.

Even the roster of his economic team speaks volumes: what else do Mar Roxas, Cayetano Paderanga, Cesar Purisima, Alberto Lim and others have in common, if not the fact that they are all in the business of promoting neo-liberalization and privatization?

All the progressive value of such policy orientations hinges upon a crux assumption: that the development of the private sector will necessarily trickle down into the remainder of the population. But in the past decade or so a vibrant literature in development economics has already shown this assumption to be fallacious. A rising tide for the business sector does not lift all boats; it merely makes the government beholden, first and foremost, to big businesses and the backers of big businesses in the national and global arena.

Reviving the EDSA system?
Surrounded as he is by a growing constellation of regressive and conservative pressures, P-Noy has made a number of promises and initiatives that nonetheless bear some genuine force for democratization. The most visible of these, certainly, has been Aquino’s pledge to have the 6,453 hectare Hacienda Luisita redistributed to its tenants by 2014, though this may have been undermined by his labelling of the recent referendum conducted by Hacienda Luisita as merely an “intra-corporate dispute.” Beyond these pronouncements, Mr. Aquino’s expressed drive to bring resolution to the anomalies created by the Arroyo regime, justice for the victims of extrajudicial killings, and fulfilment of the long-delayed Freedom of Information Act are also indicative of some positive things for democratization movements to latch onto.

But let no empty hopes be rekindled with overall prospects for deepening democracy under his reign. In the end, it is already clear that P-Noy remains part and parcel of the political system that Representative Walden Bello had once identified as the EDSA System, the complex of elitist, exclusive and neo-liberal political structures that have gutted the demands of the 1986 EDSA Revolution for democracy and justice, even as they eased the nation out of the immediate perils of national authoritarianism .

Even now the workings of the so-called EDSA system could be gleaned from the shadow plays and shifting alliances by which the Liberal and Aquino camp cemented its hold on the presidency, and is continuing in its drive to further consolidate its power base; it can be seen, moreover, in the same neo-liberal, corporate consensus that presently seems to be crystallizing in the Aquino administration’s policies.

And there may be more to this, in truth, than just the return of past mishaps and failures. Where the blunders of the Arroyo regime had increasingly cast the legitimacy of not only a single head, but of the entire political establishment, into crisis; where dissent against Mrs. Arroyo throughout her term had increasingly struck straight at the essential structural antagonisms undergirding post-EDSA democracy—that of the perverse skew of wealth and power, maintained by pseudo-democratic elite rivalry—the greatest danger that the Aquino government might pose at the moment would be to channel these energies of broad-based dissatisfaction and discontent away from the fundamentals and merely into the peripherals of that “old protracted struggle for power in the Philippines.”

GMA deserves to be challenged for the way she had damaged and exploited the institutions of Philippine democracy, but as has been increasingly recognized, even she could only make do with what history had made available. She merely pushed it further to the edge than any other president after the Marcos era.

Mrs. Arroyo’s controversial actions, sustained by the historical malaise called transactional politics, are now being erroneously imputed only to Arroyo herself. This kind of narrowed outlook on what should be rectified in the post-EDSA system could be setting the downward undemocratic spiral once more into motion.

The task now for a progressive politics would be to convince P-Noy that his true democratic legacy would be decided, not only by his ability to be anti-Arroyo but also anti-Aquino, to the extent that he surpasses the crippled, Janus-faced democracy that history has left behind for him.

 (Published in Focus on the Philippines August-September 2010: http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/447/52/)

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