Of fake democracy and open dictatorship

November 2, 2021

by Rosario Guzman

In about six months, the country will once again go to the polls and choose a new presidency. The national elections has been an exercise in futility for many tired Filipinos. This attitude is not without basis, but defeatism shouldn’t be the norm. We may be jaded, but we should never give up fighting for this country.

We’re having the worst

Indeed, presidential candidates in the past would campaign on our poverty and misery, promise to fight corruption, promise to be inclusive, promise to end tyranny and restore democracy, promise progress, and promise change. But after five republics or so, and seven administrations post-Martial Law, we have reached the pits of our social crisis.

We currently have a callous government that carries on with the implementation of neoliberal policies. Ironically, it does so even during a pandemic and severe economic crisis and even if these policies have already been proven in the last decades to have weakened our health system and economic capacity.

As the pandemic rages on, the Duterte government rushes to borrow money for big business. It allocates more and more for infrastructure, militarism, and even the president’s slush funds, while ignoring the huge need for spending on health and the people’s economic survival.

We currently have the kind of government that has worsened corruption and cronyism. The economic oligarchs, especially those close to Duterte, have even increased their net worth in 2020-2021, while most of the population lost their jobs, livelihoods, incomes and savings. We have a president who defends corporations and government health officials who evidently make money out of COVID-19 instead of directing efforts to strengthen the health system and the economy so we can cope with the pandemic.

These are just some of the current news we know about. Still, these are happening against the backdrop of a murderous, tyrannical and treacherous regime in the guise of a republic.

Elite democracy

Does this mean that the Philippine elections failed? That we, the electorate, failed? That elections in general can never be a democratic exercise? Some so-called analysts blame the electorate for being inane. Like a fool, they say, the electorate easily falls for the wrong candidates and for the wrong reasons.    

But before we do that sort of victim-blaming and fall into the trap of the ‘bobotante’ narrative, we need to understand the very nature of the country’s politics. The Philippine state has come into being as a representative of the political and economic elites and their self-interests. They wield the powers of government to serve and preserve these interests and veil and legitimize this act with the holding of regular elections. In short, we are unfortunately being governed under ‘elite democracy’.

This kind of democracy may also be called a ‘hand-me-down democracy’. US colonizers established in the Philippines their system of government, political parties and elections. This was under the pretense of preparing the country for self-government once independent, when the US actually just ensured the continuation of colonial control.

Succeeding presidencies, especially after the Second World War and up to 1972, were entrenched not by bloodshed to quash the vestiges of colonialism but by elections. They campaigned on nationalist ideals for economic progress but never questioned the continued effectivity of colonial laws that gave economic parity to American corporations. They were talking about industrialization but allowed foreign exploitation of the country’s minerals and other natural resources.

What has been entrenched is a kind of government that willingly accepts the country’s subservient role of being an exporter of raw materials and semi-processed goods and an importer of what it really needs. What has been handed down is a kind of government whose interests are vested in the interests of foreign capitalists and the domestic elite – a government that is run like a profit venture.

Dictatorship

Marcos removed the veil of elite democracy. By declaring martial law, he removed the pretension that power rested in the people and that there was social equality. He would then suspend civil liberties, abolish Congress, and openly rule as a dictator.

There were two farcical elections under the Marcos dictatorship – both were called by Marcos himself and only to prove, especially to the US, that there were efforts to normalize and return to democracy and that Marcos still had the mandate to rule. Both elections were rigged, which only further isolated Marcos and his cronies and minions from the general populace.

The Marcos dictatorship would be embedded in the social collective memory as thievery, corruption and cronyism at their finest, the most atrocious human rights violations, and unspeakable abuses of power. Marcos cronies apportioned the economy among themselves and monopolized various sectors and businesses. Still, Marcos apologists would point to these ‘national industries’ that were allegedly established and grandiose infrastructure and impact projects in order to claim a ‘golden age’.

Lies and more lies would characterize the Marcos era, which would further cloud the fact that along with open dictatorship, Marcos actually set the stage for neoliberalism. The Marcos dictatorship borrowed heavily from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for its white elephants and to fund the ‘national industries’ that were actually monopolized by the dictator and his cronies. By 1979, when the structural adjustment loan (SAL) of the World Bank was still at an experimental stage, the Philippines was already applying for such facility. SAL was yet experimental because of the evidently harsh conditionalities attached to it. The Marcos government availed of a US$200 million loan, in exchange for economic restructuring to reduce tariffs and remove quantitative restrictions on certain imports and to orient the economy further towards exportation.

The SAL eventually became the infamous structural adjustment program (SAP), the comprehensive package of neoliberal policies on trade and investment liberalization, privatization, deregulation, fiscal austerity, and financial management. The Marcos dictatorship availed of another US$302 million loan in 1984 and passed more laws to provide investment, tax and export incentives to foreign investors and comprador and crony businesses, open up natural resources for their exploitation, create more export processing zones, institutionalize cheap labor export, and cheapen and oppress local labor.

The Philippine economy collapsed and lagged behind its neighbors. The Marcos regime ushered in a new era of neoliberal economic decline – unprotected domestic economy, worse import dependency, and erosion of manufacturing capacity. To illustrate, it took almost two decades to recover the decline in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in 1983. Foreign debt increased 50 times under Marcos as president and dictator, from US$599 million in 1965 to US$28.3 billion when he was deposed by people power.

Democratic space?

Euphoria ensued with the realization that the people could actually overthrow a fascist regime and choose to change the system. It was not for long unfortunately, as the newly installed fifth republic honored all the debts left behind by Marcos and his family and cronies and continued the adherence and subservience to neoliberal policies. Political analysts repeatedly called the early years after people power “a breath of fresh air” or “democratic space”, but sadly the period immediately thereafter has been a return to elite democracy and intensification of neoliberal globalization.

From 1986 to 2016, the country went through the most aggressive and extremely thorough implementation of neoliberal policies. One administration after another opened up the economy to foreign and comprador plunder, eventually eroding the productive capacity of the economy and relegating it to being simply a service economy of the rich and powerful nations. One administration after another sold off public assets and turned over social services and public utilities to private business. We saw the progressively diminishing role of government and increasing place of the private sector in our socioeconomic life.

This ironically should not be mistaken as the declining will of the state to rule. On the contrary, the political and economic elites effectively used government to obtain the profits they desired. Their power, along with that of foreign capitalists, foreign governments and multilateral agencies, tremendously increased during the period.

The decline of agriculture and Filipino industry has been uninterrupted. Every administration has regarded the swelling services and informal sectors as a sign of economic growth, and this has obscured the continuous erosion of the production sectors. Episodes of fast and high growth have been coupled with high job scarcity and weak job creation, manifesting that the economy with its shallow and hollow growth has practically lost the capacity to create gainful employment. Starting from the Marcos era, succeeding administrations have relied on overseas work and remittances to keep the economy afloat.  

The Philippine government has reduced the daily cost of living, and by doing so has killed the minimum wage. It has lowered the poverty threshold, and by doing so has reduced poverty incidence. It has stopped counting the discouraged workers, and by doing so has reduced the number of those who may be considered jobless. It has sold the idea that private corporations are better and more efficient economic managers than government, even of social services such as health. It has been a period of neoliberal redefinitions to make the impacts of neoliberal policies look less severe.

It has also been a period of fancy neoliberal terms – good governance, inclusive growth, corporate responsibility, civil society participation, and the like – to deodorize neoliberal globalization. In fact, ‘globalization’ as a buzzword has been made the goal of development planning. The reality of massive poverty and severe inequality has been masked in the process.

Little by little, progressive leaders and opposition who have actively fought neoliberalism and its onslaught on the economy and the people are being discredited, vilified and marginalized from “social discourse”. Little by little, traditional politicians (trapos) are being tolerated to just freely flip-flop on issues, whatever is convenient for them, and to consistently defend the liberalized economy. Little by little, the Marcos family, whose ill-gotten wealth has remained hidden and enormous, has been making a return to positions of political power.

Duterte

The incumbent has continued the implementation of neoliberal policies and the narrative that these policies are what the country needs to develop. It has not been easy though. The implementation of neoliberal policies has reached its most difficult stage because of the remaining sectors to be opened up and the remnants of protection that have to be dismantled. It is also undeniable that neoliberalism has been increasingly discredited worldwide because of the recurrent, worsening and prolonged episodes of the global economic crisis. In short, it has not been easy because global people’s resistance is growing and the condition of elite democracy won’t suffice to appease it. A more overt fascistic approach has to be employed.

The Duterte administration has rabidly pushed for the difficult neoliberal policies (for example, the unprecedented liberalization of rice imports) and protected the profits of foreign corporations and domestic oligarchs. Marcos-style, it focused on a grand infrastructure program that has the most potential to please the domestic oligarchs who have built their fortunes from real estate development and from taking over public utilities, to attract foreign investors, and to line the pockets of commissioning officials. Duterte has created his own set of oligarchs, as already mentioned, and this has been self-serving as well.

To sustain this profit-taking, Duterte has ruled as a demagogue, and has markedly posed as a populist, climbing aboard the bandwagon of populism and the rise of populist presidents worldwide. But the Duterte regime has given this populism a rightist and militarist twist, eventually showing a dark streak of authoritarianism. Yet, some people, especially his diehard supporters, are stuck with Duterte’s populist demagoguery and continue to be enamored of his brazen ways. This is even if the policies and action of the Duterte administration are contrary to popular interests. Unfortunately, people are being tricked by disinformation and misinformation which has been institutionalized to complete the rule by repression and deception. We are witnessing dictatorship, 21st century version.

Elite elections

All throughout post-colonial politics, elite democracy, dictatorship and authoritarianism, there have been consistent factors that have allowed the elite to obtain, sustain and consolidate power, with or without elections. The elite’s consistent winning card and staying power is pleasing foreign patrons. Had not the multilateral lending institutions and foreign governments especially the US dealt with what they knew was a dictatorial regime? The control of the military is also a consistent factor, especially since martial law politicized the military and made it fractious. The third important factor is money, huge sums of it.

The usual notion is that the ruling party readily has an election war chest since public money is at its disposal. But that is just an added advantage. Being close to the oligarchs is the sure-fire way of winning. Three of the 10 richest Filipinos control three of the country’s five biggest political parties – Villar (Nacionalista), Ramon Ang (Nationalist People’s Coalition), and Enrique Razon (National Unity Party). They are, not by chance, known to be the Dutertegarchs. Their political parties account for one-third of the 18th Congress. This is not to say that these oligarchs have not placed their money on other political parties or candidates. Also, we are not even talking about the Marcoses yet, who, with their ill-gotten wealth are by far the richest in the country.

Based on projections by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), one needed Php4 billion to run for president in the 2016 national elections, Php1 billion for vice-president, and Php350 million for senator. And in this country where political dynasties still reign in the 21st century, a family vying for the presidency, senatorial and congressional slates, governorship, including mayoralty even, would spend about Php5 billion. This is nothing for the richest families.

The average net worth of the senators as of 2020 is Php384 million. Two senators, Cynthia Villar and Manny Pacquiao, are billionaires, and each is wealthier than the 22 other senators combined. However, the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) are often under-declared – for instance, Sen. Imee Marcos incredibly has only Php36.3 million net worth – while Duterte himself never declared his SALN. At any rate, senators are citizens’ representatives at large, but they hail only from the richest 2% of the population.

We need genuine opposition

How do we vote then in 2022? We are in dire need of candidates who will work tirelessly and steadfastly to challenge and overthrow this unjust system – to end this murderous, treacherous and tyrannical rule and replace it with equitable, democratic and truly sovereign government. We need candidates who will stop the return of those who have already been condemned by history as corrupt, thieving and lying rulers. We need candidates outside these cliques, and better yet, those who are outside the current power structure that has only oppressed the majority.

We need champions of human rights and social justice, an economy governed by the people for their needs and their prosperity, equality, sovereignty, and freedom from the shackles of neoliberalism and foreign dictates and from the control of the few. We need an electorate who should be ready anytime to take action for genuine change. ###

Rosario Guzman

Rosb is IBON's executive editor and head of the Research Department. She is also a member of the IBON Board of Trustees.