Is the Philippines really democratic?

Joe Cole is a graduate of both the School of Oriental and African Studies and the London School of Economics. He currently writes policy for the firm Green-Eunoia. This piece was published in the October 18, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

With the first successful automated elections and P-Noy’s first executive order being the Truth Commission, this year has already brought some serious progression for democracy in the Philippines. However, it has also seen some disasters: the police hostage farce, the Morong 43, the police torture video and the realization that it led to a murder.

Though the Truth Commission as P-Noy’s first act will not be able to stand side by side with Indonesia’s KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission), it is a great leap forward to controlling one of the main things that has held this country back from reaching economic parity with Singapore or Japan. However its scope should be such that the disasters listed above are set firmly within its sights. It should not only include the last nine years of GMA, but also all arms of the state, including the arms of the state: the military and the police.

The Truth Commission has gone from being an issue of Law and Justice to a political issue and therefore it is opposed. Perhaps only in the Philippines can politicians be against the truth and still remain in office. But perhaps that is the problem with everything in this country: political office.

The Philippines can be termed a democracy (it can also be termed a theocracy, a bureaucracy (or bureaucrazy), an oligarchy, and a “banana republic that imports its bananas”). It is also not far off from being a failed state. Its current political system is a stagnant, repetitive quagmire of vested feudal interests that have bought the country to its knees (100-million population, no infrastructure, failing institutions), stolen its wallet and kicked its brains out for good measure (brain drain). Politics is the process by which the citizenry of a state makes collective decisions. In a democracy this is taken by elected representatives. The Philippines calls itself a democracy, but I think there is one fundamental flaw in the Philippine political system, which has allowed all of the country’s problems (to a degree) to occur.

In most democracies there is a process of increasing the number of representatives proportionally to any increase in population. For some reason, in the Philippine political system, this has not happened.

In 1916 when the “Philippine Autonomy Act” (“The Jones Law”) was introduced– though only for Christians—it stated in section 13 that “Each of the Senatorial Districts…shall have the right to elect two Senators.” With 12 senatorial districts this meant there would be 24 senators.

In 1916, the Philippine population was roughly 9,500,000– which works out at 1 senator for every 400,000 people. Now that is a relatively good statistic. In the USA (2010) it is roughly 1 senator for every 300,000. So in 1916 the Philippines was not amazingly representative but was ok. Only OK, and that was 100 years ago.

But the problem is that there are still only 24 senators (less one missing and one just granted amnesty) and the population is now a whopping 100,000,000 (2010 estimate.). Not only is that a completely unmanageable population growth , it has left the Philippines with the unenviable distinction of being perhaps the least representative democracy, with 1 Senator representing roughly 4,200,000 people. And if he/she had been more representative it is highly likely that it would not have such a crippling population problem.

If you live in a democracy with one elected representative, that is no democracy at all. Think about it: how do you get your voice heard if you are a citizen or company when you are 1 in 4,200,000? Simple: you don’t. So you give gifts or do favors– and breed corruption. How can one person give oversight? How do the representatives act for the collective good when they are way above the people they serve? More relevantly, how do you get people from different backgrounds and not the same rich land-owning elites into the decision-making process? After all to campaign you need to reach ideally at least four million people and how much does that cost? So you can only get elected if you are a. Rich (meaning the status quo) or b. Famous (meaning you get actors or newscasters who may not be known for their intelligence, decision-making, or acting skills).

The answer is you cannot, and you don’t. With such appalling levels of representation all that can happen is stagnation and corruption. And what a coincidence, this is exactly what happened over the last 50 years as the population grew and the number of politicians stayed the same – in some cases literally (there aren’t many different family names in Philippine Senate history).

I am only looking at the Philippine Senate, but the basic argument – complete lack of representation – can be equally made for Congress; it has only slightly better statistics (because other countries also have more lower house representatives than upper house).

The next executive order should be the tenfold increase of representatives in both houses. It will shake up politics in this country, bring in fresh blood, fresh ideas, give more oversight, probably lessen corruption, improve taxation (see American revolution) and make the Philippines more likely to succeed. Let us not forget the Philippines is only two points off being a failed state so there is no time to lose, and no harm in trying!

There are other areas to be looked at in time –like political parties, appointees, the terms of the President, and the Filipino need to constantly reinvent the wheel with its institutions and infrastructure projects. But first this nearly 100 hundred-year- wrong must be corrected so the country can walk forward, not fall on its face. P-Noy needs to bring representation back to the People of the Philippines –and unlike his first executive order, who can argue against that in a democracy?

No comments yet.