Democracy decays in the Philippines

Taken from Guardian Unlimited, November 30, 2007

In the expensive Makati district in Manila, soldiers on trial for an attempted coup in 2003 stormed out of the courtroom and took over the luxury Peninsula Hotel yesterday. Their leader, Antonio Trillanes, had been elected from behind bars to the Senate this year. Six hours later the standoff and the poorly planned not-quite-a coup was over. The call to remove President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from office by jump-starting another “people’s power” movement failed even before it started.

This bizarre event is one of many of the shocks the Philippines has endured over the last year. The litany of coups, bombings and murders of political candidates and journalists in the troubled southern province of Mindanao have happened so frequently under the leadership of the petite economist president that it is almost impossible to differentiate one shock from the next. Just this month alone there has been a coup, a political-motivated bombing in the town of Basilan, a UN report on the political killings by the Philippine military and a typhoon. While the most lives were lost due to the natural disaster, the weakening of democracy and rising violence has been man made.

Elected to the presidency in 2004, Arroyo has steadily lost legitimacy since assuming office. The election itself was clouded with calls of rigging which have continued to shadow her tenure. She won by one million votes, the same amount that was called for by a woman in a recorded telephone conversation with the election commission. While it was not proven that the call originated from Arroyo, many believe that it did. The corruption scandals around her husband – allegedly including a $330 million deal with a Chinese telecommunications firm (later cancelled) – has added to Arroyo’s woes. Her personal troubles have been compounded by her inability to manage the economy. While growth is estimated to reach over 5% this year, the gains (driven primarily by sales in commodities to China) have not reached society as a whole and, most importantly, not matched the demand for jobs driven by the demographic push of younger Filipinos entering the workforce. Unemployment remains rampant, especially in Manila. The violence in the south has not stopped, despite the intervention of peacekeepers from Malaysia. Talks for a political resolution have been stalled – arguably for the past three years since Arroyo assumed office. The current Philippine president has failed to deliver in the areas where she has needed to. The end result has been a massive drop in public support, a legitimacy crisis for the president.

The sad thing is that no one has emerged to replace her. The Philippine opposition is weak. Arroyo has mastered the strategy of survival by giving the military free reign to engage in political killings. Trillanes’s political stunt in the Peninsula Hotel shows that the military does not offer the calibre of alternative of former president Fidel Ramos. To protect herself, Arroyo has also strategically allied herself with part of the political oligarchy – the 60 or so rich families in the country that dominate politics – splitting the power holders into pro- and anti-Arroyo camps in a savvy divide-and-rule move that she has reinforced with patronage. Driven largely by personality, political parties are weak and have yet to offer a viable candidate. The middle class is weary of yet another “people’s power” movement that fails to deliver real change. From the political ranks to civil society, there is disdain, disappointment and frustration.

To make matters worse, the country has been held hostage by a standoff between the speaker of the lower house, Jose de Venecia Jr, and Arroyo. Last month the House of Representatives started impeachment proceedings against Arroyo. The process has stalled, leaving behind an oligarchic stalemate that appears to be more about a personality squabble than about principles. This has put a halt to any substantive legislation and squashed the debate about reforming the country’s electoral system to a parliamentary system, which would offer the promise of a more representative and accountable government. Governance has deteriorated, especially in rural areas where local bosses reign supreme.

What’s next? In light of what has happened in the course of the last month, one is afraid to ask. The bizarre has become the mundane. The reality is that the cumulative shocks in 2007 have dug deeply into the fabric of democracy in the Philippines. Candidate assassinations, military killings of alleged “communists”, and botched coup attempts have collectively moved the Philippines out of the ranks of viable electoral democracies. The scope of human rights violations and inability for the opposition to win through a free and fair election call into the question system at its core. Economically, the country will rely more on the hard work of its overseas workers, whose remittances remain the economic lifeblood for the country. Politically, more and more Filipinos are tuning politics out or just leaving with their feet. The disengagement has only allowed the oligarchic infighting to deepen. Don’t expect a collapse. Rather, expect political decay and even further economic polarisation, peppered with unbelievable stories of commandos, courtrooms and chaos.