Search Sunday November 2, 2003

The Philippines: Democracy in crisis
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Monday, November 3, 2003

HONG KONG: The Philippines, once a beacon for democrats in Asia, is now an ever more acute embarrassment. Back in 1986 when "people power" replaced the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos with an elected government, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand were still in the grip of unelected regimes with links to the military. Now those countries all have democratic governments while democracy in the Philippines looks ever more shoddy.

Heading toward elections next May, the situation is deteriorating further as politicians, some with longstanding criminal allegations hanging over them, maneuver. In the latest twist, Chief Justice, Hilario Davide has been subject to a politically inspired attempt to impeach him for alleged misuse of funds. The House of Representatives has created a constitutional crisis by voting to bring an impeachment complaint to the Senate. Worse, Davide is that rarity in the Philippine public service, a man with a hitherto clean reputation who has sought to keep the judiciary independent of the legislature.

Although President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has sought a nonconfrontational resolution of the issue, the fact remains that congressmen from her own party have backed the impeachment. They joined forces with the party of one of the country's richest men, Eduardo Cojuangco, head of the giant San Miguel Corporation. Cojuangco was once a political ally of disgraced former president Joseph Estrada. His influence and money would be invaluable in securing Arroyo's election.

Cojuangco was a major beneficiary of a Marcos era scheme which enriched a few at the expense of the nation's coconut farmers. Despite having to face several years of post-Marcos exile and attempts to strip him of allegedly ill-gotten wealth he succeeded in gaining control of San Miguel. Some San Miguel ownership issues are still before the courts and critics say the move against Davide follows Supreme Court judgments unfavorable to Cojuangco.

Arroyo's already low standing has been further diminished by this. At the end of last year she declared she would not run in 2004. But she is now a candidate for election. She has also made a good friend of George W. Bush by declaring that Jemaah Islamiyah terrorism is the nation's biggest threat. In reality the well organized and long established Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Communist New Peoples' Army continue to cause far more deaths.

Arroyo's about-face on running in 2004 did not help the standing of her office given that she came to power in a dubiously constitutional manner and has since been obliged to do the bidding of influential backers including the military and the church.

But despite all this Arroyo could well be the least objectionable contender for the top office. She is weak leader but has a competent cabinet and policies. The list of leading hopefuls to replace her includes Senator Panfilo Lacson, chief of police under Estrada and a man whose business links and human rights record have been the subject of stomach-churning allegations. Then there is Fernando Poe, a none too articulate senator and friend of Estrada whose political career also developed from his movie one. A less flamboyant but popular candidate is lawyer and former senator Raul Roco. He has a steady if uninspiring reputation but may be unelectable given his lack of money and business backers.

Some of the Philippines' woes might be ameliorated by constitutional changes, such as a single chamber legislature, a two round presidential election and a congressional voting system which would strengthen parties at the expense of personalities. Some favor a parliamentary system.

But the nation needs deeper social change, an uprooting of the old links between a small business élite and the political structure. Without that, democracy, lively and open though it undoubtedly is, will be a form of entertainment for the masses and periodic redistribution of spoils for the élite rather than a way representing mass interests. Whether that change can come about democratically is debatable. Philippine society is more polarized than any in Southeast Asia. Slow economic development has retarded the growth of the classes which elsewhere in Asia have underpinned elective government. Yet unless it can change, sooner or later one of the periodic military revolts to "chuck out the corrupt politicians" will succeed.