Danger to Democracy: A Weak State
Speech given by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno (Ret.) during the first day of the DEA Church Workers Convocation at Branscomb Memorial United Methodist Church, Kidapawan City on Oct. 28, 2014.

Let me go straight to my message: the state of democracy all over the world, but especially democracy in the Philippines. This is reflected in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy taken some time ago which surveyed the state of democracy in 165 independent states and 2 territories, thus effectively covering the globe. The survey studied the performance of these states in the following areas: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

The results of the survey will cover you with gloom. They show that only 26 countries in the world qualify as full democracies; 53 countries are considered flawed democracies; 33 countries are classed as hybrid regimes; and 55 countries are classified as authoritarian regimes. In other words only 12.3% of the world’s population live in countries under full democracy. In Asia, only two countries qualified as full democracies – Japan and South Korea. The Philippines was considered a country with flawed democracy.

I quote their analysis as to why democracy is in retreat in Asia:

“Democratic political cultures in Asia are often underdeveloped and shallow, even in countries that have democratized. In only 9 countries in the region do we rate elections as both being free and fair. Even in parts of the region that are not authoritarian there is often pressure on the independent media. In many countries… polls show that more citizens believe that the nation’s democratic transitions brought no improvement to their lives than believe the changes have been positive. Nostalgia for overthrown dictators is widespread. Some in the region are calling for resurgence of the so-called ‘Asian Values’. Although majority of Asians say that they support the democratic ideals, their commitment to the limits on a leader’s power is far lower than in most regions.”

Our failure to qualify as a full democracy is more lamentable in view of our history. We hold the record as the first country in Asia to establish a republican democracy, courtesy of Emilio Aguinaldo and the Malolos Congress. But after more than 100 years, the Philippines is now used as a study model of a country that started with a surfeit of democracy to a country with democratic deficit.

Obviously, our State has failed to discharge its duties to our people, as called for by their covenant to establish a democratic society. For this reason, those watching our democratic progress classify our State as a weak State, a soft State, or a failing State. It is difficult to disagree with this classification for indeed we will not be a flawed democracy if we have developed a State that is strong and capable of fulfilling the expectations of our people. The danger is that a State that continues to be weak, a State that severely defaults in serving the people may be brought down by anti-democratic forces through extra-constitutional means.

As members of the body of Christ, we should study the causes why our State is a failing State, why our State has become a weak State, where the rule of law is ineffective. First is the historical cause, our colonial past. Our experience with Spain is colonialism a t its worst, an unmitigated disaster. After three centuries, Spain left us a land controlled by compradores, with a majority of people suffering from dense ignorance, an archipelago with ethnic fissures. Under the Americans, we fared a little better. We were granted our political independence and we became a State. But unlike the British, the Americans did not leave us with a civil service powered by meritocracy and administered by honest government servants. Perhaps we are to blame ourselves. For we opted to follow Quezon’s pied-piper call for a government run like hell by Filipinos. That early in our history, our State’s political apparatus started to fall in the hands of a small elite. It also started to be disturbed by the rebellions of the Hukbalahaps in Central Luzon and the unrest of the Muslims in the South. The economy likewise, started to be driven by big landowners. To make matters worse, the Americans made sure they could continue the exploitation of our economy. They forced down our throat the Parity Amendment. The Pemberton case is but a result of the continuing unequal treaty with the Americans. In fine, our State lost the opportunity to be a strong and effective State due to our colonizers, whom some scholar say never really left us to be on our own.

The second reason why we are a weak ineffective State is our electoral system that has long been vulnerable to the use of force and fraud. Such a flawed electoral system breeds regimes that desecrate the sovereignty of the people, governments that do not respect their rights, and administrations that betray their interests. Necessarily, leaders that come to power through the use of guns, gold and goons will leave a State only after abusing it, a State then bereft of strength and drained of its effectiveness. We have seen the reign of these illegitimate and rapacious leaders. They helped themselves to the coffers of the people. They distributed the resources of the government unfairly and unevenly. They governed with iron hands to perpetuate themselves in power, using threats and violence against the opposition, against critics, against any person or group perceived as disturbing their reign. They struck deals and unholy alliances with shady characters like gambling lords, smuggling syndicates, drug dealers, and tax cheats. The news, then and now, provide irrefutable evidence of the corruption of our electoral process that has left us a State in tatters. In the late 1940’s, it was good enough that a leader who bought for his use an expensive urinal caused a shockwave to our electorate and was booted out of office. Today, however, some of our leaders are under investigation for thievery of billions of pesos, and yet a seemingly desensitized people hardly react with righteous rage. In the fifties, the murder of one man in Negros, so touched the conscience of the people and catapulted Magsaysay to the presidency. Now some of our voter do not mind voting with the birds and the bees; some merely shrug off the killing fields in the South where every election our right to vote is buried. In the past, we go to Congress to be educated by the debates of our elective representatives; now we go to the legislature for entertainment by some of its members. In fine, we see the non-stop, progressive abuse of our electoral system which is the heart of democracy. I say progression because we were the first people in Asia to exercise the right to vote. That right was given to us by the Americans more than 100 years ago and considering the length of time, we should have already developed an electoral system beyond tampering by purchasing power, beyond violation by force or fraud. The tragedy is that after 100 years, our government in the past has been captured by leaders who do not truly represent the people and who often have weakened our State by taking advantage of its resources. Unless we are rescued from these types of leaders, we will never live under a full democracy. They say our democracy is the best, the best that money can buy.

The third reason for our weak inefficient State is the rise of the centers of power that command critical mass of votes or wield excessive economic clout or possess armories of death and violence. The existence of these centers of power oftentimes transcend the limits of the permissible because they frustrate the government in the pursuit of its legitimate ends. For instance, we see the growth of sectarian forces that are able to extract undue political and economic favors from government due to their demonstrated capability to deliver votes. Every election time, we witness candidates make a beeline to seek the blessings of these leaders as if they descended from Mount Sinai. For another, we see the multiplication of political dynasties that control votes in their bailiwicks and who in turn, are allowed to perpetuate themselves as kings in their fiefdoms with the unspoken right to exploit their constituents. We also see the influence of a few oligarchs, who can direct the economic policies of government in their favor but to the detriment of many. Thus, every Congress, people urge the enactment of laws that will enforce our constitutional policy against dynasties and monopolies but to no avail. A State cannot be shackled by these centers of power which have no accountability to the people for they serve themselves alone. Unfortunately, the weakening of States especially by private business interest has been accelerated by the coming of globalization and its dominant ideology of near unregulated capitalism. Capitalism espouses the free enterprise system of varying shades. It champions the thesis that it is the invisible hand of the market that should guider economy as opposed to the hand of the government. Hence, its mantras of privatization and deregulation which tell public authorities no to engage in business, and to let the private sector to do it without or with the least competition from government. As usual, with pressure from external sources, we joined the hallelujah chorus chanting privatization and deregulation. Immediately, private business led by the elite, grabbed control of our light and power industry, the oil industry, and the water industry as government was prodded to divest its interests therein in near fire sale. The people were promised lower rates to pay our light, water and oil bills but found themselves drowning in high prices. Today, the government finds itself unable to look at even the books of these corporations to determine whether they are amassing too much profit at the expense of the people. Again, we cannot afford a State that is hardly able to protect the people.

The fourth reason why we have a weak ineffective State is our incessant internal strife due to wars, insurrections and rebellions. We have long been bedeviled by these strife that have broken and continue to break our peace. We fought debilitating wars against Spain, against the Americans, and against the Japanese. Thereafter we contended with Hukbalahaps, who were succeeded by the NPAs; and today, we are rocked by secessionist movements in Mindanao. These do not include the havoc wrought to us by agents of terrorism who stalk our seas and our shores. Obviously, our State has lost its right to the monopoly of violence. The lives we have lost in these insurrections and rebellions are too many and we have not stopped counting. The damage done in Zamboanga by the fight between the government and the MNLF has not been remedied. The kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf continue unabated. Now the news is that trained terrorist from ISIS will target the Philippines. Tally too the innocent people displaced by these rebellions that continue to increase in number. Consider too that their economic cost is becoming unbearable to a government already running dry of resources. More and more, government has to cut back on its spending to fulfill its duty to deliver basic services to the people in the area of education, health, housing, poverty alleviation, etc. Hence, we hear the growl of complaints getting louder from our students about the cutback of support to our state colleges and universities; we hear protests about the deterioration of services of our hospitals especially in the provinces; we hear howls against the increase of transportation costs because of the VAT; we see long lines at the LRT and MRT, the strikes of jeepney drivers, the everyday traffic, the congestions in our ports, the undelivered goods, etc. Rebellion of a few is but enough but a revolt of the masses is worse if it comes. Again, all these are growing marks of a State with hands too limp to make a difference.

The fifth reason that we have a weak State is our inability to resist foreign intervention. A State mired in poverty is easy prey to foreign countries with contrary interest. Since time immemorial, real economic sufficiency has eluded us. As a consequence, we have been compelled to surrender our political and economic sovereignty at different points of our history. For a long while, we were home to military bases, which Recto denounced as magnets to attacks. And until now, our huge indebtedness tethers us to foreign government and institutions that lend money. To an impoverished State, a collection letter from a creditor State is just as deadly in effect as a bullet. We have to learn the lesson that foreign States will never put our interest above their interest. Our State enjoys a bounty of natural resources, and we should not expect foreign States and their multi-nationals not to devour them, especially at this time when most of their economies are suffering from recession. We have, lying in the bosom of Mindanao, trillions worth of natural resources and it is not unexpected for foreign countries to salivate for their control and disposition even if they have to weaken our State for the purpose. History warns us of the curse of resources but I’d like to think they can never be a curse to a strong State.

We all desire a State that is strong enough to fulfill the expectations of the people. To our authorities who are doing their best towards this direction, I leave a food for thought the following studies of experts on security:

• “Weapons do not necessarily provide security. This is true for adversarial States armed with weapons with such destructive power that no defense is possible. It is true in civil wars, where the easy availability of weapons empowers the ruthless but offers little defense for civilians. And it was true on September 11, 2001 when a determined group of terrorists struck with impunity against the world’s most powerful military country.
• “Real security in a globalizing world cannot be provided on a purely national basis. A multilateral and even global approach is needed to deal effectively with a multitude of trans-boundary challenges.
• “The traditional focus on state (or regime) security is inadequate and needs to encompass safety and well-being for those living there. If individuals and communities are insecure, state security itself can be extremely fragile. Democratic governance and a vibrant civil society may ultimately be more imperative for security than an army.
• “Non-military dimensions have an important influence on security and stability. Nations around the world, but particularly the weaker countries and communities, confront a multitude of pressures. They face a debilitating combination of rising competition of resources, severe environmental breakdown, the resurgence of infectious disease, poverty and growing wealth disparities, demographic pressures, and joblessness and livelihood insecurity.” (State of the World, p. 5)

Let us help our State be a strong and effective State for without strength it cannot deliver real service to the people. All that we see happening in our society today is the result of a State battered and weakened by different factors and forces. We should engage these forces as a body of Christ. As Methodists, we have a tradition on engaging powers that perpetrate and perpetuate political, social and economic injustices against the people. Our Social Creed is our covenant to uphold the powerless against the powerful; to fight for the exploited many against the exploiting few… And let us not forget that Methodism was founded by John Wesley, to quote historians, “who is to be remembered for the gospels that he preaches which inspired people to take up social causes in the name of Christ.” They say that Wesley was both a preacher of the gospel and a prophet of social righteousness; they called Wesley “the man who restored for a nation its soul” (Stott, John R.W., Issues Facing Christians Today, pp. 25-26).

Again, good morning and all glory to God!

Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno (Ret.)
Branscomb Memorial UMC
Spottswood Methodist Mission Center
Kidapawan City, Cotabato, Philippines
October 28, 2014

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