• Are we a true democracy? No, we are not. Why do I say that?

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    DEMOCRAY is said to be “less a specific set of government institutions and more a cluster of values, attitudes, and practices that the nation share a common understanding of and agree with.”

    These values, attitudes and characteristics include, though may not be limited, to the following:

    1. Power and civic responsibility are freely exercised by all adult citizens, directly, or through our freely elected representatives.

    2. The majority rules but minority and our individual rights are respected. A democracy guards against a very powerful central government. Through the “principle of subsidiarity” (that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority). It decentralizes government to regional, provincial or state, and municipal levels, ensuring that all levels are genuinely accessible and responsive to us, the people.

    3. A democratic government understands that one of its primary functions is to protect our basic human rights—the freedoms of speech and religion, our right to equal protection under the law, and our right to organize and participate fully in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of society.

    4. A democratic government conducts regular free and fair elections open to us citizens of voting age.

    5. We citizens in a democracy have freedoms, rights and privileges. We have countervailing duties, responsibilities and obligations. These obligations include the responsibility to participate intelligently, mindfully, in the political system that protects our rights and freedoms.

    6. We, citizens of a democracy, must be committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, collaboration and compromise in the conduct of all our affairs.

    A quick scan of these six conditions cited above immediately tells us there are many differences between the ideals and our reality. Let us look further and deeper.

    In what was then called “Social Studies” in our basic education years (in my case, between 1950 and 1960), sometime during our 5th or 6th grades I think, we were taught that certain pre-conditions must exist for a people to practice true democracy.

    Among these preconditions, three stood out for me:

    1. Citizens must have access to the most current, pertinent and accurate information on
    which discussions and arguments about problems, issues and challenges must proceed.

    2. Citizens must have the education and training to promptly access, objectively process and respectfully share their thoughts on these information regarding the problems, issues and challenges with their fellow citizens, who may be in opposing positions from them.

    3. There should not be any conditions that pressure the discussants and their discussions, whose conclusions are predetermined by vested interests.

    How have we fared along these considerations? Not very well at all.

    On access to information

    While many items of information are indeed available and increasingly so electronically, a lot of local data have not been transformed into electronic form and our electronic access is hampered by very poor communications infrastructure.

    We are also told that certain information related to national security and our “strategic interests” are not for public consumption. To some extent we can appreciate and even agree with that. But we need a tighter and more credible definition of what constitutes national security and what are our supposedly strategic interests. Last I looked, these definitions have remained very vague and perhaps intentionally so to allow definitions to be limited to those with interests to keep these “secret.”

    The continuous refusal of the House of Representatives to pass the Freedom of Information Bill implies, to me, the desire to hide information inimical to the vested interests they protect, theirs and their associates.

    On the ability to obtain, process and share information

    The state of our public education, once considered the best in this part of the world, was allowed to deteriorate since the “reforms” instituted by the Marcos government, reforms that on hindsight aimed more at keeping a nation docile and obedient to the demands of a very centralized government.

    There is palpable evidence of the deterioration of our public education (and in many private schools) using both local and international data. The “International Mathematics and Science Series” has shown dismally we have sunk in at least two subjects, physics and mathematics, where we occupy the power ranks in the field.

    The deterioration is also apparent in the inability even of teachers to demonstrate analytical-critical and synthesizing thinking. The deterioration is also evident in poor language skills.

    On the pressures to force decisions toward a predetermined outcome

    Studies by the then-University of the Philippines College of Public Administration (UPCPA), now the UP National College Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG), showed that the whole legal system of law-making had been designed to make everyone run to Malacañang to interpret the often intentionally vague laws passed, and/or the conflicting provisions of the law and its implementing rules and regulations, and/or one law versus another.

    Sadly, instead of changing that, subsequent Malacañang occupants and their close followers seem to have decided on continuing the practice.

    Stories abound of how Congress will alter executive branch decisions toward results they wish, using the budgetary request process. Equally abundant is the use of market influences to ensure that organizations, business, not-for-profit and nongovernmental toe a specific line.

    Clearly, ours is far from a true democracy using these basic considerations. There is much work to do. And we have increasingly little time to do it.

    Mario Antonio G. Lopez teaches at the Asian Institute of Management and consults with business, government, civilian, police and military; not-for-profit and NGOs in the Philippines and abroad, and has worked as a line manager in all the four sectors.

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    1 Comment

    1. Benny M. Abante on

      In the 14th Congress, I was the chairman of the Committee on Public Information and sponsored before the floor the FOI bill. I was pressured in order to approve the FOI bill, I must also sponsor the Right of Reply bill of which I graciously refused. Still, I was given the freedom to tackle the FOI bill in my committee and finally included that in the floor debate, without much debate we approve the bill on 3rd reading as the Senate also approved it. We integrated both bills in the bicameral conference and without much discussion seeing we have a good bill, passed it for ratification by both congresses. The Senate ratified the bill immediately, while when I brought the bill for ratification in Congress, it hit a snag. Here’s what happened: While deliberation was suspended, I was called to a closed door meeting with the Speaker and the Majority and Assistant Floor Leader. I was asked to make a manifestation that the bill before approval will not have a retroactive effect. Sensing a malicious ploy, i was about to refuse the proposal but realizing that my manifestation does not have any legal effect on the bill, I agreed. At the plenary, resuming the debate before I made my manifestation, a Congressman stood up made a motion to suspend deliberation of the bill because it was not properly and exhaustively debated. Of course I objected and pleaded since that would be the last day of session, it would be for the interest of the ordinary Filipino and the majority of our people to ratify the bill, but my pleading fell on deaf ears and I was overruled. After which a question of quorum was raised and Congress was adjourned due to the lack of quorum. During that debate, I pleaded through a privilege speech but it was of no avail, as they shut off the microphones. Realizing that, before Congress adjourned, I walked out. Not very many people knew what actually happened. When PNoy became president, I was happy because the approval of the FOI bill was in his top priority and said that there will be an FOI law with 100 days of his presidency. 100 days had passed, not even an FOI discussion. I went to Malacanang to plead for that the bill be made an administration measure. I talked with 3 media men, Sonny Coloma, Ricky Carandang and Manolo Quezon who during GMA’s time passionately called for the approval of the bill. It was an exercise in futility on my part.
      It dawned on me that even Congress cannot act independently, and subservient to the whims of the President. IN Congress, it was a ‘tyranny of the majority’, I wonder if we can call that an exercise of real democracy. The Representatives of the people not acting as real Representatives. There is a real disturbing flaw in our democracy, include in this discussion ‘fair and honest’ election.
      Thanks for taking time to read my heartfelt message.

      Sincerely,
      Benny M. Abante
      Representative, 6th district Manila
      13th & 14th Congress