The auxiliary word of democracy is ‘space’

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

A DEMOCRACY stands for so many things but the enshrined pillars are basic and not that many. Some of these are:

• A democracy has a life-long love affair with the Bill of Rights.

• A democracy tolerates – is enhanced, rather – by dissent.

• A democracy sees changes and reforms in increments. Rome, the ancient, ideal Rome, was not built in one day.

• The auxiliary word of democracy is “space.”

An addition. In a democracy with flourishing ideas and a civic culture, rehabilitating despots and tyrants is just not possible.

Mr. Duterte is still popular and appreciated by many. But if his governance would continue defining democracy not according to its cherished history, established norms and practice but according to how Mr. Duterte and his aides want it to be, the tenability of his standing as a popular leader would be put to a serious test. No leader, no matter how well-intentioned and popular, can just defy the norms of democracy and get away with it.

No way, no how.

Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs was very popular at its initial phase. He was the first president to take a long hard look at narco-politics and decided to do something about it. The initial round-up of the suspected drug pushers and users ushered in a state of calm in the blighted rural areas infested with drug addicts and pushers and the slum colonies that seemed to live on shabu-fueled adrenalin.

Who is the ordinary Joe who did not feel relief during the war’s early phase?

Then came the slaughter of the innocent.

The angelic girl, just three or four years out of the crib, ambushed with her suspect-father. The academic achievers mistaken for drug pushers. The young worker home from work murdered in cold blood. Kian, whose last words before the murder, would make an avid supporter of the drug war, rethink his or her position. Carl, and the scrawny 14-year-old stabbed 30 times after a rub-out.

Or three brothers recently murdered in cold blood in their hut somewhere in Cebu. The killers, this time, did not even need to knock on a door. It was a door-less hovel of bamboo slits. What kind of conscience would kill those desperate lives?

In the hard judgment of the law, in the narratives of our popular culture, in every sinew of our democracy, the innocent are never, yes, never, deprived of their Bill of Rights. Killing innocents assaults the very foundation of society’s order. The reckless and remorseless killing of the innocent under the drug war of Mr. Duterte pushed even the most ardent supporters of the war on drugs into a moment of pause. Is this a war on drugs or a mere excuse to butcher the innocent?

Democracy has no tolerance for killing the innocent. The phrase “collateral damage” does not exist in the vocabulary of a democracy, not even when democracy is under a state of siege.

Mr. Duterte and his aides also forgot that the auxiliary word of democracy is “space.” A space for dissent. A space for contrary views. A space for critics and admirers alike. A space where, borrowing from Mao, thousands of thoughts would contend. Dutertismo would thrive only if contested.

Mr. Duterte’s failure to provide the space for dissent and for critics can be captured by a photo gallery of prominent women in politics who have crossed his path: the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima, the impeachment moves against Chief Justice Sereno and the Ombudsman, the assault of his justice secretary on Sen. Risa Hontiveros. And the raging optic of Mr. Duterte unleashing his verbal assault on the UN human rights representative, the Human Rights Watch, the Left and the lumad.

Mr. Duterte’s impatience and intolerance, under a best-case scenario, could be attributed to his desire for quick and urgent fixes – reforms served on the quick like fast food. And threatening to expand his martial law declaration into the Visayas and Luzon if his reform agenda is hamstrung with hurdles. But if history were a guide, Mr. Duterte would be made aware that in a democracy, there is no space for urgent fixes. Reforms take place in increments: a small step here, a tweak there, an adjustment painfully gained courtesy of the collaboration of institutions.

Legislation, the tool by which the grand agenda and programs of the Executive are given flesh and meaning and implementing rules and guidelines, goes through committees and plenary votes and reconciliation. Nothing is done on the quick as there is no such thing as quickie legislation.

A president has always to grin and bear and carry on with the snail’s pace and the plodding ways of legislation.

His aides should advise Mr. Duterte to reread Mao and the patient, incremental steps, the “protracted struggle “that characterized his triumphal march from the countryside to the capital.

Haste makes waste.

Last, the nation is perplexed by Mr. Duterte’s side function as president, the curator of the supposed Marcos legacy of greatness. There is none. Mr. Marcos ruled as a despot and tyrant and presided over the bankruptcy of the nation and the murder of the young.

No president, no matter how loved and respected, can rewrite history according to an alternate, faux version. Lies, as the Bard said, almost always turn out badly.

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