IS DEMOCRACY A POLITICAL LUXURY POOR COUNTRIES CANNOT AFFORD?

New tyrannies, rising inequality threaten fragile civil liberties

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The rise of the Davao City strongman, Rodrigo Duterte, in the presidential polls—and among all classes of the electorate—has raised some alarm over the future of our civil rights and representative processes.

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Taken together with the emergence of Ferdinand R. Marcos as the leading candidate for vice president, Duterte’s ascent suggests to a visiting journalist from the Washington Post that “the Philippines is steadily giving in once again to ‘strongman syndrome’—which he defines as “the misguided belief that tough-talking and political will alone can address complex 21st-century governance challenges.”

No asian mode of democracy
Not just Filipinos but most East Asians have become more uncertain about their political future than they were in the flush of their “economic miracle” (1965-90). No longer do we hear extravagant claims of an “Asian mode of democracy.”

New tyrannies are rising, of which Islamist terrorism is the most terrifying. Mass poverty may be easing. In China alone, 600 million people have already been raised to middle-class status. But income and social inequalities are becoming acute, as command economies switch to the enterprise system.

In sum, the region’s states—though many times richer than they used to be—are realizing they cannot buy themselves out of their democratic deficits. In the ebb and flow of regional politics, some states have moved away from, and others toward, authoritarianism.

Pragmatism in Myanmar
Myanmar’s brisk transition to electoral politics—after 50 years of harsh military rule—has been astounding. By last March, its ruling junta had proclaimed a new charter, installed a civilian chief executive, and elected a legislature—with a quarter of its delegates serving military officers.

With equal pragmatism, Yangon’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, conceded the junta’s claim to a continued political role, though her opposition party won three-quarters of all the Parliament seats contested. Less commendable is her silence on the “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

Meanwhile, neighboring Thailand has entered another cycle of military rule (since 2007), meant to forestall populist control of the legislature and keep the Bangkok elite in power.

In Malaysia, authoritarianism is tightening up, as popular anger seethes over apparent corruption in high office. The federation’s chief law-enforcer has just proposed restoring the colonial-era law that imposes caning for journalists who refuse to disclose their sources.

By contrast, Indonesia seems well on its way to parliamentary democracy. It has just elected its first President drawn from outside Jakarta’s traditional ruling classes.

Singaporeans have been richer than Americans since 2004. But their country remains a no-nonsense “nanny state,” where chewing gum is banned; and spitting may cost you a fine.

Democratic exhaustion?
In our country, authoritarianism’s appeal seems to come from what the Post’s Richard Heydarlan calls “democratic exhaustion.” Filpinos despair over the dysfunctional bureaucracy, the self-serving politicians, and a profligate elite indifferent to their plight.

In this view, Filipinos are coming to subscribe to the political and economic advantages of authoritarian rule.

For the late-industrializing countries, the chicken-or-the-egg question has been, “What should the modernizing state first attend to: the politics or the economy?”

As Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir saw it in 1992, the Russians introduced democracy along with the free market. The result was chaos and heightened misery.

By contrast, the East Asian states and Deng Xiaoping’s China accepted the market while deliberately abstaining from democracy—and became prosperous.

Authoritarian advantage?
The Singapore strongman, Lee Kuan Yew, habitually argued that political order may claim priority over individual rights. As he told the 18th Philippine Business Conference in 1992:

“I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”

Similarly, the influential Harvard political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), recognized the need for an “authoritarian transition”—as in Japan, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore.

These states all modernized their economies under authoritarian terms. Only later did they open up their political systems to democratic contestation.

Insecurity and inequality will always be part of the enterprise system. “They are the unavoidable result of market operations, the price of capitalist dynamism.”

But, though unavoidable, inequality can be mitigated by government activity. And it is right that the state should do so—because economic insecurity, if left to itself, will erode social order and generate a populist backlash against the economic system as a whole.

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11 Comments

  1. What we have is a dysfunctional democracy. Majority of our law makers does not care what happens to our country as long as they can steal more money to cover up their expenses to be elected. The judiciary is also to be blamed for not being fair on cases they hold. The executive branch , our president is a weakling person that cannot appoint the right person for the job. The only hope, GAO , government auditors which is the last bastion to correct irregularities are also corrupted by the corrupt system. That is the reason our country cannot be a first world country.

  2. Self discipline with freedom is a kind to live with.. DISCIPLINE IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS. For your information, all European countries has the attitude of Authoritarian except Americans, as far as my experienced with them is concerned..
    I was told by my boss British , that we Filipinos is a happy people and with hospitality. But there is no discipline at all. He mentioned to me that he likes President Marcos, because that time Filipino were respected of their intelligent and behavior. When President Marcos was gone, our people is like an animal, that went wild because of democracy and freedom initiated by Aquino government. Over freedom and democracy without a limitation. This is the problem he said. Good governance should start from your government itself..They were the father of the nation, our politicians..

  3. Libertarians or civil liberties advocates thrives and prosper only in a mature and fully developed economies as the people becomes self-discipline and police their own ranks. In counties where the poor and miserable population is pervasive and endemic as they consists 60% of the population wallowing in abject poverty like the Philippines. Democracy is anathema to economic and social development as the elites and unscrupulous politicians dictates the rule on the masses.
    The choice between democracy and authoritarianism by the people is influenced or driven by the abject poverty of majority of the populace that immediate and quick economic resolution becomes the inclination to choose authoritarianism. Bureaucracy in a democratic environment slows down economic growth as it politicize the mechanism of fast policy changes unlike in a one-man rule or a small circle of political decision-maker. Of course, authoritarian rule must be conducive to social and economic development and NOT for the ruler himself like the corrupt Marcos and Imeldefic. Yet it is problematic to judge the character of the RULER as it may be destructive and even violent, once the ruler decides to perpetuate himself in power. A social upheaval ensues to force him out of power yet it is also uncertain as to his successor and his/her predisposition to political power. It is a risk of choice that people must accept to find a speedy social and economic solution to lift up the condition of the masses and majority of the poor populace.
    I would like to find a man or woman who is honorable, courageous, decisive, self-abnegating and with a big heart for the country’s huddled poor.

  4. Elcid Pelayo on

    the face of liberal democracy in the Philippines characterized by shameless insensitivity and utter impotence towards problems will always be that of BS Aquino-it makes me puke….Duterte is the answer…

  5. For decades, we have been electing these traditional politicians who kept on promising paradise to every common man every election period. Where are we NOW? You’ll be the judge and see for yourself if these so-called leaders of ours have kept their promises. Our country cries for a substantial change. Change it will be!

  6. rambotito dutertards on

    More than 20 years of Marcos authoritarian rule, the ordinary people then were forcibly disciplined while some are brutalised fighting the dictatorship BUT the elite, influential businessmen, family cronies, politicos and high ranking military officers loyalist to FM were the only one who reaped the benefits and cornered the economy and nations wealth for decades.At the end of the day, the ordinary filipino remains poorer.What CHANGE are u talking about in imposing another strongman leadership? The GENUINE CHANGE is not from the president BUT must begin from every filipino citizen to be discipline, adhere the rule of law and be patriotic to their flag, people and country rather than beholden and fanatic to one person like Du-terte who turned out to be FRAUD Messiah! IN fact, Du-terte Presidential campaign is funded by the same elite, influentials businessmen manipulating our country for ages.CHANGE or CHANGE THE TOPIC?

  7. Maninistis on

    History has strong support for your argument. The more immature a country’s economy and democracy, the more sensitive it is to minor misadjustments, so the easier it seems to want to spiral out of control when inadequate/inappropriate attention to it exists. The previous sentence is easy to understand, but is still simplistic, for the time period in which the economy and democracy exist is increasingly problematic. The rest of the planet continues to evolve, and revolve, leaving us further and further behind with a problem that grows with time. In addition, following Martial Law, steps ala “Marshall Plan” after WW2 were, in hindsight, needed. Simply assuming that all we had to do was return to full democracy and everthing would be fine was a big mistake. Having said that, the hallmark of success is the ability to see change, appreciate the ramifications and predictions of those changes, and to continously adapt to obtain a desired outcome. In certain govts, the organization and bureaucracy constrain the ability to respond appropriately. Hence a smaller govt., such as a military or dictatorship, seems to get better outcomes; they are able to respond quickly to changing needs of society. However, these forms of govt. also find that it is easier to stay in power longer, for the same reasons. The solutions for the Phil would make for a good PhD thesis. Maybe we could ask a few foreign universities with strong govt and political and economic courses to run a few simulations for us?

  8. I do not believe that the Philippines has ever been ‘ready’ for the kind of western democracy with the concommitant responsibility.

    First, the country gained its independence right after its devastation from WWII. This is coupled by unscrupulous leaders who’d rather run the government like hell, than like heaven by foreigners. True, we are now in ‘hell’. These are the same leaders who wanted independence because they wanted to run the government their way and took advantage of the people since then. Proof: How many of these politicians remained poor or haven’t enriched themselves?

    We talk of tyrannies and violation of civil liberties. Has anyone tried to equate these to the long sufferings of the Filipinos because of the corrupt government officials, the members of the oligarch and the ‘intgelligentia’ group?

    Government officials try to portray that they are churchgoers and God fearing when they are not….”puro pakitang tao”. Mostly, they run for government offices on the pretext of serving the people. Rather, to enrich themselves. Proof: Poverty has never been alleviated after all the promises a politician can muster in all the pre-election years, despite the natural resources and economic gains of the country.

    The change is NOW or NEVER. May God save the Republic of the Philippines.

  9. Singapore may place the collective good above individual rights. but Singaporean individuals have relative control over their destinies. that empowerment is key. if LKY were alive, even he would set limits to government authority over the individual. no doubt, he would not have looked kindly on leaders who do not practice basic decency. Singapore never had to resort to murder, cheating, lying and whatever seems to have been accepted by Filipinos as trade-offs to benefits under “iron rule”.

    • singapore is different from the philippines. This country has an insurgency and separatist problem. It is an agrarian country but has a feudalistic agrarian system that started back during the spanish encomiendas then to haciendas like the hacienda luisita of the cojuangcos. This agrarian problem evolved socialist movement in this country that gives the Hukbalahap movement then to the CPP/NPA NDF movement that presently beseech this country; compounded now by the muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao. This situation
      alone, aside from other political, social and economic problem, is already deluding this country with immense problem to solve and it brought other problems compounding the problem of peace and order.

  10. Just like in a home where the parents exercise unbridled liberalism, the children grow up without the required discipline to form them into strong and independent human beings. They go in different directions and are weaklings insofar as decision making is concerned. So yes, a bit of authoritarianism is required. But it must be of the kind that does not brook violations of human rights. It must be one that is coupled with genuine concern for his fellowmen. The need for a benevolent dictator resurges. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was authoritarian. And look where Singapore is now.