In the new year, events and administration initiatives impel us to return to the basics of our Constitution and its ambiguities and shortcomings.
More in obliviousness than confidence in securing constitutional government in the Philippines, the 50 Constitution framers appointed by President Corazon Aquino to draft the new Constitution in 1986, fatefully and radically changed the very first principle of governance in the 1987 Charter, from that originally provided by the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions.
In simple and clear language, the 1935 and 1973 charters identically declared and provided in Article II, Section 1 of their Declaration of Principles:
“The Philippines is a republican state. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”
In an early display of the wordiness that would weaken their entire draft, the Aquino draftsmen substituted the following provision in Article II, Section 1 of the 1987 charter:
“The Philippines is a democratic and republican state. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”
In making the change, the 1987 draftsmen thought they were insuring the nation against dictatorship, and protecting President Aquino from being overthrown. Some thought they were paying homage to people power.
In fact, they opened our public life to the tension between “republic” and “democracy” in the design of government systems, and the possible emergence of demagogues at the top of government.
Without the verbal shift, the nation would have no cause to worry about President Duterte’s proposed radical changes in our Constitution and our public life.
The danger within
If the 1987 framers had one great failing, it was their inability to grasp the truth that the great dangers to the nation come from within.
Abraham Lincoln spoke the truth to his people, when he said in a 1838 address in Springfield, Illinois: “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?…Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!…If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
The biggest danger to our own nation today is a presidency which, having won 38 percent of the vote in the May 9 elections, believes it can superintend, a la Cory Aquino, the writing of a new Constitution that would change the government system from unitary to federal, and grant the president powers to declare martial law and a national emergency on his own volition.
The danger is likewise a government that has ceded large chunks of the bureaucracy to the control and administration of communists, as if it were in coalition with the Communist Party.
Republic vs democracy
Wherein, some will ask, does the danger arise from the misguided revision of Article II, Section1?
It inheres in a confusion over the terms “Republic” and “Democracy.” We confuse one with the other, but in fact there is a clear and fine distinction between the two concepts.
Political leaders like to mix up the two, because the mixup enables them to claim powers that they do not have under strict constitutional government. Constitutional lawyers and statesmen insist on the distinction because it is vital to preserving the rule of law.
Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Future of Freedom, underscores the problem when he discusses the phenomenon of elected autocrats in Russia, Central Asia and Latin America, and the delusions of populism and popular majorities.
Zakaria writes: “Once the people were themselves in charge, caution was unnecessary; “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.” As if confirming John Stuart Mill‘s fears, Aleksandr Lukashenko, after being elected president of Belarus in a free 1994 election, when asked about limiting his powers, said: “There will be no dictatorship. I am of the people, and I am going to be for the people.”
DU30 oftentimes sounds like Lukashenko when he talks of his responsibility to the people in his drug war and about saving the nation.
Democracy and Republic are both forms of government, which sometimes overlap and mix in the systems of various countries.
The two are not only dissimilar, but antithetical, because there is a sharp contrast between:
(a) Democracy — rule by the majority, lacking legal safeguard of the rights of the individual and the minority, and
(b) Republic– rule under a written Constitution, with safeguards for the rights of the individual and the minority.
In a pure democracy, the majority is omnipotent; the minority have no rights.
Under a representative democracy like Britain’s parliamentary form of government, the people elect representatives to the national legislature–the elective body there being the House of Commons–and it functions by a similar vote of at least half-plus-one in making all legislative decisions. The same is true of representative democracy under a presidential form of government, which is the one we have today.
A Republic, on the other hand, has a different purpose and different form of government.
A Republic is defined as “a constitutionally limited government of the representative type, created by a written Constitution–adopted by the people and changeable by them only by its amendment–with its powers divided between three separate Branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial.”
Usurpation of powers
Zakaria devotes a significant part of his book to a discussion of the tension between constitutional government and democracy. The quarrel centers on the scope of government authority. Republican government is about the limitation of power; democracy is about the accumulation and use of power.
To quote Zakaria: “Many 18th century and 19th century liberals saw democracy as a force that could undermine liberty. The tendency for democratic government to believe it has absolute sovereignty (that is, power) can result in the centralization of authority, often by extraconstituional means and with grim results. What you end up with is little different from a dictatorship.
“Over the past decade, elected governments claiming to represent the people have steadily encroached on the power and rights of other elements in society, a usurpation that is both horizontal (from other branches of the national government) and vertical (from regional and local authorities as well as private businesses and non governmental groups).’
Putin, Lukashenko and Chavez are exemplars of the usurpation of powers.
Governments that usurp powers do not end up producing well-run, stable governments. A strong government is different from an effective government; in fact, the two may be contradictory.
Lessons from Chavez and Venezuela
Illiberal democracy runs along a spectrum, from modest offenders such as Argentina to near-tyrannies such as Kazakhstan, with countries such as Ukraine and Venezuela in between.
Contrary to what some of my readers have pointed out, Smartmatic is not our only lesson from Venezuela.
I will add two points which I failed to include in my previous column (“Democracy with a foul mouth and an adjective,” Manila Times, 3 Jan 2017).
1. Venezuela today is close to mass starvation, with its government unable to feed its own people, despite having the second biggest oil reserves outside the Middle East.
2. Chavez began his presidency spouting an ideology called Bolivarianism with echoes of socialism and Marxism. Toward the end of his rule, he proclaimed an ideology of “socialism of the 21st Century,” which he contrasted with Marxist–Leninist socialism as spread by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the 20th century, arguing that the latter had not been truly democratic, suffering from a lack of participatory democracy and an excessively authoritarian government structure.
Last time I looked, DU30 also proclaimed himself a socialist.