Sturdy representative institutions result from years of practice. In the West, the vote alone was long limited by religious, race, ethnic, property, literacy and gender restrictions. Even Britain—the “Mother of Parliaments”—took 150 years to elect its first middle-class legislature.
But in Latin America, Asia and Africa, democracies arose overnight during the process of decolonization. The Makati guru Washington Sycip calls the Philippine variety—the earliest one installed in the post-World War II period—“a premature democracy.”
East Asia’s fledgling democracies—unable to make any headway toward modernization—fell one after the other into the hands of (often military) strongmen, who dragged them toward national wealth and power.
East Asia achieved feats of growth under strongman rule
Between 1965-1990, what the World Bank calls the East Asian “miracle” states achieved feats of growth and raised more of their peoples from poverty than the world had ever seen.
Brazil under military rule (1964-74) may have matched East Asia’s growth. Yet in 1986 two thirds of Brazil’s 135 million people were still eating less than their own government’s minimum calorie requirements; and one-third of all its workers earned less than the set minimum wage.
East Asia’s miracle lay in the quality of regional growth. Beset as they were by invasions, civil wars and religious, ethnic and language conflicts, its authoritarian states ensured the economic growth their policies stimulated was inclusive—shared to a degree by all their peoples.
But representative institutions in East Asia did not develop as a gift from strongmen regimes. The Korean, Taiwanese, Thai and Indonesian middle classes grew their own democracies; and they prize their civil rights all the more because they had fought their own governments to win them.
Even totalitarianism in China has been tempered by economic liberalization, whose breadth and speed are being intensified by globalization and the Internet revolution.
Already nascent civil society is challenging authoritarian rule at local level—to protest abuses by local governments and land grabbing by local influentials.
And it is the spread of these popular grievances to the national level that President Xi Jinping seeks to forestall with his anti-corruption campaign in the Communist hierarchy.
Martial law a period of ‘weak-man rule’
Between 1972 and 1986, we too experienced an authoritarian transition. But “constitutional authoritarianism” Filipino style was closer to what Latin American scholars call “weak-man rule” than to the conventional strongman regime.
Historically, Philippine democracy has been permitted only by the balance among our parties, coalitions, factions, caciques, clans and families—by the broadly equal dispersal of political power that makes it imprudent for any group to try to overpower the others.
While caudillos like Quezon and Marcos may have been strong enough to perpetuate themselves in office, they never possessed power enough to force through public policies the oligarchies opposed. They spent all their time and energy trying to stay on top of the ever-shifting power balance.
Missing the bus to modernization
Not just once but at several junctures in the post-Independence period, we Filipinos missed the bus to modernization.
For Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan, land tenure reform became the foundation of industrialization and inclusive growth. But though successive governments have promised “land-for-the-landless” for 80 years, we’ve failed to get it done until now.
We also failed to make the obligatory shift from import-substituting industrialization to manufacturing for export that our neighbors used to transform their economies technologically and competitively.
Meanwhile successive Constitutions continue to choke the inflow of foreign capital, technology and managerial skills. Our investment regime is uncertain where we need policy coherence and continuity.
No alternative to making our premature democracy work
So what are we to do?
For East Asia, the key attraction of authoritarian rule has been its ability to Simpose political stability, Scarry out long-term reforms and focus government, business and civil society on national goals.
This is why an increasing number of Filipinos—including those who should really know better—hanker for strongman rule in some degree.
But, unfortunately, strong men tend to select themselves. So how are we to find—and install—this benevolent authoritarian who would kick start our country toward social justice and prosperity?
In my view, we have no alternative to trying to make our premature democracy work.
I also believe public policy should encourage some centralization of political power—to enable our Chief Executive to become more than just a ‘weak-man’ ruler.
Putting some order in our anarchy of factions
Right now, our political system is an anarchy of factions—grouped typically around some personality’s ambitions. And, ironically, public policy abets their proliferation.
Consider how the 1987 Charter’s provision of a “free and open party system” has negated the poor stability of the political era of the Nacionalistas and the Liberals—which might have evolved into a true two-party system.
In 2001, the Comelec carried on its rolls 162—yes, 162—separate “parties.”
The current campaign for federalism—and for a switch to the parliamentary system—might have a similar result.
Most recently, the Supreme Court’s decision on the DAP issue—by shutting off the president’s access to the ‘pork barrel’—has weakened the Chief Executive’s power to ease the passage of his bills through Congress.
The high court’s ruling may satisfy the letter of the law—and the democratic ideal at its most mature. But it still leaves President Aquino facing the question of how to get pragmatic politicians facing re-election to support necessary public policies that involve penalties for some electoral bloc or arouse the opposition of special interests.
I think it instructive that even East Asia’s toughest and most austere strongmen—soldiers like Park Chung Hee (Korea 1961-79) and Prem Tinsulanonda (Thailand 1980-88)—chose to distribute largesse among their tame lawmakers rather than to suppress them.
Prem allowed the parliament factions to feed freely on the pork-rich line ministries—for as long as they stayed away from the economic and financial offices managing Thailand’s transition to newly-industrializing-country (NIC) status.
Certainly it’s in the same spirit that the post-martial law government of President Aquino’s mother incorporated in its Administrative Code of 1987 the Marcos decree of a decade earlier—empowering the Executive to “realign” lump-sum appropriations by Congress.