‘Weak-man rule’ in our ‘premature’ democracy


    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.


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    1. At first I was afraid Mr. Gatbonton was recommending strong-man rule. Then I realized, with the paragraphs about having no alternative to trying to make our premature democracy work, that he is just reminding all of us and whoever becomes the new president that the government must be strong in making discipline, correct policies, hold. Thank you, Mr. Gatbonton, for your statesmanlike essays.

    2. Yes, a very thoughtful article which sets me thinking. It is true that in most countries including the UK, it was the middle classes who achieved a form of democracy, which then spread to a wider population, often following agitation by organised labour, plus the impact of WW1. which contributed to the emancipation of women.
      I frequently hear the refrain to bring back a “marcos” figure, but oddly it comes from very anarchic people who have no desire to be controlled by anybody!
      The issue of a strong central government is not very clear. The UK has very centralised government, but France Germany and the USA do not. All have successfull governance, so maybe this is not the answer.

    3. Sorry, you didn’t quite understand what Mr. Gatbonton wrote. He reviewed the journey of the more successful states in our region and saw that before they became better countries they strong rule, mainly by military men. Then they evolved into more or less democratic states with prosperous societies. The Philippines sadly continues to be a society where local oligarchies still hold power and even the pre-WW II strong rule of the Commonwealth’s President Quezon and the martial law rule of Ferdinand Marcos could not control, could not accept the central power’s rule of law.
      Our situation is like that of the simillarly problematic South American states and societies–and (Mr. Gatbonton dud not say this–like the countries of the MIddle Eat that were artificially created by your Brits and the French colonizers and were continued by the Americans. That is why Iraq has broken up and Syria too and Afghanistan cannot be made a normal nation-state like those of the UK.
      Gatbonton writes it took you Brits 150 years before before you elected a normal middle-class (non elite, non oligarchical parliament.) We Filipinos only became independent of America in 1946 or less than 70 years ago. So, we have about 80 years of learning from our mistakes to do (except that your lucky country is not devastated by super typhoons every other years like ours is).
      Malaysia and Singapore are much smaller in size and population than the Philippines. When you Brits, driven by anti-communism, gave independence to these crown colonies, they were ready to bcome “mature democracies” under your tutelage.
      We Flipinos brought down the Spanish colonial regime (the Yanks stole our victory from us, you will find out, if you seriously read Philippine history). We established a Philippine Republic with a proper constitution and a Congress. But that was killed by the US, which had its first experience of imperialism here. Sorry my comment length is up so I must leave this unfinished, Mr. Dusty.

    4. Kung hindi inalis ng america si marcos at hindi inilagay ang mga oligarchs na mga Aquino, ayalas at Lopez na ngayon ay komokontrol ng ating bansa baka developed at moderno na ang ating bansa dahil sa interest ng USA .sila ang sumira sa mabilis ng pagbabago ng pilipinas,si marcos ang nag-umpisang mag develop sa lahat Ng pangangailangan ng bansa,pero ng pumasok ang Aquino hanggang ngayon puro kahirapan ang naranasan ng pinoy,Aquino at yellow gangs ang salot sa buhay ng pilipino!

    5. Cresyou say he is correct but we have to make the citezenry struggle to, why, dont you think the poor have done nothing but struggle since day one. I must confess i didnt fully understand what he said but why cant filipino governments say look at the uk system & see how that works. Yes its not perfect but we dont have thieves for politicians unlike here. When i see here family member after family member going into politics i know its not for the benefit of the country but for themselves. So somehow you need to rid this country of family members in government. Its so strange that most companies dont allow family members to work there also as they think it will make them lazy, but in the uk if a person is a good worker they encourage their family members to work there as they will also usually be good workers.
      Then i think this is a thing that needs to be sorted, how can any members of the marcos family be allowed to be in government, im sure every single person accepts they were so corrupt & stole billions & billions of pesos from this country. They have never owned up to being involved ( as thats the filipino way, never accept responsibility for anything that is wrong ) & if for one second you think they also wont steal from this country then you are bigger fools than i took you for & you deserve what happens to you.

    6. Cres Malifier on

      Very very very well written article as usual by Mr. Gatbonton.
      I agree. We have no alternative to trying, I would even say “struggling”, to make our “premature” democracy work until we perfect it.
      But the citizenry simply have to be made to struggle too–and this can only happen if there are patriotic and God-fearing leaders, unlike the corrupt hypocrites that we have now.