Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: September 2023
Wednesday, 27 September 2023 23:27

Asian models of governance

IN past columns, we made a case for pursuing alternatives to our kind of democracy that is not working as intended by our American colonialists. We compared democratic governments and authoritarian regimes — isolating criteria that could work for us and those we need to discard. Whether a government is democratic or authoritarian, it must, above all, serve and promote the welfare of its people by protecting their security and well-being, maintaining law and order, and providing essential public services, which are equated with universal access to health care, education, employment and dwelling (HEED). For this to be possible, governments must ensure that their economy grows and are stable. Freedom of speech, choice of beliefs, freedom to dissent, and even freedom to bear arms are subordinate. The controversy and clash of ideas start with how Western and Eastern cultures define and perceive these freedoms as central to their system of governance.

Democratic and authoritarian priorities

From here on in, their methods deviate, consistent with their ideals and ideology, springing forth from how their power is ultimately arrived at and dispensed with. On the two extremes, a democratic government is elected by its citizenry, deriving its power from that fact. An authoritarian government, by contrast, draws its power from a few selected individuals who control government. Both systems, therefore, originate diverse priorities impacting how their responsibilities to their constituencies are carried out. In the former, serving the people's interest and promoting the common good is its mantra. In the latter, the ruling elite's interest takes precedence. Both approaches are anathema to each other, thus fueling the geopolitical misalignments, dividing the world into different camps.

Our progressive Asian neighbors

The working methodologies from both democratic and authoritarian systems are what we seek for the Philippines. This mix of democratic and authoritarian practices, which is the core of the success of our three Asian neighbors, is what we should emulate. To better understand these mixed features, a telescoped version of each country's government and its development during the tutelage of their most effective political leaders may be relevant — Lee Kwan Yew (LKY) of Singapore, Mohammad Mahathir of Malaysia and Park Chung-hee of South Korea.

Singapore has a parliamentary form of government with a unicameral legislature where members of parliament (MPs) are elected at large in a general election under a political party system. LKY, the prime minister in power since the country's founding in 1965, sculpted Singapore politically and economically from a backward country to a developed one after being booted out of Federal Malaysia. His political vehicle, the People's Action Party (PAP), dominated a freely elected democratic parliament.

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament and a ceremonial head of state, the hereditary monarch (king). Real political power resides in the prime minister (PM), elected by a parliamentary majority of the lower house, the Dewan Rakyat. The upper chamber or senate, known also as Dewan Negara, essentially a sinecure, is appointed by the king upon the PM's advice.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad propelled Malaysia into joining the world's developed countries. In a multi-party system where elections are regularly held, his ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, was the dominant political power until it lost power in the 2018 general elections.

South Korea has a unitary presidential system of government similar to that of the Philippines. The president is the head of state and government and is elected by the people for a single five-year term. The country has a multi-party system. But unlike the Philippines, it only has a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, that oversees government and passes laws, no competing power bloc equivalent to the Philippines' Senate.

Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea for 18 years until his assassination in 1979, oversaw the rapid political and economic development of the country while the government was under military dispensation. He implemented policies pursuing export-oriented industrialization, promoting heavy industries, and encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI), transforming South Korea into a global economic power.

Mixed democratic-authoritarian features

Mulling over the successes of these three countries with mixed democratic and authoritarian governments, headed at one time or another by charismatic but despotic leaders, we focus on the results instead. Overall, the improvement of the living standards of people is imperative, lifting them from stark poverty brought about under a democratically elected representative government but with an authoritarian mindset of their leaders.

Although ostensibly a democracy, both Singapore and Malaysia, particularly under LKY and Mahathir respectively, have at one time or another during their rule curtailed certain aspects of democratic ideals, which they deemed to be Western values incompatible with the cultural contexts of their Asian constituencies — Malay, Chinese, Indian — restricting freedom of speech, political opposition and on occasion, suppression of dissent. Emphasis instead was put on economic freedom, enabling citizens to accumulate wealth.

As to South Korea, starting as a military-run government for four decades, they have not put closure to their war with North Korea, and with such a belligerent neighbor that could restart the war at any time, their democratic freedoms are tempered and shaped by these realities. Under President Roh Tae-woo, another former military general, a full transition to democracy was realized only after Park Chung-hee laid the foundation for the country's transformation into a world-class economy.

Political, structural and economic reforms

These three countries' success is no doubt attributable to several distinct factors, foremost of which are drastic political reforms imposed by a strong, authoritarian and charismatic leader. True, these leaders restricted freedoms, but the trade-off was a rapid increase in the living standards of their people, emancipating a large segment from stark poverty. For specifics:

1. They embarked on a massive investment in human capital, education system, and skills development directed toward an industrialized economy where their workforce is poised toward global competition. Regulatory capture by industrialists was eliminated in Singapore while bureaucratic corruption in government in Malaysia and South Korea was minimized with a harsh rule of law applied.

2. Markets were opened, and foreign direct investment (FDI) was encouraged, prioritizing economic development and industrialization. This was an impetus for growth that allowed them to invest in infrastructures and technology, improving further living standards and the quality of life of the citizenry.

3. The three charismatic authoritarian-bent leaders created strong progressive-minded political party majorities and thus, with strong governance, created efficient institutions, allowing a pragmatic approach to policymaking, and prioritizing practical solutions involving local leaders and civil communities.

4. The governance system of our three neighbors tolerated a certain amount of political stability favorable to long-term planning. Such a climate is conducive to conceptualizing policies and strategies for social progress and economic growth.

Contrast this with the Philippines. From the very start, we have been given a political system and a form of government that, over time, surfaced the least desired trait of our datu-sultanate culture — political patronage. This was ingrained in our political culture, permeating the very sinews of a good part of our political life. Our political system itself is a perversion, and this travesty has been embedded in our Constitution.

Next week: How do we fix this?
Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 20 September 2023 20:11

Pursuing alternatives to democracy

THE previous two parts of this series discussed Philippine perspectives on democracy as handed down to us by America. We were gifted a version of governance that was deemed suited for us. America gave us a liberal unitary-presidential system of government, not its homegrown federal-presidential system, making this an experiment in its first colony.

We also briefly examined a model rooted in China with its underlying authoritarian ideals that propelled the massive, rapid lifting of its people’s lives from stark poverty, but at some considerable cost to their freedoms and human rights, ideals so cherished in a democracy.

This third part attempts to seek an alternative system to democracy and its opposite, autocracy (totalitarianism). Our sights are drawn to authoritarian China, extracting the best features from each that could be adapted and suited to our culture while minimizing their deleterious effects.

After a century of Philippine governments tempered by the subtleties of our brand of patronage politics, the original concepts of democracy may have to undergo drastic rethinking. In the environment of fluid geopolitical dynamics, we reassess our basic principles against developments in the real world. Questions become relevant, foremost of which: Is the preservation of democracy and human rights crucial for poor countries like the Philippines to attain economic growth while achieving respectability among the family of nations?

Democracy and its antithesis

For simplicity, I cite five basic ideals of democracy and contrast these with authoritarianism, the less extreme version of autocracy/totalitarianism, and against how Philippine governments are run as democracies.

1.Power is vested in the people. In a diverse society, power is distributed among the people exercising the same through recurring elections where the majority rules, and those voted to office must govern solely on the people’s acquiescence and for their own benefit. Governments must be accountable to the people through their transparent acts, safeguarded by checks and balance mechanisms.

In an authoritarian system, power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader or a cabal. A monolithic political party exercises control with or without the consent of its citizenry, confirmative of the archetypical Marxist catchphrase — dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the Philippines, we conduct costly elections amid a festive atmosphere, participated in by around 100 political parties, formed by political families and single advocacy groups solely for elections, administered by a weak, inutile and oftentimes corrupt constitutionally independent body (Comelec).

Only a handful of political parties are anchored ideologically. Most have “political butterflies” floating from party to party, a Philippine electoral phenomenon. Upon election, therefore, they owe primary obeisance to their sponsors, political dynasties and their allies in the oligarchy.

2. The rule of law Government operates within a framework of legal principles, where laws are applied equally to all and none above. In authoritarian models, the interests of the ruling elite or the state are prioritized over those of individuals, resulting in restricted freedoms. In the Philippine setting, the rule of law has elicited much concern about its implementation and enforcement. Instances of selective application of the law favor the powerful and the rulers over the governed.

3. Protection of freedoms, civil liberties and human rights

Democratic governments uphold and protect civil liberties and human rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. People are free to express their opinions, even those contradictory to that of government’s and the majority’s.

Under authoritarianism, these liberties are often curtailed, and citizens face censorship; press freedom is non-existent; freedom of expression is limited; dissent is suppressed; and political participation is restricted.

In the Philippines, civil liberties and freedoms are protected. But corruption within the justice system is rampant, and violations of human rights have caught the attention of international multilateral agencies. Over the decades, public trust in the justice system has been eroded, particularly among the poor and dispossessed.

4. Rights and obligations

In a democracy, while citizens enjoy their rights and freedoms accorded by their constitutions and the exigencies of democratic ideals, they also have obligations. These are summarized under three main categories: the obligation to vote, pay taxes and obey the law. Qualified citizens are exhorted to vote, and candidates with differing views are allowed to be voted upon. All must pay taxes in varying degrees, with sanctions for non-payment; a justice system to implement laws, apprehend transgressors, provide them with a fair trial, and impose appropriate punishment for the guilty.

In authoritarian regimes, citizens have limited or no right to vote. And if tolerated, they vote for those that the monolithic political parties select for them. All pay taxes, although the powerful have the influence, the privilege, and the mechanisms to avoid payment. And laws, particularly those that impact personal freedoms, are severe and oppressive, and protection against arbitrary arrest and detention may be curtailed.

In the Philippines, elections are the only time when the citizenry reigns supreme over the proverbial “servants of the people” who seek anointment or reelection, where candidates seduce the citizenry for their votes. In many cases, candidates buy votes, and the voters are free to sell them — at an agreed price.

Payment of taxes has become a Filipino practice of gaming the system, particularly for high-income earners and many businesses. Taxes are simply an inconvenience and, short of evasion, must be avoided. This mindset is attributed to bureaucratic corruption, where money is diverted to personal pockets and private accounts instead of the public coffers. Corruption is the biggest disincentive to tax payments.

And the directive to obey laws, as a citizen’s obligation, has been reduced to a Filipino dictum, “lulusot kung makakalusot,” meaning “one gets away — when one gets away.”

5. Political pluralism and participation

For democracy to prosper, the active participation of the citizenry and engagement with their elected representatives are required. Political pluralism allows for a free market of ideas, where real ideologically distinct political parties are formed to represent a diversity of beliefs competing for political power.

In authoritarian regimes, political power is inexorably concentrated on one party or individual. Only the monolithic party line is allowed, marginalizing dissenting voices, containment of political diversity, and inhibiting opposition.

In the Philippines, elections are the overarching environment in which political patronage incubates. The political dynasties and the oligarchy pervade the process, rendering elections mostly choices between opposing members of the elite and the powerful. Political parties are convenient structures for political families and dynasties to perpetuate their hold on power.

Democracy is not working

From empirical evidence, the inevitable conclusions are that the democratic experiment imposed by our American colonialists after centuries of Spanish perversion of our Filipino datu-sultanate culture — a forced marriage of their Western and our Eastern values — resulted in a mongrelized version of democracy that has not worked as intended. Its opposite, the autocracy/totalitarian system, may run against the grain of Philippine experience and culture and may not work either.

But looking back, democracy, as we inherited it, could have succeeded given certain preconditions. Central to this is when the great majority of our people, mired in poverty and ignorant of the nuances of these concepts, are liberated from these conditions. After which, democracy may just survive and flourish.

Published in LML Polettiques
Thursday, 14 September 2023 04:44

Philippine perspectives on China's experience

LAST week's column ended with a suggestion that democracy and its attendant principles may not be the right fit for us, considering the decades of experimentation in the Philippines, comparative to some successful Asian countries run under the opposite type of governance, if our gauge of success is to see the citizenry improve their lives immensely and provide for the present generation and the future ones. It is a valid assumption that a government must exist to provide the wherewithal for the well-lived lives of its citizenry. In its simplest terms, under the precepts of democracy, its success is measured when the great majority of its people are not hungry and are educated and safe and, in essence, poverty is alleviated. And the menu of ingredients for success is myriad when related to the dignity of each Filipino — the core values of centrist democracy, health care, decent dwelling, job creation, a living wage and social security, among others. I submit that in many of these features, our government under democracy has failed.

The American precepts we adopted gave precedence to values that may not be congruent with Filipino culture. Individual freedoms, which are products of America's historicity and political evolution — freedom of speech and the press, religious beliefs, freedom to bear arms, a bill of rights, etc. — are basically alien to our own. Adherents of democracy as practiced in the Western world argue that democracy has many defects, but its opposite, authoritarianism, is no better an alternative. But empirical evidence shows otherwise.

China's experience

I mentioned in the previous column the experiences of Singapore and Malaysia under authoritarian regimes and their rapid growth over the decades, surpassing that of the Philippines. But this column alludes to the biggest elephant in the room, China, which may surpass America in a decade. China has reduced poverty substantially and elevated millions of its citizens. With a population of 1.4 billion, or roughly 18 percent of the world's, China declared in 2021 that its government had succeeded in lifting 770 million of its people out of poverty in just four decades. Under authoritarian rule, their poverty reduction program rested on fundamental strategies and transformed the economy from a socialist closed model to a capitalist open market one. Underlying this was the reform of their system and structures of governance, resulting in a more effective implementation of policies.

China welcomed foreign investments, privatized state-owned enterprises and implemented market-oriented policies. This led to rapid economic growth, job creation and rising income levels.

The rural areas were developed by investing in infrastructure, such as roads, railways, electricity, water supply and communication systems, and providing subsidies to farmers to increase agricultural productivity.

To provide workers in developing industries, people not needed in the rural agricultural sector were relocated to urban areas and provided with job training for employment.

More importantly, China made significant investments in education, particularly in rural areas. The government has provided free compulsory education for all children and increased funding for higher education.

All these combined toward poverty reduction and placed China among the industrialized countries of the world. But these couldn't have been made possible were they not directed by a professional bureaucracy run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Professionalizing bureaucracy

The CCP composed the elites of China. In their authoritarian system, the CCP pervades the political life and the bureaucracy from whence the leadership is culled; for the eventual leaders, life membership starts at the lower levels of local governments and layers of the bureaucracy, climbing up the ranks over the years.

Membership in the CCP is merit-based, and applicants or recruits are accepted based on their qualifications, expertise and performance, seldom their political connections. The most capable and competent officials are appointed to understudy the running of government and, in this case, oversee poverty alleviation efforts.

Earlier in their membership, many are provided with specialized training in economics, management and social development, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to implement policies. And they undergo performance-based evaluation programs assessing their effectiveness and the success of programs on the ground for which they are held accountable. To advance in the party, they are allowed a modicum of innovation and experimentation, testing new approaches and strategies.

This professionalized bureaucracy under the tutelage of the CCP demonstrates its critical role in the success of well-designed, effectively implemented and efficiently managed poverty alleviation that unshackled the millions of Chinese from their stark and dire poverty trap, elevating them to the middle class.

Authoritarian vs democratic methods

Last week's column partly described the Philippine political development experience under almost a century of democratic experimentation in governance. And I concede that our system is pockmarked with democratic deficits that have only stunted our growth comparative to that of Singapore, Malaysia, and even South Korea and Vietnam, which by many metrics have left us in the dust. And these blemishes could even be obtrusive when compared to China. Admittedly, China's authoritarian practices produced desired results — the emancipation of its poverty-stricken populace, for one — by using methods antithetical to our American political heritage.

Foremost of these is their program of urbanization, where large segments of the population were forcibly relocated from rural and impoverished regions and provinces. This was meant to improve living conditions and concentrate limited resources in urban settings for easy access. By Western democratic precepts, these were violations of their human rights.

No, China is not a democracy. Its political leadership at the top does not exist for the sufferance of the general public. Their legitimate hold on power is decided through a process of internal selection by the established party hierarchy tasked with this burden of selection. It is slightly different at the local and regional level, where the people elect their local leaders from a list provided by the Communist Party. There are no opposing political parties with adversarial ideologies and programs of government. All follow the communist line.

Herein lies the difference from democracies. For the Philippines in particular, the political leadership comes from different segments of society, where anyone with the propensity to run for office with enough logistics can join several political parties and vie for office. Electoral politics and changes in leadership at the national or local levels are done through elections with the direct participation of the general public qualified to vote. But in the last few decades, the electoral process has been dominated by political dynasties and the oligarchy, fulfilling the observation of Alexander Tytler of the devious nature of democracy and its eventual collapse (see "Philippine perspectives on Western concepts," The Manila Times, Sept. 6, 2023).

In contrast with the CCP, our democracy inevitably led to Filipinos electing from a pre-selected list of name-recognizable candidates embedded in more than 100 political parties anointed or owned by political dynasties and the oligarchy, the reason why actors, media personalities and sports celebrities win hands down and therefore assume a flawed mantle of political leadership.

But are there alternatives between democracy on one end and authoritarianism on the other that are suitable for Philippine governance? Or are we condemned to our colonial legacy?

Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 06 September 2023 20:57

Philippine perspective on Western concepts

SEVERAL years ago, when we established the Centrist Democratic Movement (CDM) of young political technocrats that transformed itself into a political party of dues-paying members, the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP), we never had the illusion that we could compete with the major political parties existing then and now. Not yet, on the national level. CDP has been on hiatus except in some areas where it is flourishing (in Cagayan de Oro), but in most, it is struggling to survive. But more importantly, we have pockets of areas where political technocrats and political leaders imbued with the concepts of Centrist Democracy (CD) continue to be active and relevant in their communities. Some of them are elected local officials embedded in other mainstream political parties — the only way many of these leaders can be part of the political dynamics and perhaps make a difference.

CD's history and antecedents can be accessed through our publications, collection of speeches, documents and essays on our website (www.cdpi.asia), and thus will not be the focus here. This series of columns is meant to reassess the premises for Centrist Democracy's cherished precepts. To refresh, our core value is centered on human dignity, and therefore we hold that political, economic and social order must be logically designed so that the dignity of each person is promoted and enhanced. These concepts are not homegrown. These are Western ideas that we adopted over the years after the transition from Spanish to American colonial rule.

America introduced a totally different system, which evolved over a century and a half of American experience in government since 1776. America convinced us that the type of government adopted by the Philippines from the start of the 20th century toward the Philippine Commonwealth and onwards emanating from these tenets was one suited to us.

Democracy, freedom and human rights

Democracy, freedom and human rights are the basic concepts America imparted to its first colony in the Far East. A break from the centuries of Spanish monarchical rule, the premises of America's political endowments to the Filipinos after wresting control of the islands run counter to what was inflicted on the colony by the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Democracy is the foundation of its system of governance where power is vested in the people exercising the same through elected representatives. The citizenry, in effect, has the right to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Freedom is the fundamental value of governance, encompassing personal, economic and political aspects. And human rights emphasize the protection of individual rights and liberties that are embedded in America's Constitution, the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech, religious beliefs, and a right to a fair trial.

These three principles are closely interconnected and mutually reinforcing; democracy overarches the two, allowing the protection and promotion of freedom and human rights; and the flourishing of freedom and human rights is critical for the functioning and legitimacy of a democratic system.

As a drastic departure from the perspectives of monarchies and authoritarian systems, the ideas of self-governance and popular sovereignty were alien to the Spanish legacy. These ideas continue to shape America's sorties into the world and provide the basic impetus for its foreign policies. In an evolving modern world, they germinated attendant notions such as the rule of law, a free market economy and global trade.

Philippine experience

In a span of five decades, toward gaining our independence, democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law were piggybacked into the centuries-old native practices of our ancestry — the subservience of the inhabitants of the islands to our sultanate and datu culture, engraved into our psyche by 300 years of Spanish tutelage but perverted to a large extent in our system of governance, spawning a patronage system that became the core of our practice of governance. A corollary to these concepts was the adoption of a presidential system of government, an embryo upon which patronage politics is nurtured. For almost 100 years, the system flourished, feeding upon the least desired facet of the Filipino culture: the desire for and dependence on a benefactor from the datu and sultan, heading a clan; to the Spanish patron looking over the indios, to the American "big brother"; morphing into the Philippine president, the "father" of a people..."

Democracy and patronage

Over the decades, the Filipino discovered other facets of democracy. And this was articulated by Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish thinker who, two centuries ago, made a profound observation: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses..."

How true the observation was as translated by Filipino voters over several decades of elections and changes in governments. Perhaps this could explain why the Philippines has lagged behind in its development from the time we adopted these foreign concepts and married them to our culture. As practiced, the Filipino voters invariably vote into office those that benefit them and their families the most, directly breeding another phenomenon pervasive in Philippine politics — the political dynasties. These are families that oversee local politics, where relationships are personal and intimate. They retain their hold on power by all means, converting "public service [into] a private business," passing on to their progeny these elected positions and public largesse. They now permeate national politics — validating the aphorism "that all politics are local."

By Tytler's interpretation, our democracy and its attendant principles are collapsing. It may not even be the right one for us in the first place, after all. It is a given that the purpose of government is to improve the lives of its citizenry, lift them up from poverty and ignorance, and provide for them and the next generation the wherewithal for a good life. But are we achieving this within our system of governance? Are there alternatives?

Looking toward our neighbors

It is touted, but perhaps only a myth, that the Philippines, before World War 2, was the second-most developed country in Asia after Japan. But now the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by nominal GDP and other metrics such as per capita wealth, worker's pay and buying power, rates the Philippines far below China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. and at par with Vietnam and higher than Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

I cite two Asian countries with different political historicity and considered as backward countries compared to us at the turn of the century and even toward the end of WW2. But today, they are more developed economically with their citizenry's living standards uplifted. Their model of governance has not been a liberal democracy akin to what America imposed on us. They have authoritarian governments, but their economies have soared under the authoritarian leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (1959–1990) and Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003; 2018–2020). During the regimes of these two, the Philippines underwent seven "democratic changes" in regimes.

To be continued next week
Published in LML Polettiques