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MANILA, Philippines – Even as she vowed to expand the opposition’s ranks in the Senate, reelected Senator Risa Hontiveros said the bigger challenge is to “make democracy as a whole for a majority of the people.”
Hontiveros, an activist who is the lone Senate opposition figure in the upcoming 19th Congress, was reflecting on the rise of illiberal democracy and the results of the recent 2022 elections in an interview with Rappler CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa in a June 7 episode of Hold The Line.
“Since illiberal democracy seems to be the form of democracy that’s dominant right now…it’s not simply [about] returning to liberal democracy alone – though those civil and political rights are very important – but we have to make democracy as a whole for a majority of people. [We need to] broaden our political democracy, the way we were challenged way back in the People Power Revolution. But deepen our democracy on the economic and social levels,” said the senator.
“[We need to] make democracy something that matters, may kwenta…so that in times that it is threatened such as now, it will mean more to more people because it has improved the quality of life in a day to day basis,” she added.
“Illiberal democracy” refers to regimes elected democratically while still “ignoring” or circumventing Constitution-set limits of power. Illiberal democracies also typically seek to erode the basic rights and liberties of citizens and key democratic institutions, including the press.
Experts have put a spotlight on the Philippines in the global rise of illiberal democracy, particularly after the outgoing President, Rodrigo Duterte, was elected into power in 2016. In 2022, over 31 million Filipinos elected president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a dictator who lorded over the country for over 21 years.
The first Marcos presidency – during which Martial Law was declared over the country – is remembered for the millions of public funds stolen and the thousands of dissenters arrested without basis, killed, or went missing.
The elder Marcos and his family, including the president-elect, were forced to flee the country on February 25, 1986, after the People Power Revolution.
Hontiveros rejoins a Senate where majority of its members are allies of Marcos and his running mate, vice president-elect Sara Duterte, who is the daughter of the outgoing President. The same is true for the House of Representatives or the lower chamber, whose membership is typically ruled by a “supermajority” allied with the executive.
“I think the various groups in the ‘pink movement’ and the opposition…and society at large…should be taking stock and preparing for the next six years and beyond if we don’t want to remain captive of these misuse of technology to produce political results that harm more than help us,” added the senator.
The “pink movement” refers to the outpouring of support for Vice President Leni Robredo, among the challengers of early survey front-runner Marcos for the presidency. Despite the throngs of pink-clad supporters who attended campaign rallies and went on house-to-house campaigns for Robredo and her running mate, exiting Senator Francis Pangilinan, Marcos was still elected the first majority president post-People Power, with over 31 million votes to Robredo’s 15 million.
“Illiberal democracy is a real, heavy challenge for us to engage in. Our Filipino values have been changing and they can continue to change. The values – not wars – the value struggle is one of the most important parts of our contested democracy. We have to stay in the game. We have to name those values without judging or demeaning each other. We have to name the problem – first by listening to each other…even across the political divide,” added Hontiveros.
The rapid rise and spread of social media, said Hontiveros, had not made the democratic project any easier.
“At the start, [social media] was a happy place and a safe space. But it’s been hijacked, and because the technology is just so big in its scale and magnitude, it’s just so rapid in its pace…. I think it’s already bigger and faster than the scale and the pace of human thought and feeling and relationships,” she said.
By taking social media back and “slowing it down and pacing it down to the pace of human relationships,” said the senator, citizens might find it more manageable to fight against those that exploit social media.
Hontiveros, who, in the Senate and earlier in the House, has been a champion for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, said the weaponization of online social media has “changed [the Philippines] for the worse, and degraded values that we took for granted.” The easiest targets, said Hontiveros, are groups that had always been “othered”: people who use drugs in Duterte’s “war on drugs.” It’s also led to even worse attacks against women and the LGBTQ+.
Pushing back in the age of online disinformation, said Hontiveros, means fighting both on the ground and online. “Being active citizens offline also requires sections of our population to be active and activist citizens online against fake news and trolling and every other evil spawn it has given birth to,” she said.
Watch Maria Ressa’s full interview with Senator Risa Hontiveros here: