[OPINION] The 'problem-solving' impulse and the limits of state power
The trouncing of the oppositionist Otso Diretso slate in the recent 2019 elections ensures a friendlier Senate for President Duterte, and to this, supporters of the President rejoice. The much vaunted checks and balances of democracy are to give way to the will of the problem-solving sovereign.
The House of Representatives remains within the President’s hands. As a testament to the President’s hold on the chamber, all the candidates for the speakership are close allies and are jockeying for his endorsement.
So too, has the Supreme Court become deferential to the prerogatives of the President. The Court has adopted an expansive view of executive power, allowing the President to proceed with the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, martial law in Mindanao, and the temporary closure of Boracay, to name a few.
But the Senate has always served as a check against the Executive branch, tempering the President’s legislative will. Much of past Presidents’ desired goals died in the Senate because of its independent streak.
Supporters will see this election win as a vindication of Duterte’s style of governance. For them, the problems of concentrated power pale in comparison to the massive gains that may be achieved by a strong presidency. The President might finally be able to get the emergency powers he wants in order to solve the traffic crisis in Manila. The President’s tax reform plan may now be delivered in whole. Charter change is now coming closer to reality.
Still, there are those who see this and recoil at the sight of a leader disregarding processes he does not like in order to get what he wants. For them, the point of government is to ensure that government itself will not trample on the rights of individuals. The state is a necessary evil, and power is a depravity to be exorcised. They see the evils in having alleged drug addicts and peddlers summarily killed in the streets, or the religious liberties of Catholics coming under fire by the President’s threats against their bishops, or fishermen being actively set aside in exchange for warmer ties with China.
Therein lies the conflict. Those who believe the role of government is to "solve problems" will generally want to give government wide latitude to do its job. Those who are more fearful of state coercion, on the other hand, will want to limit state power in order to protect individual rights. Granted, they do not have to be dichotomous – the key is in finding a balance between the two – but this "sweet spot" has eluded thinkers ever since.
To be sure, this clash of ideas does not necessarily fall along political lines. There are a lot of dilawan, for instance, who are not hostile to government power in order to solve problems, and would be comfortable if only under a different president. Conversely, a lot of the DDS mythology revolves around countering what they perceive as the excesses of the elitist "Aquino-EDSA regime," and restoring the rights of the ordinary Filipino.
The source of this tension can be traced to the very founding of the modern nation. As a colony of the US, Filipinos incorporated the American experience into their own nation-building project. The 1935 Constitution, created during the country’s transition to independence, was specifically modeled with importance placed on individual rights and preventing the concentration of power.
However, the Constitution also rejected the libertarian values of the American system. Justice Fernando explained, “...To erase any doubts, the Constitutional Convention saw to it that the concept of laissez-faire was rejected. It entrusted to our government the responsibility of coping with social and economic problems with the commensurate power of control over economic affairs. Thereby it could live up to its commitment to promote the general welfare through state action.”
This set the stage for several flashpoints in Philippine history. During the Commonwealth period, Manuel Quezon envisioned a "partyless democracy" centered around his authority. Ferdinand Marcos would later imitate Quezon’s example through his Bagong Lipunan. His favorite targets, the oligarchs and communists, would become the targets of his "Revolution from the Center."
As a reaction to this, their successors sought to counter the aspirations of the centralizers. Manuel Roxas, of Quezon’s rival Liberal Party, recruited the help of provincial leaders from the periphery to dismantle the strong central state established by Quezon. Forty years later, Corazon Aquino’s administration would embark on a new Constitution that would have strengthened accountability measures to prevent the Martial Law regime from reemerging once again.
Does the administration’s sweep of the senatorial elections mean that voters now favor a strong central state? Not necessarily.
On the contrary, voters still want to see due process followed even if it may delay results. A majority of Filipinos, for instance, do not want to see suspected drug addicts summarily shot, and instead want them kept alive. Another poll showed 26% of Filipinos see corruption as one of the biggest problems ailing the country, and thus want to limit their discretion accordingly.
It would be a futile exercise to divine the popular will from recent elections. But if public outrage over recent abuses by the government show, there may perhaps be a reckoning for restraint yet. But so long as these problems remain unsolved, the allure of a strong presidency remains. – Rappler.com
Liam Calvin Lu is a second year law student at the University of the Philippines. He earned his economics degree at the Ateneo de Manila University with a minor in Public Management. He was a section editor of The GUIDON, the student publication of the Ateneo. He hopes to someday be able to craft public policy.