The illness of this so-called democracy has been diagnosed a million times in the last few years – from all points of view, from Left to Right, from the armchair to the ground. That world leaders have been called to a summit to address this “defining challenge,” is, in the words of US President Joe Biden, proof not only of the spread of the disease, but also the elusiveness of any antidote to it.
Consider the irony: President Rodrigo Duterte was invited to this first-of-its-kind democracy summit hosted by Biden, where the Philippine strongman declared, without blinking, that democracy and press freedom are robust in his country. He made this false claim a day after Nobel Peace Laureate and our very own Maria Ressa told the world exactly the opposite, and weeks after the International Criminal Court initiated a probe into crimes against humanity that were allegedly committed when he was mayor of Davao City and soon after he became president.
“Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values. We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism or we can choose to fight for a better world,” said Ressa in her astounding speech.
In the Biden-initiated summit, Duterte vowed free and honest elections, which is likely the only reason he was invited to the event, with our Washington allies hoping they could pull in some perspective for the outgoing leadership as far as the June 2022 transition is concerned, when Duterte steps down from office.
After all, didn’t Duterte eat his own words – didn’t he vow to immediately end a military pact with the Philippines’ longtime ally, the US? Perhaps Duterte can actually ensure credible polls and a smooth transition? That’s a big “perhaps,” if you ask us. But America has always handled tyrants with kid gloves until they threaten its interests. And that is why the Biden summit has been met with both skepticism and optimism.
In the trenches where we have been since Duterte came to power in 2016, we know what ails democracy. It is decades of allowing people in power to define it, build it, own it. It is decades of settling for short-term gains – such as impeaching corrupt leaders or bringing plunderers to court – at the expense of long-term reforms in our institutions.
We sat and watched as politicians hopped from one political party to another, as self-proclaimed reformists accommodated in their big tent of unrepentant thieves. In his series of analysis pieces, political scientist July Teehankee tells us why we shouldn’t be surprised that five months from now, Filipinos face the possibility of a presidency that will represent a family they booted out more than four decades ago.
We sat and watched as Big Tech invaded our news feeds and manipulated our reality according to what we and our friends think it is, giving premium space to the kind of power that shuns accountability and is scared of tough questions from journalists, as sociologist Ash Presto said in explaining the appeal of Bongbong Marcos.
We turned a blind eye to the killings, to the whimsical and vindictive decision-making at the top, to gross incompetence, thinking they were minor burdens to bear given the big promise of change and safety by this government.
In short, we let this democracy slide because we let power build and define it according to its own evil desires. In the deepest corners of our souls, we know this to be true: that our silence, our consent, and our complacency contributed to this democratic backslide. And no high-powered summit can truly articulate the nightmare – and contrition? – that visits us every day as we prepare for the May 2022 presidential elections.
Choosing the right president is one, big democracy project that we must work hard for every single day now, because it will lay the foundation for long-term approaches to our intractable problems. Or sink us further.
Rappler’s investigative reporter Patricia Evangelista had a good reminder for us at the Nobel torchlight ceremony for Ressa and Dmitry Muratov: the line we all hold is one that “was drawn decades ago by men and women who stood at the barricades and said this far, no further.” – Rappler.com