Signs of a maturing democracy

Obviously, the twin demands of the gathering—investigation and prosecution of Napoles and all those involved in the multi-billion pork barrel scam, and, the scrapping of the pork barrel system—have not been met. 

Moreover, the biggest estimate of the Luneta rally was 400,000, not one million.  

To say that the gathering failed, however, is a mistake.  

Not even the marchers themselves expected the demands to be addressed immediately. But their call was clear and the constituency significant; this “people power” was happening not only in Manila. The Luneta crowd and the congregations all over the Philippines and abroad clearly signified that this was a massive protest. The mobilization was significant because of the show of unity among Filipinos despite geographical and social divides.  

August 26 was successful not because it immediately delivered the goods, but because it presented signs that our democracy is not only working, it may in fact, be maturing.   

As a form of “symbolic politics,” the August 26 collective action communicated layers of messages from the continuing role of the intelligentsia in mobilizing collective action to the new role of the digitally savvy—mostly among the youth— via a non-traditional platform of the cyberspace. More importantly, the mobilization highlighted the role of the working classes, including OFWs. Various other sections of society such as persons with disability, public health practitioners, environmentalists, and, senior citizens were also represented. 

The August 26 mobilization was a symbol of the blurring of political if not ideological lines on the issue of anti-corruption. It was vox populi come alive, the rise of sovereigns who took the opportunity to assume and act on what was otherwise an abstraction of the role assigned to them: “kayo ang boss ko.”    

In political science parlance, August 26 contributed to “democratic consolidation,” which means that there are features other than the presence of periodic elections that make a democracy more secure. According to Andreas Schedler, these features include "divergent items" such as "popular legitimation, the diffusion of democratic values, party building," and other"‘mechanisms of direct democracy" outside and other than the "routinization of politics." Some of these features were visible on August 26 and became part of the public discourse that emerged before, during and after the mobilization. 

The term “maturing” is a more apt and useful term given our country’s immediate past.  Philippine democracy post-EDSA 1 is already 27 years old. By now, it should be less tentative. 

Can the signs of a maturing democracy fade? Yes, of course. 

People have started to talk about the limits of the August 26 activity, the impracticability of the “abolish pork” call and the difficulty of sustaining collective action. In our view, the August 26 mobilization was just the beginning. The protestors created a political moment, with new opportunities for the consolidation of Philippine democracy. 

Walang personalan: Regard for ‘the public’

Unlike mass mobilizations around the EDSAs (1 and 2) and the impeachment attempts (Arroyo and Corona), the August 26 mobilization was directed at a system rather than at a particular person or regime. Public discourse surrounding the event was focused on institutional arrangements regarding public spending in general and on entrusting massive amounts of public monies to a few elected public officials and their conduits.   

Unlike popular mobilizations in the past, August 26 insisted on a public agenda: that of taking public money very seriously. To those who attended the gathering, it did not matter that PNoy, a popular president with an anti-corruption campaign, had publicly come out days before with assurances that the issue at hand was already being addressed. These assurances failed to dissuade the protestors.

This instance alone is a sign that we now have a public with an agenda and that this public is composed of self-regulating and discerning individuals.  The public agenda was now more important than any politician’s promise. On August 26, Filipinos traded their usual ‘fan mentality’ or personalistic views (idol ko si  ____; nagtitiwala ako kay ____) with ‘active citizenship’ (Pinoy ako, taxpayer ako, manggagawa ako; ito -- ______ -- ang gusto kong mangyari).  

The August 26 mobilization was essentially an exercise in exacting accountability. The protestors did not just demand more from people in government, but also from political institutions.  Framing the pork barrel as a system has paved the way for public scrutiny not just of individual culpability but of inherent flaws in current institutional arrangements between the executive and legislative branches, between national and local governments, and, most importantly, between the governing and the governed. 

The conduct of the mobilization also showed the primacy of holding on to a public agenda over simply delegating the same to a set of individuals holding office. That citizens used public spaces like parks was very revealing. People chose to converge in everyday/common public areas rather than the usual politically-charged locations of EDSA or Mendiola.  Thus, even the "non-affiliated"—including those who may have never been politically involved before—had the incentive and space to participate in the mobilization.  

Critics of the rally called it “leaderless.” They missed the point.  As one speaker at Luneta asserted, the mobilization in fact was ‘leader-full’ rather than ‘leader-less.’ And she is right.  

On August 26, there was decentralization rather than a concentration of responsibility and leadership or the emergence of “multiple sites of power."

Walang bastusan: Regard for ‘boundaries’  

Regard for the public naturally extends to regard for "boundaries"—of what people and institutions can and cannot do within the polity. The August 26 march was about the role of the public in the process of rule creation, implementation and monitoring.  

The marchers themselves formulated rules and followed said rules, resulting in very orderly mobilizations. For example, at the Luneta gathering, only those without banners were allowed near the Quirino grandstand. Even the traditionally militant (e.g Left) respected this rule in deference to the non-affiliated. Both the affiliated and the non-affiliated went to the rally with their own garbage containers. Even respect for the physical environment was promoted.   

More importantly, participants who went to the gathering did not go there to incite rebellion. The call was not to overthrow an entire political system, but to abandon specific institutional arrangements and practices within that system. The call was to work within the system, to transform but not to render the system inutile. There was no talk of much less demand for extra-constitutional means of resolving the issue at hand.  

At the same time, the very fact that people mobilized meant that they were not willing to get stuck with a ‘political stability’ that simply meant the maintenance of the unacceptable status quo. The demands were actually quite radical. 

The "abolish pork" demand is radical because it calls even the ordinary Juan and Juana (i.e the passive recipient of dole-outs) to give up immediate gains for longer-term positive systemic changes (i.e  to shift away from dole-out oriented and clientele based development to genuine local development). Radical because it asks even the most well-meaning and honest of politicians and parties to give up a system of public spending that may have proven beneficial to them and their constituencies but is actually inherently flawed and corrupting—especially when viewed against the backdrop of endemic corruption, patronage-based politics and continuing mass poverty in the country. Everyone has to contribute. 

August 26 and its attendant discourse exposed not just the ills of corruption but the purposes of clean and honest governance. Filipinos have started to make the mental connections between corruption, patronage-based politics, and, poverty. Filipinos are now beginning to understand that the pork barrel system is not just any type of corruption; it is the kind that has allowed most government officials and their cohorts to get rich while causing the poor to remain poor. This one issue has made visible the breadth of the reforms needed in the country such as the freedom-of-information act, budget reforms, judicial reforms, local governance reforms, party system reforms, and, poverty reduction.  

The “investigate and prosecute all” demand is appropriate because it seeks to probe an entire institutional arrangement and not just particular individuals or particular partisan interests. Let the axe fall where it may, as some of the protesters argued.

On August 26, Filipinos demanded the accountability of political institutions and not just of particular people or sections in government. This in itself is a radical demand as it points to the role that political institutions should perform in shaping the behavior of politicians and government employees. The demand signals a level of weakening of personalism in Philippine politics.  

Walang Lamangan:  Regard for ‘Fairness’

If the first people power in 1986 was about a people reclaiming their “voice,” August 26, 2013 was about a people using that voice to reclaim the “people’s wealth.” This was not a repeat of EDSA but an advance of its spirit.  

The pork barrel issue may be one of the truest tests of PNoy’s reformist politics.  To give up the pork could mean the withdrawal of support of PNoy’s current allies. To give up the pork could mean the possibility of his party not getting re-elected in 2016. But to give up the pork is to address the crux of Philippine mal-development: graft and corruption, patronage-based politics, dynastic succession, and, a weak party system.   

The abolition of the pork barrel system is not just the “daang matuwid;” it is the road that has never been built. While there have been anti-corruption efforts, these have never been directed towards eliminating patronage politics. Targeting corrupt leaders like Erap, GMA, and Corona is not the same as targeting the system that produces them.

Undoubtedly, a president with an anti-corruption narrative is best poised to build this road and take the necessary first steps to transform the nation’s politics and political culture.   

The significance of the August 26 gathering cannot be underestimated. When citizens are confronted with the flaws of the democratic system and yet choose to demand more rather than less democracy—this is a real test of a maturing democracy.  

The task after this most recent people power episode is to focus on the here and now, while taking stock of the past and envisioning the future: to make necessary sacrifices, to find and try out bold solutions to longstanding problems, to make institutions work for rather than against the people, and, to harness rather than dampen collective action and citizen participation. - Rappler.com

This is a shared reflection piece.  Abao, Candelaria and Salvador are all full-time faculty members of the political science department of the Ateneo de Manila University.