Philippine democracy

[OPINION] My hope for the Marcos presidency: An end to suppression of dissent

Leila de Lima

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[OPINION] My hope for the Marcos presidency: An end to suppression of dissent
'If President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wants to show that he is a better leader than his father, he should take an explicit stand for democracy and human rights, and let the stifling of dissent end with his predecessor,' former senator Leila de Lima writes

Six years is a long time. For me, spending almost 90% of it under undue and unjust detention somehow made time seemingly pass paradoxically quickly yet tediously due to the sheer surreality of the ever-escalating, unfounded, and unprincipled attacks I found myself fighting. Especially in the beginning, things went from 0 to 100 so quickly that I did not even have the luxury to reel from the first attacks before new ones were hurled at me. And the whole cycle became more and more painfully slow over time, especially given how little relief we received from the courts despite the fakery of the charges against me.

Half a decade since I was detained, the effect of silencing the opposition is still being felt. Despite recantation of false testimonies and the cases now running on fumes, the present administration still refuses to withdraw the fabricated charges against me. This is because even with a historical margin of electoral victory and the fact that the truth is on my side, this administration knows that its mandate is being precariously sustained by undemocratic narratives laid down by the Duterte regime. Granting justice to me, regardless if it’s the right thing to do, is a political gambit not taken lightly by those who abhor discordant voices.

Looking back, what was done to me was all just part of the playbook for a larger strategy: the systematic attack on Philippine democracy.

First is to attack the defenders of democracy – not in the “traditional” manner of silencing them through violence but by attacking their integrity. 

By destroying the reputation of people like myself, who are champions of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, they started the process of diminishing people’s faith in our legal and democratic systems, i.e., down the slope of the Reverse Cargo Cult mentality, which destroys people’s hope for a better government by making them believe that everyone is the same and that those who espouse higher aspirations – of a competent, honest, and democratic government – are all just hypocrites hiding behind “big words, big ideas.” 

The Duterte government perpetuated the false message that those who seek justice and reform are out only to destroy our country. Conveniently, they left out the fact that activists and human rights defenders are the real protectors of democratic values.

By bringing down the people who defended society’s collective aspirations for a better government, they made people believe that there can never be a better government, and that Duterte’s brand of leadership through patronage politics, corruption, and violence is the only reality that the Filipino people could ever live in.

Second, they made politics to be as negative as possible. Every issue, even legitimate ones, had to be turned into an “us” versus “them” issue. 

There was no longer any room for principled debates and disagreements. Anyone who dared raise a contrary view, or to hold public officials accountable, or to demand better service from the government were immediately the subject of ad hominem attacks and fully vilified, going so far as to weaponize the law to crush and silence any and all dissent. 

The strategy was not merely to “chill” the people’s right to free speech and political participation, among others, but to incinerate any political heresy. If they could have punished people for merely thinking of opposing, they would have, which is pretty much what the red-tagging operations were about: people were being criminalized even before they could speak out.

All of these resulted in the one thing that I think could spell the downfall of our democracy: the nearly irreparable divisiveness that was sown among our people. We’ve had elections before. We’ve debated the merits of candidates before. We’ve disagreed on the best platforms for government before. But never before have people so identified with their political beliefs or partisan choices that they view non-conformists as their enemies. 

How many relationships between family members, friends, and coworkers have become so irreparably broken that they barely talk to each other? People have retreated to their own groups, refusing to engage with the other side, thus creating and entrenching echo chambers.

That, I think, is the biggest threat to our democracy – even more than the acts of autocrats – because it destroys the very DNA of a democratic country: when people can no longer move past politics and work together for a common goal. 

Democracy, to me, is not when everyone unanimously (or nearly unanimously) agree on one perceived to be the best candidate. Democracy is when, even though elections are so contentious, once the dust settles, people are still capable of coming together and helping each other make the best of any given situation. Once a winner is declared, that person stops being a mere candidate, but becomes our public servant; in the same way that, once the winner enters into office, his constituents are not just the people who voted for him, but each and every Filipino, regardless of whether they voted or not, or how they may have voted.

If there is one thing that gives me hope, it is seeing the dignity with which former vice president Leni Robredo reacted to the results of the election. She thanked and commiserated with her supporters, but, thereafter, stepped back and allowed the new administration to enter into office without any foul words from her.

And, to give credit where credit is due, so far, so has President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. I noted the way the Office of the President swiftly acted when a media personality attempted to blame Robredo’s supporters for a recent act of violence committed during a graduation ceremony in Ateneo de Manila University. That small act of admonishing such unfounded and defamatory imputations, I think, goes a long way towards sending the message that that is not how his administration wants to begin his term of office.

So, yes, I think the Duterte administration did a lot of damage in the last six years. And, yes, I am disappointed about the results of the election – after all, I was part of the defeated opposition slate, except for one. But I think there is still hope for Philippine democracy, and a lot of it depends on how Filipinos and our leaders will act going forward.

So, for my part, I call on President Marcos to take a stand and distance himself from the oppressive, divisive and destructive ways of his predecessor. I call on him to take the mandate given to him by the Filipino people as an opportunity to undo the injustices committed by his predecessor, to make things right and unite the Filipino people. 

If President Marcos wants to show that he is a better leader than his father, he should take an explicit stand for democracy and human rights, and let the stifling of dissent end with his predecessor.

Democracy is not about who wins or loses. It depends on whether people are capable of moving past the elections and, instead, work together for a better future for our people. That is the true Democracy that I hope will be revived and will prosper. 

With that, I sincerely say that I hope that his Presidency succeeds for no reason other than his success means the success of the Filipino people. Our people desperately need a better government. More importantly, they deserve it after all that they have been through. –

Former senator Leila de Lima, a fierce critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for several years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.


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  1. JM

    There’s so many parallels with my country, the US. Can this tendency to polerization be caused or aided by social media ?

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