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Who needs to declare martial law nationwide in a country already choking on dead bodies and breathing disinformation? Certainly not President Rodrigo Duterte, who, in the last 18 months, has managed to scare the opposition, shame the Left, cow big media, and befuddle the public through his foul mouth and whimsical mind.
We’ve been acting as if we needed legislation as proof that we’ve lost some freedoms. We’ve been planning as if we’d wake up one morning to a press conference announcing democracy’s death. We’ve been thinking as if we didn’t know that trying to define where we are now, or what we’ve become, is a luxury that only the blind could afford.
Of course we’re in trouble! No country in peacetime loses what it has in one act – except through an act of God. We lose ourselves in bits and pieces, in our everyday hits and misses, in the times we justify the wrong and embrace the convenient.
We lost what we had the moment we quibbled over the exact number – 3,000? 7,000? 13,000? – of civilians killed in the war on drugs, but would not even pry into how they were shot. We lost what we had the moment we allowed a senator to rot in jail over drug charges peddled by convicts who make a living out of lying. We lost what we had the moment we became forgiving of the fake and the slipshod in the name of giving voice to the voiceless.
Democracy dies not in a single shot, but in increments that we take for granted as there’s enough already on our plate: home, work, sanity, ambitions.
The question for the coming year – and the question that we need to ask ourselves as we end the year – is not whether Duterte would declare this or that, or do this or that. The way he has bulldozed into our lives by saying what he wants and doing what he pleases should not make us doubt his capacity – or will. Philippine presidents enjoy enormous powers granted both by the Constitution and a population infatuated by shortcuts and burned by failed post-Marcos regimes.
But what can we do about it?
For starters, we ought to stop romanticizing the people power revolution we mounted 3 decades ago and the norms it embedded in our lives.
Democracy today is not some self-sustaining business that has recurring revenues. Consider it as a start-up swimming in rough waters that needs to innovate, evolve, adapt, learn. While it is true that we booted out a dictator 31 years ago, it is also true that we tolerated him for 20 years before that – especially as he held so much promise and potential. Authoritarians past and present seldom come via the backdoor. We usually elect them to office, often nurtured by business and political elites that fool themselves into thinking they could put them under control, and then realize their folly a tad too late.
Germany’s conservatives made that mistake once upon a time, when they thought they could use – and tame – a politician named Adolf Hitler. Barack Obama referred to this in a recent speech in Chicago, where he cautioned Americans against assuming that “things continue as they have been." They don’t, he said, and “things can fall apart fairly quickly.” The late Hugo Chavez caused the erosion of Latin America’s 3rd oldest democracy through a prolonged period of mixing good and bad practices, crafting laws and patiently prostituting the bureaucracy by applying method to his madness.
The problem is not unique to us, and it’s driven not only by frustrations with liberal democracy or the comeuppance of capitalist greed. Technology and its disruptions in the last decade have rewired our brains, reshaped our conversations, and rebooted our bottled-up emotions. Social media, once welcomed as the tool that could save the world, ironically had become the perfect platform for populists and populism.
While not on Twitter like his American BFF, President Duterte quacks like a social media duck. He shoots from the hip, provokes rage, and embodies the desires and needs of believers massed up in one echo chamber. He projects unmediated governance, the kind that seeks to bypass the scrutiny and established processes of the bureaucracy, the courts, Congress, the media, and the international community. Along the way, we are swept into a wave of vitriol, triggered by government-backed keyboard warriors who lure us into their spaces of hate and unprocessed thoughts.
All this diminishes our collective capacity, and traps us in our safe zones. As we polarize, he thrives. The challenge is not to ignore this reality, but to clobber it with new tactics, new spaces, new actions – hell, new ideas. Sadly, these continue to evade every sector.
Stop flirting with military
This isn’t the time, either, to romanticize the other “revolution” that ousted yet another plunderer, former President Joseph Estrada, with the help of mass movements and NGO leaders who connived with military officers who then instigated the armed forces’ unprecedented withdrawal of support from their commander-in-chief in January 2001. Look what that got us: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The proud general who helped install her to power, Angelo Reyes, was later exposed for tolerating institutional corruption in the military, and he shot himself dead at the burial ground of his mother.
President Duterte is very much aware of the military’s adventurous streak, which is why in the past year he has spent most of his time – and government resources – wooing them through all means possible. Beyond visiting their camps and wakes and raising their combat pays, the President signed a good number of proclamations that aim to solidify his ideological and personal bond with the troops, as he imposed martial law in Mindanao, terminated peace talks with the communist rebels, and declared the rebels’ party and armed group terrorists. His ramped-up rhetoric against the communists, his former allies, is meant for the military, his way of saying, “I’m not in bed with your nemesis, boys. I’m with you all the way.” The subtext to that, of course, is that the President expects them to be with him all the way too.
While it is true that the current commanders joined the military in the mid-’80s as the Marcos dictatorship was dying, and therefore were the most exposed to its corruption and abuse and most welcoming of its end, it’s not safe to assume that the soldier’s psyche in the last 30 years – bowing to civilian control, intervening only when asked to – has not changed. The Filipino soldier is not immune to democracy’s failed promises in the last 3 decades. So it is best not to give him any ideas, and to thwart all overt and covert attempts to bring him closer to the notion that he could govern better than civilians.
After all, it’s the civilians – in society, in government – whose work for 2018 is cut out for them.
The civilian challenge
We are in a tough, uncharted world. The train has left the station, so what can civilian political players and groups do about it?
For starters, they need to recognize the benefit of slow death (for lack of a better term). The fact that freedoms, institutions, and processes are eroded bit by bit – and not in one blow (not that we’d want that) – allows political players some space to stop or delay the authoritarian path.
This has ceased to be about the President. This is about the entire breadth of individuals and groups proclaiming their commitment to democracy and human rights and who are in a position to fight for it every single day.
This has ceased to be about the fear of nationwide martial law or the plan to federalize government. This is about the grave impact of a rewritten Constitution, because if there’s one lesson from other strongmen, it is that a new charter is usually their first legitimate step toward delegitimizing a system.
This has ceased to be about impeaching the chief justice and the Ombudsman or paralyzing institutions. This is about the serious consequences of acquiescence – whether in the form of silence or political posturing or justified sycophancy.
It’s time to stop wishing for a single, hardball opportunity that would end this state of abuse and keep the fire of democracy burning. None is coming (short of an act of God). The party’s over, the hard work begins. The opportunity will come in small measures and moments, and whether these self-proclaimed democrats in and out of government would have the integrity to see them, the smarts to seize them, and the courage to act upon them beyond their sectarian interests.
Just as it took the power of an organized people to get democracy back from a kleptocrat a lifetime ago, so does the task of keeping it.
2018 is yours – and ours – to fix. Individually and collectively. And then who knows what, or who, would emerge from it? – Rappler.com
The author is on sabbatical at Harvard as a Nieman journalism fellow.