The Gardener’s Tale of the Contradictions of Oligarchic Democracy

Let the games begin
The Philippine Political Circus is off to an Early Start

As the country ushers in the four-month play of Christmas songs (“only in the Philippines,” where commercial Christmas is fast ceasing to be “more fun”), it also got that other national sport – elections – to an early start. Filing for candidacies in the May 2013 elections will be in October 2012. Positioning for influence in the May 2016 Presidential elections, safely absent any regime change, will be determined in great part by the 2013 results. 


The “ruling” Liberal Party has been expanding and consolidating its rank-and-file ever since PNoy identified with Sec. Mar Roxas’ LP – not without competition from the original Noybi (VP Binay) forces that may be less in resources but often prove superior in tenacious struggle. Not quite- some say – not when one looks at the United Left (Akbayan-Hyat Ten elements) that not only beefed up but also fast became the activist center of the traditional LP complex. 

The executive department overseeing the thousands of local government units from baranggay to town, city and province is the DILG or Department of Interior and Local Government. From the point of view of party-building and electoral concerns it is indubitably the most important department. 

A few times publicly in the early months, PNoy said that the appointee Robredo was not yet it. Did he prefer someone else or was he looking for someone else? Loyal Robredo – loyal to Roxas and the LP – never seemed to have heard the public remarks of the appointing President; he just kept smiling, humbly trudging every single workday of his unconfirmed cabinet appointment.

With the demise of Robredo an acting Secretary at the DILG not 100% an LP could not have been acceptable to the powerful Roxas, even if that guy was the Executive Secretary and bosom friend of PNoy who, long ago, was identified with Noybi. Regarding PNoy, it does seem that what Roxas wants Roxas gets. Before the public, Binay merely succeeded in making sure he did not sound like sour grapes.

Ninoy Aquino, Culture and Underdevelopment

More than twenty years ago an Atlantic Monthly article was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the United States. It became the subject of controversy and attention here by its very title – “A DAMAGED CULTURE: A NEW PHILIPPINES?”

It was a time, right after Edsa I, when people thought a New Philippines had dropped down on them from heaven, or, in the very least, weren’t they now building one? The evil Marcos was out, the saintly Cory was in, and democracy marched on worldwide, right? The bloodless dethroning of the almighty Marcos gave Filipinos new dignity and pride and worse amnesia than they had ever had. The smug unconscious merrily whistled the simplistic line: take away Marcos and everything would be fine (anticipating by two decades pag-walang-korap-walang-mahirap of more recent vintage).

We plain forgot that most of the things that now seemed wrong with the economy–grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, land-ownership disputes, monopolistic industries in cahoots with the government — had been wrong for decades, before there was a Marcos in Malacanang or a Macapagal thereafter.

Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.” The words were Ninoy Aquino’s, uttered long before Marcos’ martial rule.


Many Filipinos just didn’t like it when this article of James Fallows said that “in a sociological sense the elevation of Corazon Aquino through the EDSA revolution should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order.”

Of course he did not deny that Edsa’s four days of courage “demonstrated a brave, national-minded spirit”, and “revealed the country’s spiritual essence.”  But to him, nonetheless, the episode seemed “an exception, even an aberration.” He heard in Manila what Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru heard in Delhi: the more we change the more we remain the same; we run twenty times faster just to stay in place.

Deeper in the Philippine reality was the damaged culture that led to a “tradition of political corruption and cronyism, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the tribal fragmentation, the local elite’s willingness to make a separate profitable peace with colonial powers”, old and new — all reflecting a feeble sense of national identity and a contempt for the common good.

By contrast, the countries that surrounded the Philippines became the world’s most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore–all short on natural resources– all had inched their way up through hard study and hard work. The Philippines, for its part, illustrated the opposite: culture could make a naturally rich country poor.

Decades Later 

Liberal Democracy returned to the Philippines, in a big way. As if to make up for all the years when they could not vote, Filipinos got into one election after another and prepared for yet another almost nonstop. Election disputes returned as well and long recounts dragged on.

The Marcos years spanned twenty years of our history: 1966-1986. Before that era we had, right after independence, twenty years of elite or liberal democracy, 1946 – 1966: call them now “the pre-Marcos years” – as there is likewise every reason to view the twenty or more after Edsa, from 1986 to the present, quite simply as “the post-Marcos years” – a phase when we were somehow struggling to avoid the absolutely wrong path without ever finding the right one. The tuwid na daan (“straight path”) has been puno (“full,” also “Usec Puno”) of all sorts of jokes lately.

Indeed, these years cannot be seriously dubbed the Aquino or the Ramos or the Estrada or the Arroyo years but more accurately just “post-Marcos”, because every major policy change, different styles of governance adoption and all development successes or failures have always been referred back to or compared and contrasted with the Marcos decades.

It takes humility and stark honesty to admit that two decades of elite or oligarchic ‘democracy’, such as the years before Marcos, had to lead inevitably to ‘constitutional authoritarianism’ or dictatorship. The path our nation took after WWII, prepared for by long decades of foreign domination, had to be at best a mere prelude to strong-man-rule. History has time and time again demonstrated this iron law: without social democracy or the empowerment of the majority populace, the rule of the few or elite democracy will merely lead to strong-arm rule. That is what happened. Can it happen again? Have you observed any untoward moves lately on the part of one man, one party or one faction to achieve hegemony over all the branches of government, which is what essentially defines dictatorship?

Taking the “mock” out of democracy

Yes, there may be an election next year. Would voters know what they’re doing? Many say, “No, not necessarily but it doesn’t matter.” How could it not matter? Well, it is argued, the public’s errors cancel out with some sectors overestimating and others underestimating the bad or good effects of any given policy or personality, to the point that one can say the average voter’s beliefs is right and true – on the average.

Now this is not bad, if one’s ideal is a society of mediocrity, but certainly not comforting if you look at the body of historical evidence showing that voters, like moths to the flame, gravitate to the same mistakes. Their mistakes do not cancel each other out; they, in fact, get compounded.

Thus we again find ourselves irked by the obligatory belief that elections are crucial to a “democracy” when they could be merely the number one sign of the “mock” in that English term. Is it right to equate democracy with voting? But can you talk of democracy if there is no voting?

In reality, the ballot box does not automatically ensure democracy. On the contrary, it can be used as a tool to defeat the will of the majority – in other words, to kill democracy. One can easily use non-recountable electronic voting for precisely such a purpose.

In some countries today including the Philippines, democracy still does not reflect the will of the bottom majority. Although the 90% majority of the people have the right to vote, the top ten percent – the elite – can and habitually subvert the democratic process quite successfully as a rule. Or is anyone both naive and absurd to assume that the bottom 90% voluntarily choose to have tiny minorities own more wealth and power than the majority populace? Obviously, this “democratic situation” does not reflect the will of the bottom 90%.

JPK, Sr.

In the first place, getting elected is costly business. “Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide,” Joseph P. Kennedy quipped, as quoted by his son John F. Kennedy. When Senator Joker Arroyo’s spending of millions upon millions of campaign funds was exposed to be second only to Pichay’s, many people immediately remarked, “And we thought he was clean.” People presume a politician ends up “grateful” to the moneyed few through the need for election campaign support – unless, of course, he was a plunderer and did not need anybody else’s contributions to start with.


Before elections, moneyed liberal democrats – the elite – can subject the entire population to months of intense political conditioning in which individuals and policies that pose a threat to their power are systematically discredited. Because of their ownership of media, the elite are able to coordinate and synchronize the various newspaper and TV networks. Seeing and hearing the same news on different networks and in different newspapers automatically lends an air of authenticity and credibility to the information. Those who don’t own media have the option to lease media space-time through the expensive services of publicists who, though often marginally literate, are often highly skilled bribe-givers, giving rise to “envelopmental” yellow journalism.

Most people are vulnerable to “first impressions.” This is the secret behind “photo opportunities” and “30 second sound bytes”. The technique is especially valuable when used exclusively through carefully prepared official news releases, followed by newspaper and TV station editorials, thereafter followed immediately by opinion poll surveys. Supportive reactions are fed back to viewers and listeners almost immediately. The ease with which those who have money can rig these polls is not always obvious.

Massive stultification 

In the last two elections, years 2007 and 2010, it is not a joke to say that the real winner was TV – indubitably. The channels were raking it in. The multi-million-peso smile characterized the anchors and the actors, some of whom have now joined the rest of their colleagues as the new trapos.

As a result of electronic media hegemony, there are now no brakes on the massive stultification of the Filipino voter – making it harder to distinguish between real and reel. Of course, even this will also peter out later, but for now we will fast become mere objects and not really the subjects of Philippine history-in-the-making.

Cheating at the polls by buying key officers per precinct is well known but hardly prevented and corrected to date. The possibility of electronic cheating in the context of automated voting sans paper trail is now being foisted on the nation as a whole.

Of course when all else fails, bodily killing can be resorted to. Anyway we will always have enough church people to order an oratio imperata or mandatory prayer – for “clean, honest, violence-free and credible elections.”

Access and conscience

Violence is, more often than not, local and localized. Taking office has become such big business. Our elections have increasingly become more about who – which families – get to occupy the lucrative “positions of service”. Who will corner how much of the “national capital” in a given local area?

Of course ordinary people know this truth quite instinctively. Never is their concern about programs and policies, for, rightly or wrongly, most people believe that the various parties do not even contemplate change along those lines. The main concern, rather, is about access. Is the prospective voter convinced he can still approach the candidate after electoral victory? How can he be sure of that? Is his immediate “leader” close enough to the candidate so that when the time should ever come for a politician’s intervention in his personal problems –there will be no hassle: they will be recognized?

And so, just to make sure – he submits his name to the leader. He takes the money for electoral services rendered and votes. He votes according to his conscience. That conscience has been formed not to betray the giver of money and gifts.


Many moral leaders who urge people to vote according to their conscience are often disappointed. They forget they are only facing the consequences of having neglected their own duty to form the conscience of the voter these many long years past. In that regard, the fulminations of an Archbishop Oscar V. Cruz will be no match to the humble stubbornness of Juan de la Cruz. The latter, in going against the Archbishop’s instructions, was only following his conscience.

Many continue to blame abiding poverty for the vote-buying electoral institution. And most people presume that elections next year will again not be honest. Touché.  In the past they were shocked with the revelation of “dagdag-bawas” tactics, which were worse than vote buying. They were election-results buying or coercing. In the former, many voters became handout “beneficiaries” but in the latter only election officials did.

The impotence of electoral power

The Philippines is a country where no candidate ever loses but merely believes he got cheated of victory. Among serious agents of change, whether of the electoral or armed variety, it is the idea of “capturing state power” which motivates tenacious struggle. Unfortunately, the same idea often merely maintains the illusion that the state is the repository of sovereignty and autonomy and all power when, in fact, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

More people know better, namely, that in the networked world of global and domestic capital, the state is “merely a node in a web of power”, woven between all kinds of agencies, banks, exchanges, corporate headquarters and multilateral institutions.

But you can’t put change agents down. Democracy is nothing if the many do not assert themselves. Of course. The ruling and rich few never part with their privileges voluntarily.  Whenever they’ve done so, they did so because of pressures coming from the power of the many – from social democracy.

Therefore, to replace elite democracy with social democracy, and abrogate any semblance of a master-slave relationship in a given society and thus eliminate oligarchy and mass poverty, it is not the exploiters but, rather the exploited, the poor and the disadvantaged who, ironically, must bear the greater challenge for the liberation of both sides from the existing unjust structures.  To achieve a new order from out of the old, it is the power of the poor, which is the bearer of the new. Hence, the tested formula: organize!

The myriad numbers of small farmers and laborers have one clear advantage in the society’s power equation – there are so many of them.  In society, which is founded on and maintained by the principle of democracy, the social sector that has the most numbers should be the most heard and followed. But is it? Not necessarily – because the advantage of numbers is clearly a conditional advantage. And the condition is social organization.

If the many remain divided, isolated from one another, and disorganized, the following will continue to happen: the ruling few will dominate the many, use them as cheap labor, exploit them in benefits-sharing, transmute them into a bought army of voters who constitute the silenced majority of an elite democracy, systematically deny them access to the capital and patrimony of the nation, and then mis-represent them in all the affairs of state, effectively to pursue policies and programs which militate against their welfare and interests.

Needed: an Authentic Change Initiative

We need a social initiative, a team of leaders, and a program that concretely expresses and pursues the vision of a morally upright, frugally prosperous, healthy and educated country.

This initiative must draw out participants from all parts of the country and from all sectors of the population: the Christian churches, the Islamic communities, other faith communities, the indigenous peoples, the democratic political and social groups and movements, government bureaucracy, academia, the scientific community, business, the professions, civic organizations, the media, artists, the military and police forces.

We do not only need a new leader but a team of leaders of a new kind, who will embody and elicit the conscience, character and competence of our people and facilitate their consensus to pursue a common vision and program. We need groups of leaders who will help us overcome our weaknesses and build up and apply our strengths.

This new breed of leaders should be rooted in the life and aspirations of our people, particularly of the farmer, fisher folk and worker masses, the middle class, patriotic businesspersons, bureaucrats and the uniformed services.

As the election fever inevitably heats up this is what we must always remember: Change may, indeed,  be inevitable. But the more we change, the more we stay the same. Should we not go for authentic change and build in earnest a New Philippines from the bottom up, or from wherever we find ourselves in now? We must. Let’s do it. FINIS.

Charles Avila – The Gardener

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