(Editor’s note: This article, authored by Jose V. Abueva, previously appeared on The Ilocos Times earlier this year in time for the Freedom Day last February. In view of the current turmoil currently enveloping our country today, we are re-printing this article as it has become timely once again.)
Through “people power” at EdSA in February 1986, citizens en masse ended the 13-year Marcos dictatorship and banished him into exile. Their battle cry was “Freedom, Justice and Democracy.” Amazed at our extraordinary feat, the world applauded as some oppressed peoples took heart and followed our example.
In January 2001, not only at EdSA but also in various cities, citizens employed “people power” once more to bring down an abusive and corrupt president. We felt good once again but “people power” could not bring us what we really need as a developing nation.
The formal restoration of free elections and democracy under the 1987 Constitution hardly made a dent on our pervasive problems of mass poverty, unemployment, corruption, social inequality, injustice, rebellion, and the environment. Underdevelopment and population still force hordes of Filipinos to migrate as our country lags farther behind our advanced neighbors in the region.
Despite its positive features, the 1987 Constitution did not enable us to rebuild our institutions for good governance. We continued with our obsolete unitary system with its powers, authority and resources centralized in the national government at the expense of local governments, leaders, citizens, and entrepreneurs and countrywide development.
We restored our adversarial separation of powers in a presidential system that daily creates conflict and gridlock between the Executive and Congress, with a vengeance. Our obsolete form of government and dysfunctional political parties sustain our politics of personality, patronage, cronyism, and corruption without public accountability. All along, exploiting our discontent, our politicized military and self-seeking politicians foment more discord and political instability. Rebellion persists. Some sensational media harp on the negative reality and thereby aggravate it.
We should recognize our glaring lack of “good governance”—the sustained, institutionalized capacity of the government to make the right decisions and policies and to implement them effectively to solve our problems and realize our national goals. This lack is what sets the Philippines apart from our progressive democratic neighbors (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand) and our progressive authoritarian neighbors (Singapore and Malaysia).
Basically, good governance is the primordial responsibility of our national leadership. But since the mid-1960s we have suffered a collective failure of our political leadership to reform our institutions of governance for the common good. Instead most of our leaders want to preserve our traditional political system in which their power is rooted and nurtured.
Pervasive poverty, insecurity and dependency, as well as lack of civic competence, compel many citizens to play their passive role in traditional politics. Our kind of capitalist or market economy also perpetuates our elitist political system. We need reform-minded business leaders to push for institutional reforms for good governance.
Moreover, the status quo of bad governance is sustained if we cannot build a deeper sense of nationhood, a stronger commitment to the common good and the national interest, spirituality, moral values, and modern ethical behavior. We need responsible and reform-minded citizens in a growing middle class and a modern political culture.
In last year’s presidential campaign President Arroyo was the only candidate who openly advocated Charter change toward a federal and parliamentary political system, to break the inertia of bad governance. The fiscal crisis has postponed action on Charter change and, perhaps, increased resistance to our badly needed constitutional reforms.
We must realize that shifting to a federal-parliamentary system is a strategic investment in good governance and a better future—to free our people from poverty and dependency and corruption, to compete more effectively in the global economy.
Critics of Charter change point to its high cost and divisiveness. We should realize that the collapse of our constitutional democracy is the real cost of not changing our obsolete unitary-parliamentary system. Our people’s dissatisfaction with our centralized, elitist democracy invites violent, authoritarian alternatives as we see no escape from bad governance, desperation, and hopelessness.
No more EdSA revolts! Without changing our political system.
Instead, let us institutionalize “people power” by reforming and modernizing our various political institutions, including elections and political parties. Only then can we have good governance through responsible and effective leaders and citizens, and a supportive new political culture.