Democracy, The Great Experiment

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Edsa 2015 marks another milestone. It is not because it is the 29th anniversary of People Power, but because People Power continues to be celebrated at all. Filipinos take democracy for granted, have mostly lost appreciation that the Edsa Revolution happened, and many among the younger generations have already forgotten. But unappreciated or forgotten is not the loss of a miraculous event but the loss of democracy itself.

Democracy is a possibility more than a reality. That is why I call it a great experiment—because it is a possibility that is struggling to become a reality. At best, then, in the Philippines, democracy is a very young work in progress. It is at laboratory stage, already showing signs of promise but very, very unstable. The whole experimentation is about finding the permutations of freedom and self-rule that have a natural fit with the best of culture, and the build-up of consistency is the journey that will determine if the Filipino people have what it takes to make democracy a way of life.

The principle of “of the people, for the people, and by the people” is so sweet-sounding. It is romantic, idyllic, and resonates so powerfully in the minds and hearts of many. But so is heaven and the thought of eternal bliss. Reality, though, points to something else, and still is dominated by what starts out as good intentions and ends up as pavers to the road to hell. It is less about being damned, so we should not feel so depressed. If we cannot get to an ideal state, we must not forget that we were never there either.

The whole human history has never had its beginnings in democracy. In fact, our genetic political and social DNA had little, if ever, any connection to democracy. What it had evolved from, or where it still has to evolve out of, is centralized authority. The power has always held by one, or a few with one central figure. How the power got to the hands of one or a few around him, or her, may have had several pathways. Mostly though, it was by superior force initially, and then sustained rule and tradition after that.

Written history will give you several names by which central authority has been called. A few of them are Emperor, King, Monarch, Sultan, Czar, Chief, Ruler, Shogun, Shah, and even Supremo. In our country and history, Datu must be the most popular term to symbolize that centralized authority. Now, even if contain ourselves to history of only several thousands of years, we can already see that democracy is a new kid on the block. It may have a certain charisma but it cannot claim dominance over centralized authority, not even when nations claim they are democratic.

Sweeping the planet Earth is a wave of conflict that precisely reminds us of where mankind has always been, and I do not even mean the eye-for-an-eye sense of retribution, but of centralized authority. Grab the headlines of tri-media, and the controversial part of social media, then see how superior force, or superior noise, is trying to impose itself on others. Things are just so far removed from the romantic and idyllic, from Camelot, from the “ask-not-what-your-country-can do-for-you-but-what-you-can-do-for-country” invitation of strong citizenry in democracy. Everybody is blaming everybody, inviting not just the collapse of the democratic experiment but the quick return of centralized authority.

The dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos was not a fluke. It was a natural and conditioned response long established by culture and history. Experimenting with democracy from 1946 to martial law in 1972 was only 26 years in the backdrop of almost forever in the islands now known as the Republic of the Philippines. The intellectual introduction of democracy by the United States began with conquest, invasion and occupation by force, and so negates to a large extent the true spirit of democracy.

Of even worse subliminal influence is the Catholic Church in terms of its papal authority as not only utterly centralized but even infallible. This overlay of religion fits well, too, with a culture so steeped in the datu system and a world of gods and demi-gods. Yes, Pope Francis is trying to show that the Christian initiative of Jesus Christ may well be the first sustained experiment for democracy. However, the actuation of the formal Church, knowing nothing except what its predecessors in religion had in their own hierarchies, has always countered by practice the very intent of the teachings. In case we forgot, Jesus Christ did elevate the poor and ordinary, including public sinners, to priority status, reversing the elitism of all previous religions and systems of governance.

The miracle of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution was the coming together of traditional influences that came from elitist leaderships and the people from the streets. In one shining moment, democracy found an awesome and beautiful expression. In Edsa, the potential of democracy allowed itself to be glimpsed.

The powerful impact of the 1986 Edsa People Power has persisted against all odds. It has resisted invitation after invitation to return to centralized authority, by civilians or by the military, even during emotional moments such as now. It has resisted Talibans in the Catholic Church who themselves have yet to learn that governance by representation starts from the people and not from the bishopric.

Yet, the struggle over 29 years to maintain and grow democracy is not assured of final victory. It is so easy to revert to that which is so much more familiar to the Filipino spirit. Especially in times when fear and confusion reign, the tendency to seek centralized authority will be stimulated. And I cannot even say if it will be good or bad for us. I can say, though, that any return to centralized government can happen only with the people and the Armed Forces coming together, or by the the Armed Forces alone. Who, then, has enough popular support from Armed Forces, with or without the people?

Food for thought as we celebrate the 29th anniversary of a people’s dream, of the spirit of Edsa 1986.

Leave a Comment