Our crucifixion

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Lent leads to the crucifixion, and Lent has become a year-round season as far as politics are concerned. It puzzles me how politics have been equated, not in definition but in reality, with partisanship. Those who conceived elections as a mechanism for change and competition apparently did not anticipate the ugly consequence of competition – that it keeps the status quo rather than promote change.

Changes in personalities do not guarantee systemic changes. Elections bring in new names and faces, period. Period because nothing else changes. In fact, partisanship intensifies the competition but assured that the system will perpetuate itself. When personalities dictate the perspective and policies rather than a transcendental vision, it will stay a matter of who and not what. Any elected leader will not have the time to roll out a vision. By the time the partisan skirmishes are kept at bay, the bureaucracy takes over. There is even less time to reform the bureaucracy because elections are already around the corner.

The Philippine crucifixion is grounded in the endless cycle of how things are. It is not our unique cycle. Most countries have the same. It is just that because it is ours, it is more pronounced to Filipinos. It is the cycle of elitism, of the 1% lording it over the 99%, the same cycle of dictatorships or authoritarian rule – including those disguised as democratic. I think the Filipinos, especially the ordinary and the poor among us, comprising maybe 90% of the population, know for sure that they mean much less than their numbers and that the rich and powerful continue to have the say in almost everything almost every time.

Democracy is not dead; it is just not alive yet. It remains a concept with a ritualistic roll-out, meaning there are forms that can make some claim democracy is a reality in the Philippines. But when personalities rule and not democratic institutions, then democracy is not yet. It is not a farce because it has never been, but it is just not yet.

It may even take a much longer time to become because national consciousness can still tolerate moves for a revolutionary government. Such initiatives, even as ideas, are a complete no-no for any democratic society. Its only exception would be a war when the country is attacked by an external force. And there is no country out there with any intent to attack us. China is just grabbing territory but has not indicated it intends to invade the Philippines. Of course, I do not know what China will do if and when Filipinos decide to physically protect what it claims to be a Philippine territory.

Meanwhile, we are a democracy in transition or a colonial territory in the process of being independent. I cannot decide which is which, a glass half full or half empty. But whatever we are today, we are not yet democratic. At any slight provocation, those in power turn very right, very traditional, very authoritarian. Its instinct is to return to what it has been used to forever rather than naturally take the experience of trying something new – like democracy.

On the other hand, those opposed to any present holder of authority are not exempt either from thinking about shortcuts, relishing the idea that whoever the current president will somehow fail, and hopefully fall. No one thinks of building a democracy and its required institutions, which necessarily means strengthening governance until governance itself becomes more important than those who govern. Strengthening governance includes political opposition that will engage administrations less on personal levels and more on institutional and ethical grounds – even if ruling governments provokes with authoritarian tendencies.

On the way to a more active democracy in spirit and in form, other nations went through their transition periods. Some, in fact, when through hell, like the Civil War in the United States. With the possibility of federalism when the political maturity of local and national politicians suspect, a future civil war becomes possible in the Philippines, too. It just needs for the Armed Forces to be decentralized and farmed out to different states or regions. With the patterned propensity to allow partisanship to turn us against one another, as evidenced by the hate displayed in social media, all it needs is for us to turn verbal abuse into armed conflict.

Thankfully, Lent has a resurrection, an Easter season. This is an annual ritual while this is not annual at all in Philippine politics. Still, the vision of a resurrection, of an Easter, is there. And while still in the minority, there are resurrected nations who had managed to survive their Lents and attain rewards for their sacrifices. These resurrected nations that make up the core of the developed world offer us some hope that there can be an end to our persistent Lent. We can only look to them, review their own agonies in their gardens, and learn how they transcended their own attachment to their dictators and authoritarians.

There are enough indications that violence in many parts of the world generates fear among the people of many nations. Fearful people need to feel secure, especially when their countries have resources to confront the threats. Unfortunately, when a government turns conservative or defensive, authoritarian rule follows and initially accepted by the populace. When it is time to ease up, to return to normalcy, those who have wielded power with less legal or popular restraint will be reluctant to give it up. Many dictatorships began when people feared an enemy more than its leaders. One day, even when the threats had disappeared, the leaders want to hold on to unrestricted power.

Whatever we fear in the Philippines, whether it is the drug scourge, the armed insurgency, the long-standing armed conflict in Mindanao, or terrorism, makes us pliant, even welcoming, to strong and decisive leadership. I can only pray that the fears we have will subside before the attraction of absolute power will begin its journey to corrupt absolutely.

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