The Long View
Elections and mutant evolution
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:51:00 07/01/2009
IN ANCIENT times, we are told, the datus and rajahs either bequeathed their authority to their children, consolidating their rule by means of advantageous marriages and alliances, or upstarts would spring up and challenge rulers. So it was either by inheritance, marriage, or a duel that control of a territory could be gained. In a sense, since the barangay (village) was writ large as the Filipino nation-state, we have continued perceiving leadership as a matter of duels between the chiefs.
Ferdinand Marcos was no different, except much more explicit, in perceiving and portraying himself as a rajah, surrounded by datus, literally served hand and foot by a retinue of maharlika, and everyone else an alipin, slaves to poverty and thus, to their patrons. But where Marcos departed from the previous model was that he tried to make his national leadership hereditary until, as perhaps was the unchronicled case with many a chieftain of old, he succumbed to age and was deprived of what other Asians might call “The Mandate of Heaven.”
Laura Junker, in her book on how our pre-Hispanic societies operated, describes the main preoccupations of those societies as “raiding, trading, and feasting.” The more things change, the more they remain the same! And so, uneasily and jealously the traditional and the modern, the barangay and the nation, have coexisted and contested for control of the public’s imagination —and of those who want to lead that nation.
Andres Bonifacio pined for a kind of Return to Eden, as he imagined pre-Hispanic society to be. And while surely he saw better than most how some of its nobler aspects and virtues had survived colonial rule, demonstrated in the mutual aid and compassion of ordinary people doing their best to survive the impositions of King, Governor-General, friar, gobernadorcillo and cabeza de barangay, still, he did not see how perhaps the truest exponents of what the culture was “hierarchical, parochial, violent” were the very provincial worthies who began as his subordinates and then his more successful rivals for power.
Apolinario Mabini, a true modernizer, bitterly denounced the president he served as nothing better, in the end, than the kind of vain, scheming, caricature of the kind of petty native officials Jose Rizal had held in such deep contempt; and again, the refrain borrowed from the French comes up: the more things change, the more they remain the same!
What change there is, has taken place, not in terms of the local but rather, the national; the writ of the pre-modern fails to hold sway, time and again, when confronted by the national. And we have seen this, not in terms of revolutions, but rather, elections. Even when elections were participated in by a tiny minority of Filipinos, it was enough to sweep aside the veterans of the Malolos Congress and replace them with leaders more prepared to (cautiously) accommodate a broader participation among the public; and when they, in turn grown old and cautious, balked at the consequences of extending democracy, they were swept aside in the 1950s. And when that generation, in turn, grew old and unresponsive, a younger, post-war generation was poised to sweep them aside, until Marcos stopped the process dead in its tracks.
All this took place in the first half of the 20th century when elections were a matter of machines, and the machines operated on orders from above and, as much as humanly possible, on the politicians’ part, for the ease and convenience of the politicians and not the alipin. And yet, the changes took place.
Frog in a Well, The China History Group Blog, puts it perfectly, I think: “The literature on democracy development is thin, at least in terms of convincing arguments, but the most likely precursor to actual democracy is faux democracy… the habits of elections and candidates and constitutions and rights that develop under authoritarian populism that can blossom into something like real liberal [in the classical sense] democracy. This is where the example of Taiwan and South Korea is instructive, as well as the transition made by Japan in the mid-20th century. Protests rarely seem to result directly in regime change. though the Romanian and earlier Iranian examples did — but they do express the degree to which the people take their rights seriously.”
Two decades ago, in her speech before the US Congress, Cory Aquino called this “restoring democracy by the ways of democracy.” Her critics have groused that this was merely the restoration of the pre-martial law democracy, which was far from a genuinely democratic regime.
This criticism is beside the point, for it ignores, essentially, what an aberration the Marcos dictatorship was, and how the New Society he established was hardly new, but rather, the fulfillment of the truly Old Society of our stratified ancient past, in contrast to the Hispanized Old Society he condemned with a ferocity only someone who had endured its snobbery and pretensions could muster.
Except that the pretensions of the New Society were such —in no small part due to the veneer of technocracy shellacked onto the rajah regime Marcos established — that in turn, just as he punctured and eliminated the pretensions of the pre-martial law leadership, what he put forward as the virtues of his regime were discredited as well.
And so began a period of reckless experimentation on the part of a repressed electorate, as well as of frantic cooptation by both the pre-martial law and martial law elite, scrambling to retain power and make up for lost time, cringing in the shadows of a dictator who would brook no challenges, much less groom any potential successors. As the West Indian proverb Juan Mercado often quotes goes, “Nothing grows under a banyan tree.” When the dictatorship fell, everything was stunted and started to grow in a mutant manner.
But then, out of mutation arises the possibility of change — unless the mutants can be rooted out.