The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:23:00 06/14/2010
IN its exit poll, social weather stations concluded its questionnaire with three questions: the first asked whether people thought the quality of governance would a) get better (57 percent); b) be the same as now (15 percent); c) get worse (2 percent); or d) no comment (26 percent). The second asked whether in the coming 12 months the quality of life would a) be better (29 percent); b) be the same (23 percent); c) be worse (2 percent); d) no comment (26 percent). And finally, over the same period, would the economy of the Philippines a) be better (52 percent); b) be the same (19 percent); c) be worse (2 percent); and d) no comment (27 percent).
The majorities expressing optimism isn’t surprising, and neither are the steady minorities with a slightly pessimistic to highly pessimistic opinion; what’s remarkable are the significant minorities—basically a quarter of the population—who preferred not to venture an opinion in public. So on the one hand, public opinion is cautiously optimistic while a significant minority prefers to wait and see; overall a fairly healthy distribution of opinion and certainly, a working basis for sustaining what the country as a whole has achieved.
And that is, that after 2001, when we came closest to a Bangkok Moment, and came close to one again in 2005, society as a whole, regardless of the desires of its various component parts, which ranged from the administration’s preference to take public opinion—in national terms—out of the governance equation on one hand, and the Year Zero/New Society fantasies of many of its organized critics, a consensus emerged to institute a kind of political triage. Neither government nor its critics could go too far out of bounds, the whole thing quarantined, so to speak, with periodic measurements of the public pulse by way of elections.
The temptation of course is to paper over nagging problems or to view public debate as irksome, now that the patient has a new lease on life, and we are looking forward (broadly speaking) to the first administration with a widely accepted mandate since 1998. On the one hand, if many desire some peace and quiet, there is such a thing as being too quiet and pacific precisely at a time when the country not only has to rebuild its institutions, but find a way toward a productive, because inclusive and consensus-driven, civic culture.
There is no more democratic point of view than the one so eloquently put forward by Patricia Evangelista yesterday: “To critique is not to dictate, it is to participate, to speak, to engage. That promise made on May 10 when millions lined up for hours for the right to choose leaders begins its work now, and will continue for the next six years even when the applause ends, love dies and the hero is stripped of legend.” One might only add, it is one of the great expectations of a society whose opinions were consistently shrugged off as “political noise” by the present dispensation whose shredders are working overtime to deny future officials any evidence that could end up produced in hitherto “proper” forums.
The question of the role public opinion should play in a representative democracy was settled in 1922, the question put forward in a great party division and then in a special election. On Feb. 17 of that year, the assertion was first put forward that “the party never has been and never will be the people. My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins,” and with that assertion, the corresponding desire for “a government of opinion, not a government that solves vital questions without the country’s knowledge or how or when the solution was made.”
If nature abhors a vacuum, so does public opinion and by extension, so does media—to which an increasingly shrinking portion of the public pays sustained attention in general—and which has found itself treated with such a sustained combination of outright deception or hostility by official circles.
My point is that if parties aren’t the people, neither are NGOs, nor broader Civil Society, nor even the media: they are all subsets of the whole, and cannot—and should not—believe they are superior to any other. But on the other hand, they do legitimately speak out and weigh in, inevitably antagonistically at times: with officialdom having the burden of proof to justify and convince all these publics of both the relevance and correctness of government’s actions.
Where everyone seems stumped is how—and where—all the competing publics should thresh out their differences. There lies the value in recognizing the public consensus, such as it’s been, of the past few years: to thresh things out in various institutional arenas, insisting, however, that even as institutions have their assigned check-and-balance functions, the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy is public opinion.
This is the opposite of the ritual answer of the present dispensation, which has always been “in the proper forum,” and through the duly constituted authorities: but that assumed, or more precisely stubbornly insisted, on the “presumption of legality” when the foundations of that presumption, institutions and officials with mandate, were at best imperfectly present and almost entirely absent for the chief executive.
As far back as October 2005, Ricky Carandang had pointed out in his blog (in, alas, a now-vanished entry) that our society is an extremely low-trust one, to begin with; for much of the past five years, government preferred divide-and-rule rather than to rebuild trust. And yet, a healthy skepticism to anything official aside, I don’t doubt that people want to be able to trust their representatives—but it is officialdom who has to earn that trust. The mandate elected officials received on May 10 is the foundation, as firm as any we’ve had; but it will take a lot more, requiring raising the bar on how government engages its many publics.