A discomforting realization about democracy
When I interviewed Maria Ressa last year for this year’s edition of the Fookien Times Yearbook, she said the next two years would make or break liberal democracy depending on the outcome of a whole series of elections to come. The scorecard to date, from her perspective, would be mixed, verging on the discouraging. In Poland, to be sure, the right wing lost; but in Argentina, and most recently, in the Netherlands, right-wing, illiberal candidates have pulled political upsets. As the shrinking number of “Eisenhower Republicans” frustrated at the Stockholm Syndrome daily demonstrated by their party’s relationship with Donald Trump (almost sure to get his party’s nomination again) shows, it took conservatives having a political dalliance with former fringe types to give birth to a new era of right-wing populism that has liberal democrats and leftists of different kinds, globally, in retreat.
As Ishaan Tharoor recently noted in a Washington Post analysis, “The ability of the far right to break into the castle has always been contingent on the center-right establishment lowering the drawbridge.” In our case, it wasn’t so much the lowering of a drawbridge but instead the use of Rodrigo Duterte as a battering ram to smash the economics-driven succession debate which would have kept the up-to-then discredited Arroyo-Estrada-Marcos combination out of power, and with them, a growing list of actually imprisoned former vote-getters (Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, and friends, to name just a prominent few) possibly permanently in jail and out of power. Duterte became the incarnation of the formerly marginal now coming into their own, as he channeled the resentments and fears of a new middle class but also repudiated the old middle class and its politics born in the Ramon Magsaysay era.
This repudiation in turn created the political space for a restoration. There is a longstanding tradition in our politics (which has been challenged in the courts but only recently), and it is this: Election confers absolution. At its best, it brings former rebels or the defeated, back into the political mainstream, a peaceable but arguably, meaningful way, of challenging the colonial order in the days before independence, and of bringing dissident, even radical, voices and views, into the political mix since independence. It allows individual leaders to submit themselves to a referendum in which the public settles questions that might otherwise divide society for generations.
When this happens, a new political consensus is formed: This is how tradition helps maintain political stability and can foster political evolution. From this perspective, the Marcoses slowly, but systematically, accomplished their political rehabilitation in a manner that was both democratic and accepting of the very revolution that had thrown them out of power. Lee Kuan Yew, always snidely so sure of himself without having to preside over a society with a far longer history and far more complicated society than his own, failed to see this when he sneered at Filipinos for being soft and forgiving about the Marcoses: as the recent headlines in that city-state have shown, nothing ever stopped Singapore from accepting the ill-gotten money of private and public figures; nor did Lee let facts get in the way of his sweeping pronouncements, it seems (it was the Swiss, who taught the Singaporeans a thing or two about private banking), who insisted the Philippines allow the Marcoses to come back, in exchange for freezing the Marcos accounts, while insisting European human rights standards be accepted by giving the former ruling family their day in our domestic courts.
It’s important to revisit this historical zig-zag, not just of one family, but an entire society: because, in achieving the first majority presidency however you measure it (since 1969, in an ordinary election; since 1986, in an extraordinary election), Ferdinand Marcos Jr. accomplished what every Fifth Republic president from Marcos to Duterte failed to do—a majority—in a society whose increasing ignorance has had one, political, constant: The constant repetition that democracy is the rule of the majority. So for the first time in 30 years, we have a majority: only for those who wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy to deny him democratic respectability.
The world, oddly enough, has had no such misgivings. Whether it’s the United States or the European Union, Japan, or Australia, the democratic verdict has been accepted and what President Marcos has done is bring back the Philippines to that place in the world order in which it formerly, respectably, and credibly, existed: as a supporter of democracy, and the cooperation, stability, and security that comes from accepting international law and human rights.
But this requires pondering the formerly unthinkable: the possibility that the Marcos administration represents the democratic center in our national life. And may do so, for the foreseeable future.