It’s more fun in the Philippines – observers of Philippine democracy could very well apply our tourism slogan to our political landscape. Hard-won after centuries of colonization, years of occupation and decades of dictatorship, Philippine-style democracy is colourful, occasionally chaotic – and arguably inspiring.
Take elections, for example, the cornerstone of democratic institutions. Voters see their power to choose their leaders as their strongest check on the behaviour of the government, their one chance to exact accountability.
Analysts and commentators have branded political campaigns in the Philippines as “highly entertaining”. The mix of old political clans, showbiz personalities and the ubiquitous song and dance that pepper the campaign trail provide plenty of amusement. But be not deceived; the power to choose is a right and responsibility that Filipinos hold dear.
Indeed, ballots are almost sacred in the Philippines. Voters have risked their personal safety to exercise the right. In many cases, the public has seen it as their one weapon against those who abuse their position.
Beyond balloting, democracy is a “government by discussion” (to quote the Indian economist Amartya Sen), characterized by public dialogue and interaction. The vibrancy of democracy in the Philippines hinges largely on the quality of this dialogue and interaction. A government that engages its citizens, is inclusive in its decision-making and, most importantly, enjoys the trust of its electorate, can almost certainly count on public support when making tough decisions. The reverse has also been seen, as in the case of a leadership facing a “crisis of legitimacy” that was seen to make decisions out of political expediency rather than the public good; in this case the people’s mandate, won squarely in an electoral contest, has proven itself to be a potent force for positive change.
The authors of a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research argue that democracy is good for economic growth for various reasons, including the ability of democracies to implement economic reforms. They present evidence from a panel of countries between 1960 and 2010 showing that the “robust and sizeable effect of democracy on economic growth … suggests that a country that switches from non-democracy to democracy achieves about 20% higher GDP per capita in the long run (or roughly in the next 30 years)”.
We can see this in the case of the Philippines, which has enjoyed 60 straight quarters of economic growth since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Average GDP growth from 2010 to 2013 was recorded at 6.3%, significantly higher than the 4.5% average GDP growth registered from 2001 to 2009. That this relatively higher rate of growth has happened alongside a series of economic reforms backed up by a strong electoral mandate should not be taken as pure coincidence. Closing loopholes in tax collection, an overhaul in customs administration, and passing key legislation on excise taxes – these would not have taken place in an environment which was not supportive of – or indeed, craving for – reform.
Outside of economic reforms, this strong mandate has also enabled the passage of social sector reforms – among them legislation allowing women access to vital information and facilities pertaining to their reproductive health, and a measure extending the education cycle to meet the global standard. These measures had passionate advocates on both sides, and a less committed leadership could have wavered at any point.
Improved government via more efficient tax collection and customs administration, access to vital information and services and a better standard of education: how could one argue that this is not what voters want when they take to the polls?
Of course, this is not always what voters get, even when they faithfully exercise their right to choose. Roadblocks in the process remain, resulting in an occasional disconnect between what voters want, and what they are eventually given. Recent reforms – such as those automating the process and synchronizing elections in different parts of the country – have sought to lessen fraud, intimidation of voters and the exercise of patronage. These instances, however, are far from being wiped out completely. While incidents of poll violence were significantly lower in the most recent mid-term elections, putting an end to vote-buying and the general exercise of political patronage continues to be a challenge.
More significantly, while the Philippines has embraced the democratic traditions of participation and the freedom of choice and expression, the longer-term challenge remains to deepen the quality of its democracy. Building political parties on ideology and merit rather than personality, strengthening accountability mechanisms within government, creating alternative sources of reliable information, and enabling the electorate to make informed choices – there is clearly much more work that needs to be done, despite the progress that has been made.
The next step, however, has to be taken by the electorate itself. We have seen how a strong mandate for change has made change happen – now we just need to sustain it by demanding continuity.
Democracy may be more fun in the Philippines, but this is not a country that takes or makes its choices lightly. Stay tuned.
Author: Julia Andrea R. Abad is the Head of the Presidential Management Staff at the Office of the President of the Republic of the Philippines
Image: A man poses with his inked thumb after voting at the Philippines presidential election in Pasay City, Manila May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Nicky Loh