Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Measure of Democracy

by Ryan Maboloc
Ateneo de Davao University

World poverty, politics, and democracy are matters we discuss during dinner in our corridor. This text will be about democracy. But whether there is still hope in our land is another issue. Here, we are just reflecting on what can be done. Before anything else, let me provide some data and a little analysis. The inputs from my colleagues are religiously incorporated in the text.

In the Index of Democracy by the think-tank group, Economist Intelligence Unit, Sweden ranks number 1 while the Philippines is number 63, belonging to a group characterized as “flawed democracies”. According to Laza Kekik, director of the Economist Intelligence Unit, “there is no consensus on how to measure democracy, but we can at least agree on one main principle, that democracy is about a set of practices and principles that institutionalize and thus ultimately protect freedom” (Democracy Index 2007).

In the World Democracy Index, from a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest, the Philippines scored 5.36 for the Functioning of Government, 5.0 for Political Participation and 3.75 for Political Culture. Amazing but true, the Philippines scored 9.12 for Civil Liberties and 9.17 for its Electoral Process. Sweden scored a perfect 10 in all categories, except in Political Culture, where it scored a 9.38. The survey speaks a lot about the issues we confront now, but I wish to clarify on the seemingly perflexing scores above.

Before we raise our eyebrows on our high score for Electoral Process, it is worth noting that the Index clearly pictures the political situation in the country. The government’s neglect of agriculture, graft and corruption, inadequate provisions for health care and education, is captured by our failing grade in terms of the Functioning of Government. The reality of political dynasties, the massive vote buying during elections and the lack of critical reflection among the majority of our adult populace in choosing leaders is captured in our very low 3.75 score in Political Culture and 5.0 in Political Participation.

Our 9.17 score for the Electoral process does not mean the survey did not take note of GMA’s alleged cheating. It only speaks of the fact that we have regular elections. The 9.12 for Civil Liberties does not mean that the index is ignorant of alleged abductions and human rights violations; it only means that in the Philippines, unlike in China and in other authoritarian regimes, people still have constitutional rights of freedom of expression and assembly. Our over-all score is 6.48, and we have a better score than Indonesia which ranked 65th and Malaysia, which is ranked 81st (largely due to Mahathir’s style of governance), although it is not something we must be happy about.

What lessons do we get from this report? We argue that

One, we have a constitutional and an electoral system set in place, but our nasty political culture (i.e. patronage politics) ruins it. Cheating is not the fault of the electoral system per se, but it is the political immaturity of Filipinos which make them fall prey to a fraudulent regime. If nobody sells votes, nobody buys them.

Two, we have civil liberties, yes, but these have not translated into better governance. Civil society has done its role in being vigilant, but without the full cooperation of the majority of Filipinos, those who are in power will continue to abuse us.

What should the Philippines do about these?

The report says it all. It is not the system, but the people who are in the system. Our kind of government reflects the kind of voters we have. To change this, we have these suggestions:

First, investments in education. Yes, we have allocated around 11% for education in our national budget, but that is small compared to the 29% we allotted for debt servicing. Fact is, most of the 134.7 B education budget goes to salaries and maintenance and other operating expenses. Meaning, it is just enough to maintain the standard of education in the country. In this sense, we can’t expect any change, especially because not much is allocated for scholarships. An enlightened populace through education is our only hope for a better world.

Second, investments in the agriculture sector. In Sweden, potato is very cheap because it is their staple crop. The same should be true for rice, which is a political commodity. If we don’t invest in agriculture, there will be more poverty in the rural areas, which means that people will be more vulnerable to political patronage. My classmate here who has a degree in Political Science from Stanford was amused to hear that in the Philippines, people exchange their votes for two kilos of rice.

Third, investments in health care. In the present national budget, health gets only a little over 1%. That means we are not protecting the most precious asset we have – the life of our people. If we want our people to be critically minded, and thus, are able to choose the right leaders, they must be healthy, mens sana en corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body).

Finally, the argument is that, in a democracy, whether it is in Sweden, the Philippines or Nigeria, it is the people that matters. The kind of society we have reflects who we are as a people. Are these new solutions? We don’t think so. But we can learn from how first world countries emerged from the dark. Sweden, for instance, is not that rich in natural resource, except iron. But they have invested a lot in their people, making education and health care a priority. A government that is corrupt and inefficient breeds all kinds of violence and crime. Hungry people act in their state of nature in order to survive. If a society shares its wealth, there would not be a need to steal nor commit crime.

We have observed, for instance, that a government that takes care of its people so that they may live a decent human life, a life where human dignity is valued, has allowed Sweden to produce intelligent young men and women who are into high end manufacturing, from cellular phones to fighter jets. Above all, we are in agreement that the Swedish love their country. Their buses arrive on time, they recycle their waste, and they have gender equality. These features alone tell us that Swedes live in a beautiful country, free and secure.

These things can be a result of the solidarity Swedes have and the belief, as Mahbub Ul Haq would say, that “people are the real wealth of a nation”. Education, in the end, is the one last hope to set our people free. Only then can our society be truly democratic. Our country (the Philippines) needs us to work together. We owe it to each other.