Our flawed democracy

Addressing the Philippine Constitution Association on February 8, former Chief Justice Reynato Puno made the flippant remark that people are more interested in the broken nose of (actor-comedian) Vhong Navarro than in the broken Philippine democracy.

Then the former magistrate proceeded to make a stinging criticism of democracy, Philippine style.

“For more than a hundred years, Filipinos have been aspiring to become a full democracy,” Puno recalled.  Yet, in the latest survey by the US-based Freedom House, the Philippines, among 190 countries surveyed, was again categorized as only “partly free” – “for the nth time”.   “This has been the sorry story of our democracy,” Puno lamented.   “After a century, our dream to establish a democratic state is turning out to be a delusion,” he asserts.

The former chief justice enumerates what is wrong with Philippine democracy: one, flawed elections; two, rule by the dynasties; three, lawlessness; four, lack of  independence of the Judiciary; and fifth, betrayal of the people by the ruling political and economic elite.

As a rule, elections “should from beginning to end must be free from any form of unfairness, insulated from any specie of fraud and immunized from any degree of discrimination.”   

Explains Puno: “Our elections are highly driven by money, especially dirty money. Shocking complaints such as the non-disclosure of source code, elimination of minimum safeguards to assure the sanctity of the votes, abdication of Comelec power to control the conduct of elections to a foreign corporation remain unresolved by the authorities. Our elections are controlled by political dynasties that continue to monopolize power in almost all our electoral units. Dynasties are poison to the principle of majority rule which is the essence of democracy. They choke the access to political power by the people in the same way the old monarchs and modern dictators claim the exclusive franchise on the right to rule. Political dynasties result in a government of the few and for the few, a government that is the antithesis of democracy.”

Rule of law is either weak or lacking in this country.    Rule of law, Puno defines as “that those who govern the people must be under the law and no one is above the law.”  He says “it is the sine qua non for democracy to start and still is, the sine qua non for democracy to survive.”

Quoting pundits, Puno says “those who govern must be accountable to the people x x x The transparency of the governing process must permit the citizenry to keep a watchful eye on state officials so as to detect corruption and punish those who perpetrate it. Corruption can strangle a democracy at any stage of its development x x x Legislatures must have real law making powers as well as the right to hold the executive up to scrutiny. The judiciary must be independent of political manipulation by the executive and legislative branches x x x and the military must abide by the rules of democratic government and accept civilian control x x x”

Winces Puno: “Lawlessness reigns king in almost every level of our society. Lawlessness rules in our streets where simple traffic rules are not enforced. Lawlessness has reared its ugly head in some branches of government where not infrequently no respect is given to the constitutional principle of separation of power and its corollary doctrine of checks and balances. When the sanctity of these touchstone principles is trashed, the inevitable result is eruption of corruption. The PDAF anomaly could not have happened if some of our legislators did not usurp the power of the Executive to implement our laws. By striking down the pork barrel practice, the Supreme Court bluntly ordered the legislators to stick to lawmaking and stop contracting. We are now hanging in suspense waiting for the decision of the High Court on the so called DAP petitions. These petitions will enable the High Court to elucidate and educate all and sundry how far the President can intrude into the power of the Congress over the purse. The decision of the Court is ultra-important to our democracy for the powers between Congress and the President cannot be bound by blurred lines. A tiny error in drawing their balance can result in dominance by one branch over the other and give tyranny a toehold in the entire bureaucracy. “Meanwhile, Puno says “Only an independent judiciary can decide without fear whether a powerful branch of government has overreached its powers.”

The Judiciary lacks financial independence.  Explains Puno: “Over the years, we see the Judiciary’s independence disrespected come budget time. Always, the Judiciary has to crawl and to beg Congress for sufficient funds and always, their efforts have proved futile. Hobbled by an indecent budget, the Judiciary has still to make a beeline to the DBM for the release of its appropriation. The result is an anemic and demoralized Judiciary. A Judiciary that is financially bleeding means a lot of courts without judges, a lot of judges without sufficient staff, a lot of staff without computers or a Judiciary so disadvantaged it can hardly fulfill the expectations of the people. Worse, it can tether the Judiciary to the caprices of the political branches for our government and compromise its independence.”

Finally, Puno wants defined the nature of impeachment, whether it is judicial, quasi-judicial, or political in character.

“The correct characterization of the impeachment process will determine its fairness and impartiality. It will also clarify, among others, the standard of justice that ought to guide the impeachment court, the code of ethics that will bind its members and the core constitutional rights that can be invoked by respondents. If impeachment is to be credible and accepted by the people, it must be wielded as a tool of good governance and not as an instrument of partisan politics,” argues the eminent jurist.

In closing, Puno says: “If democracy has not fully flowered in the Philippines, it is because the people have been betrayed by some of their so called representatives time and time again. If democracy has not been deeply rooted in our soil, it is because it has often been hijacked by a small but powerful cabal of political and economic elite. In other words, the story of democracy in the Philippines is the story of betrayals after betrayals of the interest of the people. Democracy will succeed in the Philippines only if we can stop these betrayals.”

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