Democracy Downgrade

   Exactly seven years ago, when the Senate voted to not open the “second envelope” and effectively stopped the Estrada impeachment dead on its tracks, a crowd of people trooped to the EDSA Shrine and voiced out their discontent and dismay.  This was EDSA Dos.

   Today’s Philippine Star headline reads: “RP dropped from list of world democracies.”  According to the article, we are no longer “totally free,” but “partly free.”  Our “totally free” democracy has been downgraded because of political killings, specifically targeting left-wing activists.

   I have had around 24 units of Political Science courses, and to be honest, I still don’t have an idea of how you could measure democracy and/or freedom.  If a “totally free” country grants 100% of all necessary freedoms, does the Philippines grant, say, just 60% of civil rights and liberties?  If we graph it, should the line of x freedoms be directly proportional to y degree of democracy?  At what quadrant of the two-dimensional coordinate system should the point of intersection be found for the political system in question to be considered “totally free?”

   As much as I’d like to rant about how to graph freedom and democracy, we should be more concerned about the implications than the methodology.  To invoke V in V for Vendetta, “democracy” and “freedom” are not just words: they are perspectives.  It’s not that we are descending into totalitarianism, but our perspectives are being challenged by different notions of what “democracy” is, and what exactly are our “freedoms.”

   I think that one of the reasons why we Filipinos value democracy so much is because it gives us a sense of involvement in the affairs of the state.  In the Philippines, the people are effectively the state: not only do we overthrow Presidents every now and then, but the power of the people transcend national borders and territories.  Add to that a free press, the popular vote, and a history of oppression and subjugation, and you’ll understand why democracy is so important to the Filipino people.

   Or is it?  No, not really: nowadays, we see democracy from a different perspective.  Democracy is not a one-shot deal that comes with a regular election season and an EDSA every once in a while.  Like the mandate of the President, we need to constantly re-affirm how democratic we are, and how much we value our democracy.  You don’t wait for the proverbial salop to be filled before you take a stand.  Democracy is a perspective: it frames your view of the world and how you should live your life.  Rights, freedoms, responsibilities and liberties all paint the picture of your existence.  It’s not a party platform: it’s a political choice.

Political Cabbages

   In an Inquirer report, Lakas-CMD spokesperson Raul Lambino named four people among a short list of 30 names to represent the party in the 2010 national elections.  One’s Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr.: the star of “Resiklo” who tries to pass himself off as the action-hero version of Nobel laureate Al Gore.  Then there’s Sen. Lito Lapid, star of such funny action flicks like “Leon Guerrero” and “Lapu-Lapu.”  Another is former senator Ralph Recto: the husband of Gov. Vilma Santos who was responsible for E-VAT.  Finally, there’s former congressman Prospero Pichay.

   Boy, do I remember Pichay.

   Now don’t get me wrong: Pichay had a strong showing in the 2007 national elections.  One of the reasons why Pichay was the dark horse then was because he spent a lot not only on TV ads, but also on catchphrasing and name recall.

   Mr. Pichay is not exactly a photogenic man: I’m just being honest when I say that his Photoshop-ed campaign pictures reminded me of Frankenstein on botox.  Say what you will about Pichay’s enormous head, but he had an effective campaign.  Almost all of Pichay’s TV ads ended with one catchphrase:

Pangarap kong tuparin ang mga pangarap niyo.  Ako po si Prospero Pichay, pro-Pinoy. 

   Such was the formula for Pichay’s rather successful loss (comparing it to strong contenders like Nikki Coseteng, Vic Sotto and Chavit Singson): the kind of platform you can expect from a high school student body room-to-room campaign.  Promise everything, and worry about it later.  Pichay’s catchphrase became, for a time, part of Filipino pop culture: “Pugad Baboy,” comedy bar jokes, vows you make to your significant other.  Like:

“Pangarap kong tuparin ang mga pangarap mo.  Ako po si [insert your name here], pro-ikaw.”

   How romantic. 

   But what made Pichay the most successful loser in the 2007 senatorial elections was that he capitalized on his name.  “Pichay” is a homonym of pechay, or Chinese cabbage.  Pichay didn’t tell you that you could sauteé him in oil and garlic: what Pichay did was to be the literal cabbage of the 2007 elections.  Pichay’s campaign machine spent a good amount of money on fans (pamaypay) bearing his name, and yes, shaped like Chinese cabbages.  No one else can pull off a stunt like this, even if Restituto Repolyo, Kulas Kangkong, Andres Alugbati, and Mariano Mustasa will run for the Senate in 2010.

   Does Pichay have the winning formula for success in 2010?  I think so: not because he’s a competent politician or anything, but because he’s got a name to back his bid.  This is the guy who defended Gloria Arroyo’s act of imprudence in calling a COMELEC Commissioner, the guy who was a reputed logger in Surigao del Sur, and the guy who sort of defended the right of government officials to go to karaoke bars.  This is the guy running for the Senate, whose own platform included the abolition of the Senate.  But these are issues that don’t matter: our electorate’s personality-minded approach when it comes to voting is what makes someone an elected official.

   So yes, Pichay – the man who compared himself to a cabbage – will win in 2010.

iCongress

   “Wasting taxpayer money” is a nuanced expression.  UP students like myself who overstayed their welcome in the premier state university of the country “waste taxpayer money.”  You can invent a problem out of “traffic congestion” and create a flyover to “address the issue.”  You can use surplus funds from the previous fiscal year to buy cars “for official purposes.”  You can spread cash gifts from the public coffers and pass them off as “incentives.”  As you can see, “wasting taxpayer money,” which is a form of “corruption,” can mean so many things.

   Batasan is undergoing renovations: as it seems, they have (literally) elevated the House Floor to allow for an “electronic voting system.”  At the mere push of a button, a member of the House can vote for a resolution or address a motion.  This is a P15-million project that, as with everything that suits the prefix “i,” will “revolutionize” Philippine parliamentary procedures.  And you have Joker Arroyo supporting it.

   On the upside, making Congress “high-tech” would give added incentives to frequent absentees to attend House deliberations because they have a voting system reminiscent of an iPod.  Because voting is speeded up, we who follow Filipino politics no longer have to stand for privilege speeches explaining votes sourced from “Land of Bondage” by Raul Manglapus.  I don’t have to be worried about the voting system being hacked: we are being run by a government that has no idea of what the Internet is (the ZTE hearings) and are still stuck in the age of vinyl records (when some Congressman asked for a “recording of the recording” in the “Hello Garci” hearing).  I’m also thinking about gambling on Congress votes: with our Representatives given a yes/no choice, this is a golden opportunity to play political jueteng.

   Yet it also begs some questions.  Fifteen million pesos for speeding up voting?  There are a lot of empty chairs in Batasan when the issue does not involve budget allocations.  Fifteen million pesos can make for the construction of an entire school in remote rural areas.  Fifteen million pesos can make for a decent bribe, even.  Why waste it on automating Congressional proceedings that inevitably end up in walkouts that involve throwing paper?

   I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the spirit of automating voting procedures in Congress: in fact, it is important that our antiquated electoral system – be it in Congress or in elections – be improved to address the need for prompt governance.  But after looking at 2,283 House Bills filed by the 14th Congress, I’m not so sure.

   Of course, reading 2,283 Bills is silly, and I just went through about 600 before I gave up.  However, I found some “interesting” laws that would make for a good argument for automating Congress voting.  Allow me to indulge in some copy-pasted capitalization:

  • House Bill 00039, AN ACT CREATING THE POSITION OF BARANGAY POPULATION WORKER, GRANTING BENEFITS THERETO, AMENDING FOR THE PURPOSE THE “LOCAL GOVERNMENT CODE OF 1991,” AS AMENDED, AND APPROPRIATING FUNDS THEREFOR
  • House Bill 00048, AN ACT RENAMING KAPITAN RAMON NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL IN BARANGAY KAPITAN RAMON IN THE CITY OF SILAY, PROVINCE OF NEGROS OCCIDENTAL TO DON FELIX T. LACSON MEMORIAL NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL
  • House Bill 00136, AN ACT INSTITUTING REFORMS IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM BY ENHANCING DNA TECHNOLOGY ANALYSIS AS A POTENT INVESTIGATIVE TOOL, CREATING THE DNA ADVISORY BOARD UNDER THE NATIONAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES
  • House Bill 00166, AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE RULES FOR A COMPETITIVELY NEUTRAL GOVERNMENT, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES
  • House Bill 00175, AN ACT DECLARING MAY 7 OF EVERY YEAR AS ‘HEALTH WORKERS’ DAY’
  • House Bill 00206, AN ACT DECLARING SEPTEMBER 29 OF EVERY YEAR AS A SPECIAL NONWORKING PUBLIC HOLIDAY IN THE MUNICIPALITY OF BALILIHAN, PROVINCE OF BOHOL
  • House Bill 00208, AN ACT CONVERTING THE CONGRESSMAN PABLO MALASARTE MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL IN BARANGAY CABAD, MUNICIPALITY OF BALILIHAN, PROVINCE OF BOHOL INTO A NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL TO BE KNOWN AS THE CONGRESSMAN PABLO MALASARTE NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL AND APPROPRIATING FUNDS THEREFOR
  • House Bill 00338, AN ACT DECLARING THE PROVINCE OF CAVITE AS THE HISTORICAL CAPITAL OF THE PHILIPPINES
  • House Bill 00413, AN ACT AMENDING THE SUBDIVISION AND CONDOMINIUM BUYERS’ PROTECTIVE DECREE
  • House Bill 00601, AN ACT DECLARING AUGUST 10 OF EVERY YEAR A SPECIAL NON-WORKING HOLIDAY IN SAN JOSE CITY, PROVINCE OF NUEVA ECIJA

   After going through re-establishing roads as national roads and non-working holidays for different provinces, I figured that we really need to automate.  After all, this is just a small sample of the many laws that would require the general idea of “electronic voting.”

   Yup, the iCongress.  Did I mention that it holds a million songs and comes with a touch-screen?

Painting By Numbers

   A recent Pulse Asia survey shows that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is the most corrupt President in the Philippines, followed by Ferdinand Marcos in the #2 slot and Joseph Estrada in the #3 position.  This is no survey that you would like to jockey a top spot for.

   But wait: should we make a big deal about statistics in the first place?  After all, Benjamin Disraeli wrote that infamous quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

   Whenever I do social science, I wouldn’t rely on statistics for two reasons.  One, I’m not a good statistician (I took my Statistics course twice).  Second – and perhaps the most important – is that statistical data is all-too-often misread and misinterpreted.  Numbers show something, all right, but the numbers rarely ever tell the story.  To me, the story behind the numbers is perhaps more important than the story the numbers tell by themselves: numbers beg the question of sampling method, statistical tests, and so on and so forth.  As such, any statistical presentation of anything is itself a source of doubt.  Which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.

   I’m not an Arroyo supporter – for heaven’s sake I’m an Arroyo critic – and I must say that while I agree that Arroyo is corrupt beyond reasonable doubt, there’s just no way in hell an unbiased and objective survey would point to her being second only to Marcos, or even Estrada.  Had Marcos been a non-factor, she would definitely top the list of the most corrupt Presidents post-Marcos.

   Here’s why: every corrupt excess Marcos had in two decades of iron-handed rule is the absolute benchmark of corruption (I hope) in the Philippines.  You can throw every shred of evidence of corruption against Macoy and you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to back them up: from the billions plundered and coursed through Swiss bank accounts to Imelda’s shoe collection when Malacañang was raided post-EDSA I.  Surely, Arroyo wouldn’t make the same mistake in being far more corrupt than Marcos to incite the anger and revulsion of the Filipino people in being “more corrupt than Marcos.”

   As far as Erap is concerned, say what you will about the Sandiganbayan verdict, but the verdict just goes to show that if we cannot indict the former President fairly and justly for plunder, we might as well indict him for a thinly-disguised charge of incompetence.  The evidence against Erap, as the prosecution panel said, can fill up a room.  If it did, then what more for Gloria?

   Here’s the thing: I’m not downplaying the negative effects of surveys against the President, but once the survey’s findings becomes questionable, then it is possible to downplay the whole idea of the survey.  Especially when the survey is supposed to corroborate something obvious.

   Not too long ago, I was talking to an instructor-friend of mine: like me, he has no love lost for Arroyo.  But he brings up a rather interesting point: aren’t the allegations against GMA completely circumstancial, like connect-the-dots painting-by-numbers things?  If anything, my general impression of the Arroyo Presidency is that it has proven to be a scapegoat for everything wrong with this country: if you can’t blame anyone else, blame Arroyo.  This goes for everything from the ULTRA Stampede to the death of Marrianet Amper.  Giving her the title of “Most Corrupt” only serves to add to the long list of “circumstancial crimes” we can pinpoint to GMA.

   Anyway, here’s what I think: statistics only tell half the story.  The other half still remains as speculation.