The Philippines and Penang: The challenge of deepening democracy

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It is by thinking up more creative means of engagement, rather than counting more reasons for resignation, that we subvert the sources of our frustration and scepticism; and begin to turn things around, writes Aya Fabros in an observer despatch.

Campainging for mayor in the Philippines - Photo by Aya Fabros

It has been said that the existing practice of elections in the Philippines demonstrates what is lacking and frustrating (rather than what is dynamic and empowering) in our democracy. Elections may be necessary and important, but they are definitely an insufficient element for deepening democracy. This is one crucial message drawn from both Penang Forum and the experience of the Philippines as they strive to move beyond the formal aspects of democracy.

This November, the Penang Forum carried out a process of electing 10 people, who would be put forward as civil society’s nominees to become local government councillors. Observing the mock elections, I had several exchanges that could be summed up as: “You don’t have to go through such lengths in the Philippines, right?”

Local politics and ‘warped’ elections in the Philippines

The Philippines has been regarded as a vibrant democracy, if only for conducting elections regularly. Many observers, however, note that elections hardly ever amounted to anything but a process to legitimise the smooth transfer of power from one elite family to another.

In the Philippines, local elections are carried out every three years, in principle allowing citizens to select their local governments. As the Philippine political system was essentially built from the bottom up (municipal and local elections starting in the 1900s led to the emergence and entrenchment of powerful local political clans, some of which are recognised vote gatekeepers and ‘king makers,’ deciding outcomes of national political contests, rather than the other way around), it would be virtually impossible for national government these days to dominate local governments, cancel elections and appoint local officials.

At the same time, the stakes of sub-national politics are so high and local power centres are so heavily guarded/preserved, it would be unthinkable for local elites to just relinquish this arena. In fact, local elections are so tightly contested in the Philippines, these occasions have always been riddled by violence, usually between opposing political dynasties or even competing factions within one family.

Different but similar

In these respects, it would be true that we would not have to resort to such an elaborate process of electing our nominees for local council appointments, as in Penang Forum 3. On the surface, the situation in the Philippines might be considered radically different from what is happening in Malaysia, where local elections have been suspended for decades and local appointments are made by the ruling party, consequently perpetuating the rule of those in power.

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Despite the regular conduct of elections, however, the Philippines is nonetheless known as a most ‘undemocratic democracy’. Philippine politics continues to be dominated by elite dynasties and interests, an ‘anarchy of families’ where power and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few; and therefore where, governance outcomes predominantly cater to the needs and aspirations of the powerful.

Still, beyond the surface, Philippine politics, it seems, resonates with some elements of the Malaysian experience. Although the means of ‘undemocratising our democracies’ might differ (for instance, the suspension of local elections and other civil liberties in one, the perversion and hollowing out of elections and civil liberties in another; or too much party politics in one, too little programmatic politics in another), there are some parallels that may be drawn.

Both cases, while distinct, seem to emphasise one important missing dimension of democracy. It is more importantly about distributing access to power, allowing citizens to participate in governance, and gain access to decision-making, especially in matters that affect them. Where these more substantial aspects of democracy are ignored, as the Penang Forum asserts and the Philippine experience exemplifies, the quality of governance suffers, and democracy loses meaning and resonance in the everyday lives of its citizens. (I would not be surprised if the meaning of elections/democracy for us becomes so hollowed out that many Filipino workers in Malaysia would readily trade their right to vote, for a right to a functioning government that would uphold their right-not-to-be-forced-to-migrate)

Substantive democracy rather than formal democracy

Beyond these formal trappings, for both countries, the more crucial political project is deepening democracy. To my mind, this means that apart from the regular conduct of elections, for instance, the more substantial elements of democracy need to be revitalised and institutionalised. For groups such as those that make up Penang Forum 3, the crucial factor is to make ‘democracy’ work for all, especially the poor and marginalised.

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In the Philippines, attempts such as the party-list system, have sought to tweak the system by reserving seats in parliament for these less-represented sectors. On the one hand, this has opened up spaces for more dynamic, organised, collective engagement, injecting issue-based politics into parliamentary discussions. On the other hand, it has also been noted that these representatives still remain in the minority, skimming the peripheries of real power. Within this arena, some observers raise concerns that over the years, in practice, these sectoral discourses only reach the margins of the mainstream, rather than constituting core issues that should be at the heart of policy-making and governance. Nonetheless, it is recognised as a space for intervention that, although imperfect and limited, should be navigated, negotiated and maximised.

In Malaysia, similarly, platforms such as the Penang Forum show that even as formal avenues have been closed off, citizens and civil society can still find and even create spaces for more meaningful, more issue-based political engagement. This character counts as a key element in democratisation. Local democracy can be suppressed but its spirit cannot be killed. It lives on as long as it is inscribed in the aspirations of the citizenry, with or without elections.

A first step

In this respect, the Penang Forum ‘mock’ elections in November should be taken seriously. Rather than simply reducing it to a numbers game, the Penang Forum elections should also be recognised for its discursive value. This exercise is a challenge to an existing narrative of ‘democracy’ that claims to work. There are at least two reinforcing aspects in this narrative that perpetuates ‘politics’ as we know it today. This has something to do with the ‘nature of politics’ and the ‘place’ or ‘role’ of citizens.

As I see it, Penang Forum is a statement against this storyline that relegates citizens to the sidelines of political engagement. It refutes the discourse that asks and conditions citizens to step back, relinquish the political to the politicians and the parties, who will in turn deliver the (economic) goods. Rather than submitting to the prevailing consensus that “politics is dirty, therefore leave that to the dirty politicians”, the forum serves as a reminder that the call for alternative politics has not died down.

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I appreciate this exercise as a process-in-progress. Penang Forum organisers consider this emerging platform as a first step. Indeed, it is a springboard for collective discussions, where the debate and the call for a more substantive local democracy can continue. It also provides a space for exercising the political imagination of a stifled citizenry. Over the course of my stay in Malaysia, I have heard countless times how Malaysians are supposedly “socialised to disengage”; that they have been raised to obey rather than question, submit rather than engage.

Reclaiming the public and the political

During the process, it was very encouraging to hear young candidates, coming from a generation that does not have any direct experience in local elections, talk about the importance of public spaces, active citizenship and collective discussions. There were also some candidates, who surprisingly, unabashedly upheld regressive policies such as the ISA, but what’s more notable here was how participants patiently listened to each candidate’s platform, eagerly heard each other out and respectfully challenged each other’s ideas in a healthy discussion.

As I observed how people participated in this process, it was clear that there were no ungrounded illusions. In fact, a couple were even critical enough to raise some points for improvement, such as ensuring increased awareness, participation, and representation in future rounds. Or even suggesting that in the future, it should aim to select all council members not just a few representatives.

Political engagement is never perfect, especially under conditions where meaningful citizen participation has been actively suppressed. Our platforms while attempting to address these imperfect conditions are also shaped by these conditions, at times reflecting some of its limitations. However, this is not enough reason to retreat from meaningful intervention. The more restricted, the more flawed, the more intolerable our respective political systems become, the more we should strengthen our resolve to reclaim this arena. It is by thinking up more creative means of engagement, rather than counting more reasons for resignation, that we subvert the sources of our frustration and scepticism; and begin to turn things around.

Aya is a Filipina research associate with Focus on the Global South who is currently in Malaysia under the Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship programme.

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