Democracy, Debate, and the Dangers of the “Tard” Phenomenon by Jayson Maulit

This is a very challenging time for Philippine Democracy. Never has the support for seemingly autocratic figureheads and policies been this strong from the grassroots, and never has the question “what has democracy really given the Philippines” been so resonating. I would submit that there are more capable academics compared to me, with more experience in history and the study of democracy, politics, and governance. I will not claim to be an expert over the matter, but I will attempt to crystallize my experiences from debate tournaments, debating on social media, and from my observation as a government worker.  As a debater, I would also admit a bias for democratic discourse, because it is the fairest system for a meaningful dialogue to happen. However, it is my belief that it is important to understand where the anti-democracy opinions come from, for through it all, everyone claims that their stance is such due to their burning love for the country, and their desire to bring the country to the greatness it deserves.

It is an understatement to say that the country has been struggling in all aspects of governance, but it is to be expected from every fledgling democracy out there. The Philippines, as Southeast Asia’s poster boy for democracy, is seen as a walking contradiction by many. Our democratic institutions are modern in structures, but feudal in practice. Political dynasties hold power in different regions of the country – winning each and every election and keeping the political power to their respective families. Despite numbers indicating economic growth, business tycoons have the tendency to be the modern-day abusive landlords without the heart for the worker. The national and local governments’ image is corrupt, overly bureaucratic and slow, and non-empathetic to the struggles of the common man. The question almost everyone asks every day is this: How did we get here?

Keeping up with the Marcoses

A crucial starting point of knowing how the political status quo came about is the Marcos administration. Much of the support for the strongman leader and giving up on democratic ideals like human rights were given birth to by narratives which argue that the Martial Law is golden era of the Philippine politics. Marcos supporters argue that numerous structures were built during his time, that there was law and order, people were disciplined, and that the exchange rate with the dollar was 1:1, among other things (the Maharlika Unit and Yamashita Treasure conspiracy is my personal favorite). The Marcos revisionism started the narrative that the human rights violations were necessary costs to achieve the economic ideal. (Read the PDU stand against the Marcos burial here for figures)

It is true that we were, at some point, one of Asia’s dynamic economies – being second only to Japan. But this is because when the Marcos administration started in 1965, it inherited a booming economy from the administrations of Presidents Magsaysay, Garcia, and Macapagal. The Marcos administration did not create the strong economic standing for the country – they started with it. What is conveniently left out of the picture, is how the economy ended when his regime fell. For instance, the GDP growth rate from 1972-1985 is 3.4% annually. The per-capita GDP grew by 0.82% per annum, which was far from the super-tiger economy people are left to believe. With that growth rate, it would have taken more than 80 years for the per-capita income to double.

The Marcos administration borrowed money heavily, but fell short on economic reform and liberalization. Instead, it took the path of protectionism, preferring Marcos cronies to do government projects. This led to failed projects for the people, but a sizeable wealth for his family and network, most of which the government still tries to recover. In 1977, the country’s overall debt was 8.2 billion dollars, which has risen to 24.4 billion dollars in 1982. This debt will have to be paid by the Filipino people until 2025. No other major Southeast Asian country has suffered an economic catastrophe during the 1980s, pointing the problem to horrible fiscal and economic policies from the Marcos administration.

On an academic standpoint, one would expect that the Marcoses will never be able to rise to power again. After all, numerous cases have decided their guilt. (Read: Republic of the Philippines vs. Estate of Alfonso Lim, Sr., et al., PH gov’t wins ill-gotten wealth case vs Marcoses, Alfonso Lim’s family, Marcos Convicted of Graft in Manila, Marcoses Lose US Appeal, Philippines to sell Imelda Marcos’s ‘ill-gotten’ jewels, worth millions) Unfortunately, that is not the case. Imelda Marcos is a member of the House of Representatives, Imee Marcos is the Governor of Ilocos Norte, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. very narrowly missed the 2016 Vice Presidential Elections.

The awkward decades after 
The revisionist narrative is part of the support base, but the overwhelming results of the 2016 presidential elections say that there is more to the democracy fatigue than meets the eye. My humble opinion is that the erosion of faith in Philippine democracy is because the discourse surrounding Martial Law has been one of “either you’re a fan of the Marcoses, or the Aquinos”. In fact, the People Power revolution, the single event argued to have restored democracy against the Martial Law is mostly defined in Filipino consciousness as the rise of Cory Aquino to power. The discourse forgets that the struggle against the dictatorship started immediately after his first term, and numerous freedom fighters have already given their lives for the country even before Ninoy was assassinated. The reason why the People Power narrative is easily hi-jakcable is that it became a fight of two political families, instead of a dictatorship and democracy, of a dictator and the Filipino people.

Unless the discourse gives due credit to the first heroes of the Martial Law Era (On top of my mind: Archimedes Trajano, Liliosa Hilao, and the Quimpo brothers), revisionism will have the upperhand. The nuance of the Marcoses vs Aquinos is important, because immediately after Marcos was ousted of power, and before the current administration won the elections, the country was under an Aquino presidency. To the common Filipino, it is easy to argue that everything that happened (or didn’t happen) since the end of Martial Law up to before the Duterte administration was because of an Aquino. (So now, you’re either a Dutertard or a Yellowtard. Happy times.)

What people remember is that the Cory and Ramos administrations were politically turbulent, the Estrada and Arroyo administrations were severely corrupt, and that the PNoy administration miserably failed to connect to the common Filipino. To be fair, I would argue that both the Aquino administrations need proper crediting, and that is to avoid underrating or overrating them. Personally, I believe that the economic policies and infrastructure development from the past administration were definitely helpful, but I would also agree that the PNoy administration’s biggest problem was communicating what it is doing and has done, for the country. More importantly, it failed to be able to connect on an emotional level –  one that humanizes the government, one that speaks compassion and not data, and one that seeks to start relationship and not to end transactions.  From a PR perspective, people remembered the blunders the most, for they were recent and became the comparison points to say that life was not that different compared to the Martial Law. The Ampatuan and Hacienda Luicita Massacres, the Mamasapano Incident, the public transportation/traffic issue, and the Kidapawan fiasco, immortalized the failures, rather than the successes of the administration.

It is important to look at the political climate in all of these things. If we go out of the debate land and put ourselves in the lived reality, we can see that the Philippines still has one of the world’s slum populations, with one of the oldest land reform problems. The 2015 Global Driver Satisfaction Index identified the Philippines to have one of the world’s worst traffic jam situations, with an inefficient-bordering-failing public transportation system. The over-concentration of development in metro cities and the wide inequality gap has empowered the “Imperial Manila” narrative.

The imagery of the post-Marcos Philippines include a widening income gap between the elite and the poor Filipinos, a government that is ridden with so much corruption, and with politicians having no genuine desire to reform and develop the societies they are supposed to serve. And so, it is easy to dismiss the fight against the Martial Law, and doubt the credibility of our democratic institutions and democracy as a whole. The result of the last elections reflect the support of Filipinos to those who want a democratic overhaul in the country, for the Philippines is in crisis. The language of rights and political freedoms has been successfully framed as that of the elite and not of the poor, the well educated and not of common worker, the intellectual and not of the ignorant, and the powerful and never the vulnerable.

The discourse now assumes that to be pro-democracy is to be insensitive to the plight of those who remain at the margins of the society. What use is political freedom if it does not take people out of poverty? What use is democracy when your family is hungry, poor, and unsafe?

The Troll-ing Problem

What was significantly different from the 2016 national elections compared to the past was the level of people participation. Traditional media, which held the power of agenda setting in the past, had to compete with, if not give way to the rise of social media. The Facebook phenomenon democratized news, agenda setting, and information as a source of power (Think: the Arab Spring). Filipinos, mostly from the millennial generation, became more expressive of their political views online. Citizen reporting became the norm, and the political world was shaken by the virality of posts from netizens.

On the one hand, we can argue that this led to a more participative democracy and gave birth to digital political discourse, with politicians being forced to be responsive to people in a fast manner. On the other hand, the social media phenomenon also helped the rise of the digital propagandists – the trolls.

From a comms perspective, trolls are those whose job is to create conflicts on social media. They start arguments by inflammatory posts with the deliberate intention to either discredit an argument (with a non-argument), or to create the illusion of numbers. Recently, Inquirer published an article. which exposed the massive, organized, and systematic internet trolling that happened in the 2016 elections. My personal takeaway from this phenomenon is that it was/is a very effective strategy in creating the illusion of popular support/hate for/against a politician, and in silencing people who wanted to express their opinion, avoiding being flocked by armies of online trolls. The trolling industry was successful in drowning the social media world with lies and vitriol, until it became an echo-chamber of propaganda. This is very dangerous, at a time when  the country is divided between “tards”, for genuine and meaningful discourse becomes close to impossible. We must not forget that the real end-goal of a propaganda is for lies to be truth, for blind loyalty and for people to willingly give up the democratic space for the “greater good”, and for an infallible messiah to replace a democratically elected and replaceable leader. Recently, Rappler launched the #NoPlaceForHate campaign, but initiatives must be stronger for legitimate netizens to be able to take back the internet.

The Role of Debate in PH Democracy

This is a very challenging time for Philippine Democracy, and the challenge extends to the Philippine Debate Community. My belief is that while the skill of speech is a gift, debating is our obligation to the greater society. The heart of a democracy is discourse, one that thrives from having different ideas engaging each other. The core of debating is the ability to question and defend ideas, which are the most important weapons to defend democracy.  It is the debate community’s responsibility to engage civil society, to make sure that they  do not fall for revisionism and propaganda. It is the debate community’s responsibility to be level headed, lest we get accused of being intellectual snobs. It is the debate community’s responsibility to speak out, in honor of those who are not with us anymore, and in defense of those who cannot find the voice to do so. Criss Jami said that “Sometimes a people lose their right to remain silent when pressured to remain silent.”  It is a debater’s responsibility to the craft to never be silenced in the midst of oppression, but more importantly, it is our responsibility to the country to protect and defend the truth that is democracy.

14248935_10154283299945310_1705656327_nAbout the Contributor:

Jayson is a debater from San Beda – Manila. Notable of his debate achievements are being part of the UADC 2016 Adj Core in Thailand, being the champion of the Manila Intervarsities in 2014 and the Philippine Debate Open in 2015. As a coach, Jayson has extensively  traveled across the Philippines and Asia to teach debate. He was also part of a national campaign in the last 2016 elections, and has started working in government #ParaSaLaylayan.

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