Democracy is the worst form of government. But there’s none better, so they say.
It’s taking me decades to appreciate democracy in practice.
Freedom in the raw
Lapu-lapu, the warrior chief of Mactan in 1571, didn’t know what democracy was. But deep in his heart, he knew what freedom meant. To preserve freedom, he defied and killed Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. Idol ko si Lapu-lapu. Barako siya. Panalo, hindi talo.
When I thought of Araw ng Kalayaan on June 12, I dwelt on our history, when our intrepid revolucionarios proclaimed our country as an independent republic in 1898 in Kawit, Cavite.
In 1896, two years before Kawit, Jose Rizal was executed by Spanish soldiers before a tearful crowd in Luneta. Rizal used his superior intellectuality to paint the injustices committed by the colonial rule against the Filipinos. His martyrdom served as the catalyst that unified our people. Naging magkapwa-Pilipino tayong lahat.
The Philippine revolution (1896-1898) raged for two years. “Himagsikan! Nagkagulo!” our lola told us. The sound of gunfire shattered the peace in our countryside. As a child, I associated the word, himagsikan, to chaos and fear of death.
The revolution was followed by the Philippine-American war that lasted until 1902. Our newly won freedom was hijacked by the American imperialists. Naisahan tayo.
Tutelage in democracy
We became an American colony (1898-1941). The Americans promptly put together the structures of democracy to teach us how to run a democratic government. They instituted a Commonwealth government managed by Filipino politicians. They implemented the American system of education, making our country the largest English-speaking nation outside of America and England. Filipino careers and professions thrived.
In 1941, the Japanese treacherously bombed Pearl Harbor and Clark Field. I was five years old and my sense of horror began that day. I saw fear on the faces of people.
The Fall of Bataan was the saddest day. It happened during Holy Week; there was a pall of gloom in a country observing the passion and death of Christ. We also mourned the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Ulupong ang mga Hapon.
From 1942 to 1945, we lost our freedom to the tyranny of the Japanese rule.
When the American forces returned to liberate the Philippines in 1945, our country lay in ruins.
We got back our independence from America. At last, we were free to chart our own destiny.
But a new crisis appeared. The Huk guerrillas refused to lay down their arms. Their Marxist leaders turned them into communist army geared to topple the nascent Philippine democracy.
For almost a decade (1946-1952), bloody battles raged in our towns and barrios. It was a war of ideologies. As a young man, I was horrified by Filipinos killing fellow Filipinos—the communists fighting to liberate the agrarian poor from the shackles of centuries-old feudalism; the government forces fighting to defend the newly established democratic state.
When the smoke cleared, the communist rebellion ended in defeat. Hindi naging komunista ang ating bansa.
Peace was restored and our democracy had another fresh start. I finished college and landed a job as copywriter in an ad agency. From the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, our economic gains became the envy of our Asean neighbors.
I voted in four presidential elections: Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos.
The right to vote made me realize that we have the power to change our leaders if they don’t deliver results that will benefit the people.
Every election, the masa was demanding the same trite needs—more and better roads, more school rooms, lower prices of medicines, rice and galunggong, and more job opportunities. These needs reflected the fact that our economic planners failed to harness the power of free enterprise to elevate our country to a tiger economy. Maraming kurakot sa gobyerno.
We failed to use our freedom to create wealth for our country and our people. I was in my 30s then.
September 1972. Martial law. President Marcos made the bold move to use the absolute power of dictatorship for his political expediency. The social turmoil was destabilizing: mass poverty, high crime, communist resurgence, urban warfare, leftist activism and street violence, uneven wealth and land distribution, nepotism and corruption in the bureaucracy.
Immediately, the military went to work. They arrested well-known political enemies of Marcos to be tried in military courts. They confiscated loose firearms and implemented curfew to eliminate crime. A drug dealer was executed by firing squad. Battalions of Metro Aide kept city thoroughfares clean. People lined up for their rides. “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan.” The martial law slogan worked like a charm. The chimerical effect of martial law found acceptance in the public until…
The monster reared its ugly heads: Crony capitalism, extrajudicial killings, profligacy in palace socials and foreign travels, global oil and financial crisis, and inflationary prices of goods. Marcos’ secret illness sent tongues wagging about the fight for succession.
Ninoy’s assassination upon his return from exile sent chills down the nation’s spine. “Ninoy, Hindi Ka Nag-iisa” was a nation’s grief that turned into hatred for the Marcos regime.
Marcos, running short of options, made the fatal mistake of declaring a snap election that set off a series of upheavals. Cory was chosen to run against Marcos.
People Power miracle
Edsa People Power was a miracle of faith. The millions of people on the streets won. Helicopters from Clark Field and US soldiers landed in Malacañang to bring Marcos to his exile in Hawaii. He died a few years later.
Cory restored democracy, but she was bedeviled by the mess left behind by martial law—“squeezing the toothpaste back to the tube,” her husband described what awaited Marcos’ successor. We got back our freedom. The next president, Fidel Ramos, brought the country to a near tiger economy status, but his gains were wasted by the severe Asian financial crisis.
From frying pan to the fire
Movie star Erap Estrada was propelled to the presidency by his millions of masa movie fans. Erap didn’t last long, didn’t fulfill his “Erap Para Sa Mahirap” promise. Erap was impeached and banished to his Tanay resthouse.
The petite Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over. She turned out to be Machiavellian. She practiced transactional politics in Congress and local government to consolidate her power.
Among her alleged sins were electoral sabotage and mega corruptions involving the First Gentleman and her Cabinet.
Wanted: Mr. Clean
The need for a Mr. Clean in the 2010 presidential election became critical. Déjà vu! Cory’s death left a nation in grief, reminiscent of Ninoy’s death. Mar Roxas, sensing a tipping point, gallantly gave way to Cory’s son, Noynoy. Noynoy won, greatly helped by a resurrected yellow ribbon frenzy.
After months of lackadaisical and amateurish ways, Noynoy, the once nondescript politician, acquired his grace of state. He single-mindedly made the pitch “Walang Corrupt.” He got ex-president Gloria Arroyo arrested.
Next, he went hammer and tongs after Chief Justice Renato Corona, an Arroyo midnight appointee and a big hindrance to his anti-corruption drive.
For months, we watched the impeachment trial on TV. We witnessed one of the most fascinating aspects of check and balance in a democracy. It was democracy in action in a cerebral way.
Moral fibers, not mob rule
During the impeachment, we saw a different, more sophisticated way of preserving democracy. During the court battle, I realized that we, the constituents, are still fighting for our freedom, this time, by using our moral sense to make certain that government officials have the moral fitness to serve.
We must continue to fight to preserve our freedom and democracy, using our intellect and our conscience, not with itaks and Remington rifles. With our moral fiber, not with mob rule. With our maturity, not our naiveté. With our spirit, not our muscles. And as Christian people, with our prayers, not violence.
To think it all started with Lapu-lapu’s balls and dazzling sword play.