Philippines: A Crisis Of Democracy?

1999

Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

One would think that the Philippines today was undergoing some sort of crisis of democracy. The venerable Manila Times, once silenced by Marcos, has been forced to change ownership and temporarily shut down after a slugging match with the Estrada government. The Daily Inquirer, which has the largest circulation among the English-language newspapers, has been hit with a massive pullout of advertisements by movie companies and certain government agencies and big corporations. Student-run university organs are suffering from withdrawal of funds and other alleged attempts to muzzle them. Several prominent journalists and civil libertarians have interpreted the conflict as an ominous sign of the return of Marcos-style tyranny. Are we seeing, indeed, a turning point in the Estrada administration?

The events of recent weeks cannot be reduced to a simple opposition between state control and press freedoms. There are two traditions of colonial vintage interacting here: a vocal and often radical press, and a strong presidency. Immediately after the forcible U.S. takeover in 1901, nationalist and pro-independence agitation found a mouthpiece in the Spanish and vernacular press. The Americans allowed this as part of the package of democratic 'tutelage' but soon took to policing the press when it 'unfairly' criticized their rule.

The increasing U.S. hand-over of power to Filipinos resulted in the fashioning of a democratic system centered around the person of a powerful chief executive-quite different from the American model. Filipino presidents since Quezon in the 30s have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to shore up their reputations by wooing journalists or subsidising their own newspapers as against those of their rivals. This doesn't mean, however, that journalists have merely been puppets of their political or business patrons. During the Cold War period radical nationalist and socialist writers used their news columns to propagate their views whilst lending a progressive aura to the politicians who subsidized them. Even during the Marcos dictatorship, 'progressive' journalists were massively recruited to the Marcos project, some of whom intended to use the leader's patronage to achieve their goals. Martial law failed to prevent an alternative or underground press from booming.

Estrada won the presidency last year with a resounding popular mandate. This came despite vigorous criticism, mainly in the English-language press, of his lack of qualifications-he was a high school dropout who had made a name in the cinema. To offset this, Estrada formed a cabinet that included highly-trained academics and ex-journalists. He himself, however, has continued to speak and behave in a manner that repels the educated elite but makes sense to his lower-class supporters. Thus journalists are quick to identify instances of cronyism and family abuse of privileges. Above all, they point to Estrada's failure thus far to mount the revolution against poverty that so pervades his populist rhetoric.

The fact of the matter is that in the present tussle with the press, Estrada still enjoys a popularity rating of over 70 percent. After all, under fire are only a few English-language newspapers read mainly by the urban middle classes. And if you listen carefully to the aggrieved journalists, you can hear the voices of the progressive nationalist tradition, one that is opposed not just to corruption in government but to the Visiting Forces Agreement, the commercialization of education, the IMF prescriptions for the economy, the power of business tycoons, untrammeled globalisation, and so forth. The Estrada administration's behavior is not surprising either. It is in the tradition of a powerful presidency engaging with a tradition of progressive journalism and coming to terms with it sooner or later. Doomsday predictions about the return of tyranny are just ghosts of the Marcos era whose chances of a return are about as slim as those of the Cold War.

WATCHPOINT: Do not over-estimate the influence of Estrada's critics.

 

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