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Winds of democracy in the Philippines

By Sonny Africa

Delivered at the International People’s Research Network (IPRN) Webinar on “Building People’s Democracy” held on November 27, 2020

What struggles to build a democratic society truly fulfill the aspirations of the people? IBON will briefly share our experience in the Philippine context and look forward to discussions to enrich this from different perspectives. The winds of democracy are blowing strong here.

We can start by affirming the essential character of the Philippine state. It remains as it has always been – political and economic elites inextricably intertwined and using the powers of government to advance their narrow interests. But it may be useful to look at some major developments over the last four decades of neoliberal globalization. This may help clarify authoritarian trends seen today and also point to areas needing particular attention.

Globalization and democracy

The 1980s saw hype about the “end of history” and the supposed triumph of Western liberal democracy with its distinct blend of free markets and private property, civil liberties and human rights, and supposed political freedoms. (Even then, giant China was of course a conveniently disregarded outlier.) Since then, there has been an increase in pluralist electoral democracies enshrining the popular vote for choosing leaders – as in the Philippines upon the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. (Even Russia started choosing its president by popular vote in 1991.) There has also been a huge expansion in mass media and then the internet which, it was argued, strengthened liberal democracies by democratizing information.

In economic systems, free market policies of neoliberal globalization were promised to unleash economic potential, develop backward economies, and bring prosperity to all. In reality, we’re all familiar with how neoliberal globalization has resulted in greater exploitation, greater destruction of natural resources and the environment, and greater wealth and economic power in the hands of a few. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people exploited, abused and left behind made the rumble underfoot grow stronger as economic crises erupted and deepened.

Elites however twisted this dissatisfaction, went on an all-out disinformation offensive in mass media and the internet, and manipulated elections to rise to power as today’s populist authoritarianisms – the Philippines’ own Pres. Duterte is a case in point. In too many places around the world, demagogues of different degrees are elected and have risen to the top of falsely democratic political systems.

They mostly keep the forms of liberal democratic institutions in place – free elections, the branches of government, mass media, even civil society. But these are wielded self-interestedly, subverted in practice, and any portions particularly inconvenient are carved out. But they are fundamentally authoritarians and we see everywhere the growing use of state violence, against any and all opposition, to protect elite economic interests and to retain political power.

These processes have played out in the Philippines as elsewhere. In our specific circumstances, how do we build a democratic society?

People, most of all

The most critical foundation remains people’s organizations with a vision of a democratic society. The Philippines is fortunate to have a long-standing core of this in the mass movement built up over decades. These include the country’s largest organizations of politicized peasants, formal and informal workers, youth and students, women, indigenous people, teachers and academics, and more.

The mass movement combines concrete struggles on immediate concerns with constant education work on systemic issues. Concrete struggles and constant education are both essential to build solid core constituencies for genuinely transformative change for the better.

These organizations are at the forefront of challenging anti-people social and economic policies and countering neoliberal globalization. They are also an army that reaches out not just to their direct constituencies and networks but also communicates to the widest number of people through mass media, social media, and other internet platforms.

They are supplemented by tactical formations and alliances on urgent issues to more immediately reach out to and mobilize the wider public. For instance, the steady assault of the regime on accustomed liberal democratic institutions creates wide opportunity for this. The attacks on senators, congressional representatives, the Supreme Court chief justice, the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), major broadcast and internet media outfits, civil society, activists and others have stirred wide outrage. This scattered dissent needs to be brought together.

Progressives in government

At the same time, people’s organizations have enough strength and flexibility to also directly engage in traditional elite-dominated governance through elected parliamentarians such as via the party-list system in Congress. Progressive party-list groups have always been among the frontrunners in Congressional elections and already form a solid pro-people bloc in the House of Representatives.

While fully part of the traditional institutionalized political system, progressive parliamentarians remain solidly grounded in people’s organizations and are relentless in challenging the boundaries of the country’s so-called democracy. As real representatives of and from the people, their legislative measures and political work are consistently biased for the people. They seek to deliver concrete benefits while consistently seeking to weaken the economic power and fight the political abuses of self-serving elites.

Through their visible public service, they enable the general public to see that more democratic economic and political policies are possible. But they are also the beachhead of democracy in the authoritarian Duterte government for launching attacks from within. They are valuable for reaching out to other progressives and potential allies within the government, and for organizing efforts to push for democratic changes in the centers of reactionary politics.

Research matters

The superstructures of power are defended not just by sheer violence but by the hegemony of self-serving and reactionary knowledge. We of course give special attention to the invisible power of ideas, values and beliefs in reproducing capitalism and today’s worsening authoritarianism. Among the most important ways to challenge this is with solid research from the perspective of and upholding the aspirations of the people for social justice, equity, and a decent life for all.

The struggle of ideas is one of the most urgent realms of political struggle. Solid research and tenacious advocacy are vital to overcome the dominance of ruling class ideas and values. More and more people must unlearn that oppression is just to be accepted and that the only improvement in our material conditions is what ruling elites will allow.

Solid research is vital to support the campaigns of people’s organizations and of progressives in government. For instance, research on economic issues reveals what changes decades of imperialist globalization have wrought as well as confirms what remains the same. And we know that ideas are meaningless if not transformed into a political force so these need to be formed with or by the mass movement and then taken up by it.

Solid research is vital to credibly challenge anti-people policies and to articulate our new ideas and visions for a more just and democratic society. We challenge capitalism not just because it is exploitative and oppressive but also because it isn’t immutable, can be replaced, and should be replaced. We look to the socialist alternative not just because we imagine it as just, humane and liberating, but also because it is possible and can already start to be built. Research makes our critique potent and also makes our alternative real.

Research is about ideas and we are today facing a deluge. What does it take to be dynamic in the digital age with its endless tsunami of trivialities and information? It isn’t enough that our analysis is correct and that we are credible – to communicate today we have to be real-time, interactive, and nimble with text, photos, graphics, audio, video and animation. And while we will continue to distribute our research, we also have to be ever more accessible not just conceptually but also literally. More than ever, people constantly seek information with a mere click of their finger or a swipe of their thumb.

Democracy in progress

Finally, we all know the value of seeing that oppressive structures can be changed and that what is accepted as ‘normal’ can be replaced. In the Philippines, the most radical flank and most direct challenge to the oppressive status quo are the scattered but growing sites of democratic governance in the countryside. In many rural areas across the country, communities are undertaking examples of how local political and economic democracy can be interlinked to benefit the majority people and not a few elites. These are areas where landlords, agri-business, and mining corporations do not dominate and where people’s organizations have taken control of their communities and their lives. They push the envelope of our democratic struggles.

On a historical scale, there’s no doubt that the world is changing for the better. There’s too much creativity, energy and bravery committed to that for it to be otherwise. Perhaps in fits and starts, or with setbacks big and small – but, still, we’re inexorably moving forward on the back of millions of steps and struggles every day around the world. #

Counterproductive counterinsurgency

By Sonny Africa

Development policymaking is hard enough as it is – the Philippines after so many decades of so many development plans is a case in point. Now the military wants to take that over as well? The government’s whole-of-nation approach where the military hijacks governance will just make the country’s maldevelopment worse.

Authoritarian creep

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism of course started with a big bloody bang – the thousands of urban poor the government killed in a show of intimidating force. The militarist takeover of government took a little bit longer but is well underway. The transformation has a thin veil of legality but the nation is as far away from real democracy as it has ever been.

The Duterte administration’s brand of militarism started with the National Security Policy (NSP) 2017-2022 it released in April 2017. Conspicuously, national security was defined broadly to “[encompass] virtually every aspect of national life and nation-building” where “economic development and security are inextricably linked”.

While conceptually valid, in retrospect these were less a sign of vision than gross and insidious ambition. It is difficult to credit a military establishment notorious for human rights violations, unwarranted violence, lying and deceit with having positive long-term aspirations. On the other hand, the appetite for dictatorship is easier to see.

The National Security Council (NSC) prepared the NSP. This collegial body includes many Cabinet members and legislators but is really dominated by the security sector – especially by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

The broad definition of national security was immediately used to give the military and police an entry point into everywhere else in government. Executive Order (EO) No. 16 was released simultaneously with the NSP. This directed that “all government departments and agencies, including government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) and local government units (LGUs), shall adopt the NSP 2017-2022 in the formulation and implementation of all their plans and programs which have national security implications”. This is a far-reaching mandate because, according to the NSP, virtually everything has national security implications.

This was followed by the National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2018. The NSS was prepared by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and presented as a “blueprint [to] foster better coordination, synchronization and cohesion of government functions”. Its sweeping strategy included “the combined, balanced and effective use of the instruments of national power, namely: political and legal, diplomatic, informational, intelligence, economic, and military and law enforcement”.

Ominously, Pres. Duterte called for Filipinos to “stand behind our national security apparatus” and “strengthen the foundations of a secure, peaceful, modern and prosperous Philippines”. Towards this, the president gradually appointed 73 military and police officials to civilian positions in at least 46 agencies. There are now more military and police officials in government than at any time since the Marcos dictatorship nearly 50 years ago.

They were made heads in 38 of these as Cabinet secretaries, director generals, chairpersons, executive directors, administrators or presidents. As it is, former military and police officials account for 11 of 50 cabinet and cabinet-level officials or one-fifth of the Cabinet.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) at the Malacañan Palace on April 15, 2019. SIMEON CELI JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Authoritarianism now

All this fell into place when Pres. Duterte issued EO No. 70 in December 2018 creating the so-called National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The EO invoked the armed conflict to justify creating the task force and institutionalizing a “whole-of-nation approach” that will “integrate and harmonize the various efforts of the whole of government and of all sectors of society”.

Pres. Duterte is National Task Force Commander and chairperson with Esperon as vice chairperson. This places Esperon second only to the president at the top of an expansive organizational structure encroaching on virtually every government agency that matters, reaching from the regional to the barangay level nationwide. They preside over 18 Cabinet officials and two private sector representatives.

The high-level task force includes the secretaries of national defense, interior and local government, and justice as well as the AFP chief of staff, PNP director general, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) director general, and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. Propaganda is handled by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary.

To cover socioeconomic development concerns, the group also includes the secretaries of economic planning, finance, budget and management, public works and highways, agrarian reform, education, and social welfare and development, as well as the Presidential Adviser for Indigenous People’s Concerns, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) chairperson, and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority director general.

The 17 regional task forces (RTFs) under the NTF-ELCAC are each chaired by a Cabinet Officer for Regional Development and Security (CORDS) designated by the president. The military and police officials in the Cabinet are handy for this — eight (8) of the 17 Cabinet members appointed as CORDS are former military officers: Esperon (NSA), Carlito Galvez (Presidential Peace Adviser), Eduardo Año (DILG), Gregorio Honasan II (DICT), Roy Cimatu (DENR), Eduardo del Rosario (HUDCC), and Delfin Lorenzana (DND).

The RTFs supplant regional structures in place and merge the existing Regional Development Councils (RDCs) and Regional Peace and Order Councils (RPOC). RDCs are the highest policy-making and direction-setting bodies for overall socioeconomic development in the regions. The RDC is composed of all governors, mayors, and development-related line agency regional directors. Upon EO No. 70, RDCs are also adding active military and police officials as special non-voting members.

RPOCs take up major issues and problems affecting peace and order. RPOCs are also composed of all governors, mayors, peace and order-related line agency regional directors, plus AFP commanders. Similar task forces are organized at the provincial, city/municipal, and barangay level. In effect, all these far-reaching multi-stakeholder bodies are put in a direct chain of command under the NTF-ELCAC and the national security adviser. This cumulatively amounts to hundreds of task forces nationwide and potentially even thousands if barangay efforts are counted.

The NTF-ELCAC’s seemingly disproportionate budget of just Php522 million belies its influence. All the memorandum circulars implementing EO No. 70 are clear that “the budgetary requirements for the implementation of EO No. 70 may be authorized chargeable against the respective LGUs and agencies in accordance with EO 70”. Regular agency budgets are put at the service of the NTF-ELCAC.

The NTF-ELCAC is fully up and running. The first RTF-ELCAC was organized in CALABARZON in February 2019 and the first provincial PTF-ELCAC in Cavite in March soon after. The national task force approved its National Plan in its first meeting in April 2019, held in Malacañang.

Other regions and provinces followed suit to organize their respective task forces. One-day island group summits of regional task forces were held in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao in October to all culminate in a national summit with Pres. Duterte.

This year has already seen a frenzied surge of EO No. 70 implementation-related activity at every level of government across the country. This has gone far beyond armed conflict areas and the government’s militarism has intruded into schools, urban poor communities, offices, media, embassies, international agencies, and elsewhere. A National Capital Region (NCR) task force was even created in September 2019 even if there are no signs of armed conflict or insurgents in Metro Manila. The NCRTF-ELCAC is a hammer and activists, critics and political opposition are the nails it will be used on.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) at the Malacañan Palace on April 15, 2019. SIMEON CELI JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Hijacking development

EO No. 70 implementation includes weaponizing the law and criminalizing dissent. But it also in effect enables the military to hijack socioeconomic development policy for its militarist ends. Having construed national security and addressing the roots of armed conflict expansively, the national task force is broadly “authorized to evaluate, modify or integrate policies and programs” of government according to its plans.

The recent midterm update of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 is a case in point. This is regularly done for PDPs but there was something new this time around. Supplementary guidelines were issued to RDCs to “integrate” the NTF-ELCAC’s Cluster Implementation Plans in the updated regional development plans (RDPs) and regional development investment programs (RDIPs).

Accustomed processes were overridden and the NTF-ELCAC gave the RDCs plans to “mainstream” in the update. Regional planning committees were assigned to clusters as defined by the NTF-ELCAC, all of which had military officials from the defense department and AFP as members.

The national task force members include 18 government agencies. The various program clusters of the NTF-ELCAC implementation plan include most of these and 38 others, for 51 agencies in total. At least some of these agencies have created NTF-ELCAC “steering committees” to implement EO No. 70 and operationalize the national task force within their respective departments.

The problem with the national task force and the extensive machinery it creates is that it is, underneath a lot of development-speak and bureaucratese, still just another military scheme driven by a narrow-minded enemy-focused military mindset. It is essentially the Duterte administration identifying ‘enemies’ and using the full force of government against them.

EO No. 70 is not the military suddenly genuinely getting insights about the roots of underdevelopment and, much less, suddenly having the skills set to address this. The military is using the task forces to command resources for community programs, welfare services, and the like for its narrow counterinsurgency and anti-activism purposes. This muddles decision-making and prioritization according to actual development needs.

EO No. 70 is also being used to justify State security forces cracking down on development NGOs, people’s organizations, and all civil society groups whose advocacies the administration deems overly critical and putting it in a bad light. More to the point — the government is using all its political, legal, diplomatic, informational, intelligence, economic, military and police resources against any perceived domestic political opposition. In short, using all “the instruments of national power”.

The Duterte government is systematically going after organizations of workers, farmers, urban poor, youth, teachers, indigenous peoples, environment advocates, alternative media, cultural workers, disaster responders, and even researchers. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and even freedom of thought are under siege with the government deciding and enforcing what is and is not acceptable.

This gravely sets back prospects for real and democratic development. Curbing civil society suppresses a crucial check on government, stifles fresh development ideas upholding the rights of the majority, and constricts people’s participation in governance.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) at the Malacañan Palace on April 15, 2019. KING RODRIGUEZ/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

What is it all for?

At one level it is the Duterte administration coming down hard on the strongest voices against its authoritarianism, corruption, and policies enriching elites at the expense of the people. It is the Duterte clique putting down organized opposition to its self-serving agenda to stay in power and enrich itself.

But it is also much more than that. The Duterte government has come but, as with others before, it will also go. Unfortunately, what is happening is also the State pushing obsolete neoliberalism forward by eliminating obstacles to the market and to capital dominating every aspect of Philippine society. The groups being attacked have their own stresses and versions but nonetheless share a vision for a more just, humane and democratic Philippines.

This is consequential for the country’s political and economic prospects. We are in the middle of the Left and social movements violently being put down, under a thin veneer of rule of law, to increase the power of capitalists, landlords, and political elites. Activists are targeted because their clear politics, concrete organizations, and advocacies threaten the ruling class’s grip on power.

The ruling class embraces the Duterte government because it increases their wealth and profits: tax cuts on the rich and big corporations; infrastructure to keep the comprador economy humming and to preserve real estate wealth; privatization of transport, water, health and education; wage repression; land monopolies; and market- and capital-friendly policies all around.

The Philippines is in dire need of reforms and the sheer scale of the problem demands system-wide thinking and massive mass movement solutions. Yet the heavy-handed authoritarianism and military meddling in governance will just stoke even more unrest. This includes polarizing the nation and actually fueling the radicalism, and revolutionary armed struggles that the Duterte administration is so fearful of. #

(Kodao publishes IBON.org’s reports and analyses as part of a content-sharing agreement.)

Activists to Duterte: Is this the change you promised?

Marking Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s first year in office, people’s organizations from the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) evaluated his performance using emoticons in a rally in Manila last June 30.

While acknowledging that the Duterte government delivered on some of his promises, the activists said the president promised so much more but has yet to deliver.

They added that whatever achievements the administration may have delivered, these are rendered inconsequential when compared to the killings of thousands under Duterte’s so-called war on illegal drugs.

They expressed opposition to martial law in Mindanao and demanded its lifting.

(International League of Peoples’ Struggle – Philippines video / Music by Danny Fabella of Musikang Bayan / Featured photo by Mark Kevin Reginio)

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