Wednesday, July 13, 2005

THE PERILS OF PEDESTALS

Filipinos must learn to place their faith in institutions, not individuals
BY ALEX MAGNO



Monday, Jul. 11, 2005

Will another people power uprising in the Philippines topple beleaguered President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo? No. The political configuration just isn't right. There is anger but no infectious outrage. There is serious disappointment but no viable alternative leader. There is a lot of political heat but not enough to bring things to a boil.

The 1986 People Power revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos was different. Clustered around Manila's main artery EDSA, it was heroic, miraculous and magical, dismantling an entrenched dictatorship and restoring democracy. The January 2001 EDSA Dos that led to the fall of Joseph Estrada was a poor photocopy; it forced out a dysfunctional presidency and followed the constitutional line of succession by ushering in Arroyo, who was Estrada's Vice President. The riot of May 2001, dubbed EDSA Tres and instigated by Estrada's fanatical supporters, completely debased the notion of People Power.

Today, amid the allegations of vote rigging and corruption swirling around President Arroyo, the talk in Manila is about People Power fatigue. There's a palpable—and desperate—sense that the more we change things, the more they remain the same. Once again, it seems, we are trapped in a destructive political cycle: we elect Presidents and expect them to be superhuman—solving every conceivable problem and delivering the nation from misery and failure; when they fail to live up to such lofty demands, we seek to depose them.

Filipinos act this way because we have an unduly large expectation of what a government can and should do: create jobs, provide subsidies, desist from taxing the people. Over time, we have assembled a large state sector expected to deliver the goods. But the ordinary citizen is reluctant to pay for a large state burdened by a wide assembly of public enterprises that chronically lose money. The upshot is a system in constant fiscal difficulty, and disposed to heavy borrowing that mortgages the future.

Filipinos have a schizophrenic view of their political leaders, from town mayors to provincial governors to Presidents. They must be generous patrons, doling out to people in need—as if they were benevolent Sultans with bottomless purses. But they must not be corrupt. In our personality-driven culture, clans and ritual bonds are important; ideologies and government programs are not. When things go right, it's because leaders are heroes of epic proportion. When things go wrong, we replace personalities rather than reinforce institutions and processes.

In our culture, rules do not arbitrate the interaction of people; it's people who arbitrate the application of the rules so that interpersonal relations proceed smoothly, unimpeded by the law. It's a culture that has stunted the development of strong institutions. The legal system that we have, the voluminous regulations and procedures: all these form a thin veneer of a state that seems to resemble those in the West. But beneath lies a complex web of fixers and power brokers, go-betweens and patrons, geared to make things happen—whether negotiating a business deal or tax settlement, bringing government projects to a district, or, it would seem, adding up the votes. This complex web baffles outsiders, who often complain of the "high cost of doing business" in the Philippines.

But we Filipinos shudder at the thought of depersonalized institutions and processes, fearing the harshness of laws untamed by individuals. We have never understood that the more depersonalized systems are, the more efficiently things get done. We are quite comfortable with weak institutions and strong leaders. And when the corruption of formal rules and procedures becomes all too evident and therefore unsettling, we eject leaders for their lack of finesse. We replace them with others, hoping against the odds that they can make things work. We invest too much in the possibility that people of extraordinary capacities will save us from the tendency of the system to break down.

Deep in our guts, we know that a President phoning an election official when votes are being counted—as Arroyo has admitted doing—is most likely not unusual. The scandal generated over Arroyo's calls is both contrived and hypocritical: we are not supposed to know this happens, but because the conversations appear to have been caught on tape, our explicit code of proper civic behavior compels us to feign disgust. We have to go through the motions of being scandalized. One side of our schizophrenic political culture must be appeased. After we are done with the ceremonial self-flagellation (or, if I am mistaken, a more emphatic purging such as People Power or a coup), we will settle back to a comfortable regime of elastic rules and mediated processes. It is our culture—and our fate.

—Alex Magno is a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines in Manila


From the Jul. 18, 2005 issue of TIME Asia Magazine

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