Philippine-style democracy on trial

Aug 04

In the coming week, two critical bills will move to center stage at the House of Representatives: the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) and the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.  The consideration of these two bills will test the mettle of Philippine-style democracy.

Climax of RH debate?

After 14 long years, the Reproductive Health Bill will finally be subjected to a vote on the House floor when a decision will be taken on a motion to terminate the debate on the bill.  Since prolonging debate till kingdom come has been the strategy of the anti-RH forces, success on the motion will be a sign that the pro-RH forces will most likely triumph when the bill finally comes to a vote after the period for amendments.

14 years of lobbying of members of Congress by the Catholic Church hierarchy against the bill went into high gear in the last few days.  In dramatic fashion, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, recently released on bail in connection with an electoral fraud case against her, showed up at the House last Tuesday to pull away seven members of the minority from their earlier support for the bill.   A representative of the hierarchy also announced that 140 congressmen and congresswomen were sure to vote against the bill, but Rep. Edcel Lagman, the bill’s prime sponsor, dismissed this as a psy-war effort to get the pro-RH side to reveal its own political map so that the bishops could then blitz vulnerable legislators.

More and more people are shaking their heads as to why the Church hierarchy has poured so much effort and resources into stopping a bill that is so patently necessary to promote maternal health, bring about the economic takeoff the country so desperately needs, and promote a more benign balance between society and the environment.  These needs are so self-evident to most people in the country that the Church hierarchy’s stand is seen by many as an extension of its foolish battle against Copernicus’ theory that the earth moves around the sun.

For other analysts, what is at stake for the hierarchy is not simply the credibility of a doctrine that contraception is morally wrong but the hegemonic ideological position that the Church has long maintained in Philippine society.

At a time that other denominations have made significant inroads in the competition for Filipino souls and the Catholic Church’s legitimacy worldwide has been severely damaged by the child abuse scandal, the bishops are said to see the struggle for the RH Bill as a proxy battle for hegemony.  And this is why, in the view of these observers, a triumph for the bill will mean a victory for religious pluralism and constitute a healthy step towards a truly liberal society, where state and Church are genuinely separate.

Was Lee Kwan Yew correct?

Yet the RH Bill is also a challenge for Philippine democracy in another respect, and that is whether it can take the hard decisions necessary for development.   During his visit to the Philippines twenty years ago, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew made his now notorious remarks that the US-style democracy of the Philippines was simply too unwieldy and fractious to enable the country to make the hard decisions necessary to national development.

Since the bill was first introduced, the population of the country has grown from 75 million to over 94 million while our neighbors, with political systems that are arguably less liberal democratic in their decision-making structure, have successfully implemented family planning programs that have been a central reason for their economic success and impressive record of reducing poverty.

The events of the coming week—which will reveal whether a small but powerful minority will be able to continue to sabotage development via electoral blackmail—will be a critical test of the Lee Kwan Yew thesis.

FOI and the struggle for transparency

Like the RH Bill, the Freedom of Information Bill pending at the House has major implications for the future of Philippine democracy.   Like RH, FOI has been waiting in the wings for 14 years.  According to Wikipedia, more than 90 countries now have pieces of legislation that give citizens access to government records.  The Philippines is not one of them.  Though Section Seven of Article Three of the Constitution guarantees the right to information, no enabling legislation has been passed.

In their push for enabling legislation, FOI advocates have marshaled evidence that in places where it has been enacted, like the United States and Australia, FOI has contributed to making government more accountable to citizens while not compromising national security.   FOI has also proven to be an important weapon in the battle against corruption.

Unlike the RH Bill, FOI has no identifiable opponents, since, after all, who could go on record as being against transparency?  Yet it has been derailed by covert foes. The measure nearly passed on the last day of the 14th Congress in May 2009, but parliamentary maneuvers by opponents killed it at the last minute.

FOI advocates have been pushing the House Committee on Public Information to hold a hearing in the coming week to get the bill approved and reported out of committee before the House’s attention gets totally absorbed by the discussions on the national budget.  According to them, the bill can easily get out of committee, but it is being blocked by unsympathetic forces that would like to introduce “killer” amendments—like a right of reply provision or extending the writ of FOI to the private sector—which would either nullify FOI’s intent or ensure its defeat in plenary.

Malacañang on RH and FOI

RH has Malacañang’s full support, but with the hierarchy’s opposition, the fate of the measure hangs in the balance.  Malacañang still has to speak out on FOI, and when it does, the bill is likely to swiftly sail through the House and the Senate.

The absence of any mention of it during the president’s State of the Nation address spoke volumes of the executive’s attitude towards the measure, say some analysts.   But advocates are not giving up. To get the bill moving, nearly 120 members of the House are urging swift passage of the bill in a public statement that will appear in national newspapers in the coming week.  They hope it will prod the president to deliver on a promise he made to support its passage during the 2010 presidential campaign.

It may seem too melodramatic to say that the fate of Philippine democracy will hang on the events of the coming week.  But certainly the triumph of RH and FOI will constitute a plus in our country’s democratic journey.


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