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When exploitation goes too far


When exploitation goes too far was also published by The Manila Times on 31 January 2024. Photo credits: Manila Times cartoon and

The ballyhoo over the ongoing drive to either revise or amend the constitution through people’s initiative (PI) echoes the continuing exploitation of the governed by those who govern.

To use the people as tool to legitimize the exercise of power has for a long time been a fixture of Philippine political landscape.

To cite John Carroll, SJ, my late and former boss at the Institute on Church and Social Issues (now John Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues), a research non-government organization based at the Ateneo de Manila University, in an article titled “The Philippines: Forgiving or Forgetting?”:  

In the year 1900, following the Spanish-American War and the American occupation of the Philippines, William Howard Taft arrived in Manila as the head of the US Government's Philippine Commission which was to decide the future of these islands. The story is told that he was met by a delegation of prominent Filipinos, ilustrados, who pressed for immediate independence. Their argument was that for a people to be self-governing all that was required was a minority capable of ruling and a majority willing to be ruled, both of which the Philippines had. Whether or not the story is historically accurate, it does reflect the elitist mentality of the cosmopolitan and educated Filipino upper class of the time, and perhaps today as well.

Today, 124 years later, our decision-making processes as a nation remains largely reliant on structures being controlled by the minority that also remains exclusively composed of modern-day ilustrados. At the foot of these structures is a flawed system of representation and a metastasized version of democracy. Our democratic system regurgitates rubbish: we continue to elect to public office members of the elite and traditional politicians, even those who had been publicly shown to have compromised their integrity. In a book published in 1997, Frank Golay commented on the kind of exclusive unity among traditional politicians (compromised or not) since the post-independence period: “The coherence of the elite was not surprising, for their mandate to rule had been repeatedly renewed by the Filipino people.”  

It is easy to turn our eyes to the average voter for this social malady. However, the problem must be understood correctly. Unlike the learned few, the average voter has limited access to information that empowers analytical thinking and liberates from inaction and ignorance. Instead, the average voter is exposed through mainstream and social media to the constant pounding of manipulative information.

Yet the problem is not solely about most voters not having access to quality information. (Otherwise an effective system of representation where elected politicians work for the interests of the majority would suffice to address it.) Rather the problem is about people who manipulate the truth to control other people. At the hands of politicians, powered by wealth and patronage, manipulation is a tool to exploit the basic weakness of the people—which is their collective inability to make sense of open paths to reforms due to lack of liberating information.

The 1987 constitution promised a way to break the stranglehold of political power by the elite which, in a twist of wonder and irony, now risks being re-written by way of a PI.

That promise is far from being realized, however, as decades of trying to implement its liberating and people-centered reform provisions are at best enacted into laws in their most feeble of forms, or, at worst, remain untouched, doomed to be trashed and sadly oblivion-bound. These reform paths include agrarian reform, anti-dynasty provisions, and participatory governance.

While Congress has passed an agrarian reform law, it did not provide for adequate measures to ensure its positive impact. Worse, the executive arm of government has nothing much to show for success in implementing that law in terms of, for example, the number of farming families that have been lifted from poverty. It is easy to see that the system of representation is conflicted, as many members of Congress and political appointees in government are landowners who would be adversely affected by a genuine land reform program.    

The anti-dynasty provisions promise to democratize the opportunities for public service through the electoral process by levelling the arena for contending political candidates. The prospect of inviting competition hurts the interests of established players of the game, who are thus justified to never seriously consider this constitutional lobby.

Probably emboldened by how “people power” had ended a dictatorship, the framers of the 1987 constitution must have deemed it uplifting to promote people participation in running the government. Novel approaches to promote participatory governance include local autonomy, a party-list mechanism, and legislation through PI. 

A local government code was enacted in 1991 (one of a few redeeming achievements of Congress in the post-Marcos1 era), but its powerful tools that aimed to promote inclusive and participatory governance through institutionalization of broad-based local councils and community-driven processes remain largely unharnessed.

The party-list system is a mess. Initially intended to bring the basic sectors from the margins of society to the elite-dominated center, the party-list representatives in congress are now mostly dominated not by the marginalized sectors but by the same crop of traditional business and partisan interests.

The enactment of laws through PI has been a practical impossibility—perhaps until now. Behind an organized ploy by yet unknown but suspected powerful politicians, the hyped-up charter change drive through PI appears to be gaining traction, despite protestations from certain sectors, notably a number of sitting senators. The Commission on Elections, which is tasked with verifying the signatures in a PI process, has reportedly received several copies of those signatures already.

Like the party-list system, the PI route is being highjacked by powerful vested interests. Previous attempts to fiddle with the constitution failed largely because of distrust in the ulterior motives of politicians. It seems there is now a shift in strategy. Some politicians hide behind the PI to make it look like there is public ownership of constitutional issues. Politicians in general win the vote by exploiting our messed-up political culture; and now they seem poised to win even more. Exploitation has gone overdrive, from winning the vote to possibly perpetuating themselves in power.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr. tried to perpetuate himself in power. The government that supplanted “Bagong Lipunan” facilitated the writing of a new constitution that would have made it harder for succeeding administrations to perpetuate themselves in power. But another Marcos with his “Bagong Pilipinas” battle cry is now up in arms, rallying his troops of no less than 31 million voters to fight for his cause. Filial duty suggests that Bongbong Marcos should undo the remnants of what undid his father. Would the ends of the PI suit him? Is he the one behind it?     


If the constitution must be re-written or amended, the aim must be to correct its failed promises. We need to make authentic participatory governance work and ensure that the task of policy making is not left exclusively to the control of traditionally elected representatives of the people in government.

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