Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On democracy

Been attending this workshop on leading democratic reforms in the Philippine bureaucracy since Monday. The group had an interesting discussion this afternoon on the nature of democratic changes that civil society organizations (CSOs) and reform-oriented bureaucrats should be aiming for. A fellow participant from the private sector proposed a return to an "ideal" version of representative democracy: with majority rule as one of the fundamental guiding principles, electorates essentially giving up part of their decision-making powers to chosen representatives within government, and citizen participation in public governance to be seen as an extraordinary measure that should be removed as soon as an effective representative system has been attained. Everybody was squirming in her seat, and the discussion dragged on for another hour or so. My free market ideology detector was busy reflecting on possible links of such views with the tenets of the Chicago School of Economics' version of capitalism.

Had another round of discussion afterward on the same topic with my colleagues at the School of Government. By the time we parted, my mind had come out with three reasons why I'm not in favor of such type of democracy for the Philippines. First, on a pragmatic level, said proposal goes against the recent trends in democratic governance and practice. Even bureaucrats and politicians in the more developed countries have recognized the expanding gap between citizens and government, the growing incapacity of government to deal with complex social problems, and the increasing need to bring back people's trust and their direct and sustained involvement in governance. Second, the persisting poverty, disempowerment, and marginalization in many countries like the Philippines has effectively disenfranchised some groups or sectors whose voices are therefore not heard in crucial government decision-making processes. And strictly representative systems do not appear to provide effective mechanisms to correct such existing power imbalances within society.

Finally, like my colleagues and former comrades, I want to see an expansion of the democratic project to other areas like the economy. And being able to choose your representatives in government during periodic elections is really meaningless if you're surviving on less than a dollar or two each day, or if you're living in slums under bridges or beside huge garbage dumps. For whatever it was worth since it took over autocratic monarchies as the preferred governance system by many societies, representative democracy has shown us many limitations and most democracies all over the world have tried to move beyond such form of government.

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