COMMENTARY: In the thick of the democratic grind

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/19 April) — Around the same period when the Philippines was under an authoritarian regime, South Korea was also under a military dictatorship. Pertinently, the restoration of democratic rule in both countries was accomplished via popular revolt or “people power”.

Moreover, the dramatic regime change in both states are deeply linked. According to Uk Heo and Terence Roehrig in South Korea Since 1980—“South Korea’s opposition became further energized in spring 1986 with the fall of Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Perhaps it would be South Korea’s time to remove an authoritarian leader.”

This nostalgia over the triumph of democracy over despotism in these two Asian nations is timely because the progeny of their respective tyrannical leaders are now at the political forefront. The son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Ferdinand, Jr., is running for Vice-President (VP) in this year’s election. Whilst the incumbent president of South Korea is Park Geun-hye, the nation’s first female head of state and the daughter of the military dictator General Park Chung-hee.

Notably, many South Koreans today still revere General Chung-hee because of the view that his administration was responsible for jump-starting the nation’s economic progress. But to her credit, President Park Geun-hye refused to gloss over the human rights abuses perpetuated during her father’s iron-fisted rule. As part of a heartfelt public apology extended during her presidential campaign, she said─ “I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics.”

Filipinos have a strikingly contrary experience. The spectre of Martial Law still brings a painful sting because Ferdinand, Jr. and the rest of the Marcos family continue to proclaim, despite all the facts to the contrary, that this dark period actually had a benevolent impact on the country. Indeed, Ferdinand, Jr. insists that there is no reason for him to apologize for any of the documented human rights violations committed during the reign of his dictator father, simply claiming he had no direct involvement in these cases whatsoever.

Such intransigence has finally met a strong rebuke from the academe. A strong and emotional public statement was recently issued by professors and lecturers from the Ateneo de Manila University against his campaign machinery for “re-packaging” this particular era in Philippine history.

The rise of Ferdinand, Jr., when the negative effects of his father’s despotic reign are still fresh, can understandably frustrate and even anger some sectors of Filipino society. However, his return to political prominence can also be explained as merely a necessary effect of the democratization of the Philippines.

The plain fact is Ferdinand, Jr. has not been convicted of a crime that disqualifies him from holding public office. For the state to stop him from participating in the electoral process simply because of his name would mean reverting to draconian methods practiced during the authoritarian rule of his father. And this is a backflip no Filipino today would ever countenance.

After going through several free elections the past three decades, Filipinos are now aware that the collision of opinions is an integral component of the electoral process. And even if animosity is rife during the designated campaign period, they will always relish the freedom to publicly express thoughts and comments for and against candidates.

Filipinos have proven that they are prepared to die to defend their right to choose their leaders. Of course, how Filipinos exercise this right is a different matter altogether. As countries like the United States and Australia know very well, the consolidation of democracy is not a painless and linear process. Nor can a definite deadline for it be set.

According to historian Luis H. Francia in A History of the Philippines, as an entity that gained political independence only in 1946, the Philippines is a relatively young nation. The democratic evolution of this country is essentially still at the formative phase. The hope is simply for Filipinos to develop a more profound appreciation of the democratic way of life after each election season.

And this appears to be the direction where the country is going. Many academic institutions have declared support for the Ateneo statement against Ferdinand, Jr.’s audacity to evade culpability for the tragedies of Martial Law. Moreover, the demand to ensure this horrific time in Philippine history is never forgotten is gaining new momentum. Indeed, the ferocity of the backlash against this attempt at historical revision seems to have awaken a level of civic militancy last seen only during the years immediately prior to the 1986 People Power Revolution.

Filipinos, particularly the youth sector, are clearly now inclined to be more involved in ensuring good governance. And with social media and the 24-hour news cycle on their side, keeping government officials in the straight and narrow would be easy. Correspondingly, Ferdinand, Jr. winning the VP race should not be automatically interpreted as a complete redemption of the Marcos brand in Philippine national politics.

For quite unlike the days of his dictator dad, Ferdinand, Jr.’s assumption of the second most powerful post in the land actually makes him more prone to intense public scrutiny. Established democratic institutions such as press freedom and academic liberty leave him very few devises or machinations to hide any wrongdoings. Indeed, his tenure may very well be the catalyst to a moral reckoning of the Marcos dictatorship many Filipinos have been waiting for.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.)