BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews / 31 May)—Atty. Jamar Kulayan, a commissioner in the National Amnesty Commission and a former colleague in DepEd-ARMM, recently shared an enlightening word and its definition during an online chat. The word in question is “kakistocracy,” characterized as “government by the least qualified or worst people.” In reflecting upon the deteriorating moral fabric of society, American poet James Lowell once expressed his doubt and dismay, pondering whether this decline could be attributed to democracy itself. He questioned whether our system is truly “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or if it has devolved into a kakistocracy that benefits the unscrupulous at the expense of the unwitting.
Does our democracy bear the blame for the rampant rise of kakistocrats, or is it the collective failure of the people’s power? Or could it be that generations of individuals remain ignorant of the Western construct of democracy, the very foundation upon which our governance system is built? Alternatively, could this be a case of disharmony between structure and mindset? Despite our political framework being democratic, does our mindset persist in the pre-colonial realms of aristocracy, where the Datu and his family reign absolute and unchallenged?
The word shared by Atty. Kulayan reminds me of two corollary terms—kleptocracy and elitism. Kleptocracy is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed” and elitism is defined by Cambridge dictionary as “the belief that some things are only for a few people who have special qualities or abilities.” Together, this trifecta forms a lethal combination not good for our society and future.
As we turn a blind eye to the ailments that plague our public service delivery system, or mistakenly believe that those in government are better positioned to make decisions on our behalf, or resign ourselves to leaving governance in the hands of a select few, we inadvertently pave the way for incompetence to reign, corruption to thrive, and privilege to prevail. This forms a lethal combination known of kakistocracy, kleptocracy, and elitism. We need to understand that these are not some distant or external issues as they are present within our society, affecting us directly.
What happens to a society when kakistocrats, kleptocrats, and elites converge? We are already forewarned, as over the past 30 years, political dynasties have grown bloated, dominating, and expanding our politics . The 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks the Philippines at 116, merely 64 positions away from the bottom, sharing an equal rank with Algeria, Angola, Mongolia, Zambia, and war-torn Ukraine, with a rating of 33/100 . The 2022 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey revealed that self-rated poverty is at its highest in Mindanao, reaching 59% . Additionally, our country is among the top 15 in terms of income inequality, as reported by the World Bank in 2022. According to the report, the top 1% of Philippine earners captured 17% of the total national income, while the bottom 50% shared only 14% . Ndiamé Diop, a World Bank official, aptly stated, “Inequality of opportunity and low mobility across generations waste human potential and slow down innovation.” Thus, the convergence of kakistocracy, kleptocracy, and elitism not only perpetuates such disparities but also stifles progress and hampers the realization of our societal development.
Truly, within this trifecta of circumstances, the people suffer, justice crumbles, and the very essence of democracy gasps for its last breath. The convergence of kakistocracy, kleptocracy, and elitism epitomizes the betrayal of our collective interests, shattering the aspirations of a just society and leaving behind a haunting legacy of exploitation and despair. It is not far-fetched that even the past and present security challenges are in part driven by these circumstances.
However, there is hope as there is urgency for collective awareness and action. There are two critical actors of change—leaders and voters. In the words of Daniel Eriksson, Chief Executive Officer of Transparency International, on one hand, “leaders can fight corruption and promote peace all at once. Governments must open space to include the public in decision-making.” Yes, not in nominal, but in real terms. On the other hand, “people can raise their voices to help root out corruption and demand a safer world for us all.” If our leaders are not ready, then the people should.
In the treacherous confluence of kakistocracy, kleptocracy, and elitism, a grave reality awaits, the unfinished business of conscientizing the people—the imperative to awaken the people, to illuminate their path and for them to discern their plight. For only when they discern the true essence of their vote and the entanglement of poverty that ensnares them, can they achieve liberation and empowerment—pivotal pillars on active nonviolence and social justice of peace education. Through this conscientization, we awaken the people to unlock genuine societal transformation, empowering individuals to break free from this unholy trifecta, and sculpt a future where justice and equality prevail driven by qualified and not kakistocrats, by honest officials and not kleptocrats and by popular egalitarians and not by the elite few.
Finally, as Muslims, we are reminded in the Holy Qur’an about the root of change, as stated in the verse, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves…” (Verse 11, Chapter 13: Ar-Ra’ad, Holy Qur’an). It is within ourselves, particularly in our hearts, that the true catalyst for transformation lies. The will to change, fueled by a sincere and profound introspection, holds the power to reshape our circumstances. It is through this internal metamorphosis that we pave the way for external change, ultimately shaping a better future for ourselves and society at large.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry—born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-Tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)