Liberals as an archaic and conservative force in the Philippines

With the recent crisis in Marawi and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, Philippine liberals again exposed their incapacity to grasp both the realities on the ground and the pulse of many Filipinos. Their apologists are trying their best to make Martial Law appear as a poison to Philippine freedom while being persistent in their hypocrisy (i.e. forming a cult of personality around VP Leni Robredo and being intolerant towards views differing from their own). Philippine liberals are products and components of a past that our country must move on from, starting with our political attitudes.

To elaborate, Philippine society is far from having a liberal mentality. Akin to repressed memories and emotions, silent political attitudes like authoritarianism and conservatism are neither necessarily dead nor dying, and crisis is usually an opportunity for such dormant tendencies to emerge.

To illustrate, according to an early Asia Barometer survey conducted back in 2005, our society is far from being liberal. First, 61.4% of the respondents agreed that pluralism in ideas and ways of thinking can cause social chaos, while 57.2% agreed that the government should decide whether certain ideas should be allowed to be discussed in society. Second, the same illiberal tendency is true for the case of organization and political participation, that is, in line with a tendency towards political inaction outside the elections, 55.6% of the respondents agreed that organizational pluralism is harmful to social harmony. Lastly, paternalism is shared by 55.1% of the respondents who agreed that government leaders are akin to the head of a family and should be followed by all, and by 57.5% of the respondents who agreed to give absolute authority to morally upright leaders. The data above scratches the surface and suggests that political culture in the Philippines provides neither a conducive environment nor strength for liberal democratization.

Hence, along with the failure of post-Marcos administrations to effectively deliver public goods and conduct political reforms, the Filipino polity held a sustained distrust towards the government with many associating it with democracy itself.

To elaborate, liberals during the post-Marcos era placed their bets on institution-building and reform while ignoring dormant illiberal, of not outright autocratic tendencies. Moreover, they lost track of the pulse of their audience by ignoring illiberal political attitudes while projecting an image of change that is overshadowed by the perceived failure of the government they are trying to prop up and reform. Their rhetoric overvalued the power of the ballot and the individual voter with an optimism, if not naivety, that is misaligned with the more realistic, if not pessimistic attitude of their audience.

In relation to public affairs, their reformism stands as a symbol of political ineffectiveness that deepened the alienation of citizens from their government. Consequently, they are bundled with the ruling elites, thus creating a spectacle wherein the people is pitted against the corrupt and feeble elite.  Simply put, the rise of populism in the Philippines and its electoral victories were due to liberals being perceived by populists and autocrats as a conservative force in a society craving for change.

Philippine populism is a caricature of liberalism crafted by the following factors. First is liberalism’s emphasis on the individual as a basic unit being turned on its head by traditional paternalism and dormant autocratic attitudes, thus creating the conditions for the electoral victories of Joseph Estrada and the incumbent Rodrigo Duterte.

For decades and in accordance with the constitution, politics was systematically reduced to individual voters and candidates. Albeit collective action was necessary in practice, personality politics in the Philippines was defined by both the individualistic rhetoric of politicians and those of liberal mobilizers who are keen on putting the individual voter upon a pedestal every three years. However, on one hand traditional politicians are capable of tapping into the paternalism of voters, framing public affairs and the provision of public goods in accordance with familial frames and practical patronage.

On the other hand, liberals and their rhetoric were left crawling on the ground of irrelevance with delusions of electoral success by having their own trapos in office, their members within the powerless side of congress, and national voter turnout enjoying relatively high rates that is due more to habitual voting than to mobilization. Second, and in relation to individualism, decades of electoral rhetoric sustained the different shades of the messianic hero inherent in traditional paternalism.

In conclusion, liberalism in the Philippines is an archaic and conservative movement that is misaligned with current realities and unaware of its purpose as a shield for the corrupting elements of the country. It is a weak movement composed of powerless political actors who see themselves as martyrs for a cause that many see as already irrelevant, if not a distraction from the general goal of ridding this country of corrupting elements at all costs.

– Anthony Borja


About IsangMamamayan

Anthony A. Borja M.A. in Political Science - De La Salle University; Ph.D. (Candidate) in Public Administration - Shanghai Jiao Tong University