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7/12/2018 7:57:56 AM

Philippine Chief Justice Sereno’s undemocratic ouster



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We Filipinos routinely call our country a republic and equate freedom with democracy. In fact, the very first principle our Constitution declares is that “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State.”

And yet our Supreme Court, in its recent decision and follow-up resolution ousting Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, did not feel the need to address the one question many democratic republics would have asked regarding the decision: should unelected judges second-guess the moral judgment of a previous, popularly elected president on a political issue?

The peculiar way Filipinos interpret political history may have much to do with this. Call it the Padrino Cycle. It is an interpretation which makes our democracy not only unrepublican in practice, but also dangerous to freedom.

The Padrino Cycle is the sense that nothing really changes in Philippine government except for the rotation of a handful of politically powerful families whose heads, i.e., padrinos, take turns either taking up residence at the Presidential Palace or falling from grace. The cycle continuously churns. Three examples: first, a revolution deposed the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and yet thirty years later he was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of Heroes) and his son almost won the elections for Vice-President; second, mass protests deposed President Joseph Estrada in 2001, and yet he almost won back the Presidency in 2010 and is now the mayor of the country’s capital; third, Benigno Aquino III won the Presidency in 2010 by a very wide margin, but is now facing multiple criminal charges while some of his top political allies are under severe assault.


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A somewhat defensible premise of the Padrino Cycle is a presentist notion of democracy. That is, the will of The People today is reflected in the last elections. Or at least, electoral losers and the rest of the populace must submit to the will of the electorally victorious plurality in most if not all matters of public policy and legal enforcement. A more cynical (some would say realist) premise of the cycle is that government positions are mainly sources of patronage which may be captured. Who captures them—i.e., who gets to feed at the public trough—is the group who wins during the last election.
Padrino Cycles have in fact been the reality of local politics since the country’s first municipal elections in 1901. Across the archipelago, two rival groups in each municipality, city, or province have typically fielded candidates in winner-take-all local elections where the victorious get whatever they can get away with, and the losers get (at best) the strict enforcement of law.

Many Filipinos accept this practice, which political scientists call “discriminatory legalism”, because today’s losers could very well be tomorrow’s winners. Every group sooner or later gets its turn. As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remarked last year, “Weather-weather lang and buhay.” This is a famous Filipino adage, which means that life’s ups and downs are seasonal. In politics, the Padrino Cycle eventually brings rainfall and sunshine to all competing electoral groups. One must simply take cover during typhoons.

Political discourse in the Philippines today, where everyone is branded as either a Dutertard (i.e., a Duterte supporter) or a Dilawan (i.e., not a Duterte supporter), reflects the logic of the Padrino Cycle. It is inherently unrepublican. Derived from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing” or “public affairs”, the term republic refers to polities which give all politically relevant groups a part in policymaking and governance—not on rotation, but all the time. The aim is to encourage all such groups to pursue the common good and respect each other’s rights, prerogatives, and privileges. The Dutertard vs. Dilawan frame undermines this aim by making politics a “partisan thing” or a matter of “partisan affairs” where some politically relevant groups are brusquely excluded from policymaking and governance.

The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines features many classical institutions of republicanism: separation of powers, checks and balances, staggered elections and terms of office, a Bill of Rights, etc. These institutions are designed to channel political energies through democratic processes where the coöperation, compromise, and coalition-building needed to succeed would encourage citizens to champion collective norms, consider complementary interests, and pursue win-win solutions. Discriminatory legalism defeats this republican aim of po



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