Democracy and the Left in the Philippines

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In the Philippine presidential election in May, Bongbong Marcos Jr., the son of Ferdinand Marcos, received nearly thirty million votes, representing 59% of the total, far more even than Duterte in 2016. The main contender, Leni Robredo, received less than half Marcos’ total. In a response penned for Sublation Magazine, Eunice Barbara C. Novio attributed the overwhelming victory to manipulation. Novio’s article added a caveat to the Maoist formula that some voters “vacillate” between “democracy and imperialism” — in this case, the “old elites have discovered in social and digital media new tools to maintain power.”


It is counterintuitive to claim that the popular vote does not reflect public sentiment — an analysis the Left nevertheless often prefers when it comes to Philippine elections. Joseph Scalice, for instance, has argued Marcos’s win arises out of a historical “mass despair at the possibility of a democratic solution to the country’s immense social ills.” Rather than admit that thirty million votes constitute a strong mandate, Scalice claims the electorate overtly embraces dictatorship, which must be countered by independent working-class organizing: “The fight for democracy must become the fight for socialism.”


Another example can be found in the Twitter post shared by Walden Bello entitled “FUCK YOU, MARCOS, THE BATLLE HAS JUST BEGUN.” In his post, Bello claimed the president’s administration would fail to fulfill its promises, undermining its coalition. This would in turn produce a legitimation crisis and split the bureaucracy, military, and electoral base. Considering the coming destabilization, Bello believes that “the conditions under heaven are excellent” for growing a democratic socialist mass base in the Philippines.


Slavoj Žižek said something similar after the election of Trump. And yet, if the decline of social democratic politics worldwide is any indicator, the circumstances for organizing socialist politics seem less than ideal. The Philippine Left is in no better shape than SYRIZA, Podemos, Sanders, or Corbyn, and one need look no further than the poor showing of Bello’s Partido Laban ng Masa (Fight of the Masses) at the polls to gauge the chances for social democracy in the Philippines. Bello garnered only ninety thousand votes for his vice-presidential run.


Journalist Manuel Quezon more reasonably attributes the success of Marcos to his running mate, Sara Duterte — Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter — who was elected vice-president by a landslide.[1] Quezon believes Marcos boosted Duterte in Luzon, while Duterte amplified her running partner’s votes in Mindanao — in certain instances, by a margin of more than 1000% since the 2016 VP election that Marcos narrowly lost toRobredo.


Even if the Duterte-Marcos coalition fractures, a constitutional crisis is unlikely. Philippine politics lacks party discipline, and congresspeople often gravitate to the winning coalition. In the event that the government is significantly delegitimized, does Bello expect to ally with Robredo’s discredited Liberal Party? Bello considers the latter to embody the crisis of neoliberalism and the collapse of the “ideological scaffolding” of the “EDSA republic”[2] — in which the Left was embroiled by dint of association with the Liberals. Can an opposition — particularly one tainted and ideologically fragmented — pull off a Hilary Clinton-style “resistance,” undermining Marcos every step of the way through street protests (à la BLM in 2020) and black propaganda (e.g., Russiagate)? That the Americans find Marcos a predictable (and hence more palatable) alternative to Duterte certainly doesn’t help.


The problem for Bello’s Laban ng Masa is its default “fight the right” people’s coalition orientation. Bello has previously associated the rise of Duterte with an attack on the “substance and discourse of liberal democracy.” If his party continues to promote the same sort of united front as before, yet another alliance with the Liberal Party — tacit though it may be — is all but inevitable. And, thus far, it appears that activists recruited out of anti-Duterte and anti-Marcos sentiment are, as with the “never Trumpers” in the Democratic Socialists of America, of a petit-bourgeois composition.


There is, of course, another option, pursued by the Maoist Weather Underground or the social democratic Light-a-Fire Movement under Marcos Sr.: to force “chaos under heaven” with random bombings. This is not a program for Bello, who many years ago admitted the Left’s key failure was not appreciating the fact that “unless you are tried and tested in the electoral battle, you’re not accorded legitimacy.”[3]


Bello’s insight drew upon experience within the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, which fractured in large measure due to its failure to participate in the 1986 “people power” uprising. When Novio claims “The elite were protecting their own when they drafted the [1987] constitution,” she echoes Maoist estimation of elections as a bourgeois farce. While a Trotskyist, Scalice similarly considers “formal democracy” an “apparatus of elite rule, bent on preserving existing property holdings.” Scalice argues the “country’s constitution and elections” bear no relation to the “democratic tradition of the masses.” Of the opposing “two democracies,” Scalice considers the former, liberal democracy, as a scapegoat for Marcos, and martial law as a solution.


This returns us to the explaining away of Marcos’s landslide victory with mental gymnastics. On the one hand, “formal democracy” is a farce,on the other hand, it was used by Marcos in an overwhelming electoral win — for Novio, out of manipulation, for Bello, as a prelude to delegitimation, for Scalice, to implement martial law. Of course, Marcos has made no such claim, and Scalice must rely on the acts of the elder Marcos some fifty years ago. It is guilt by association.


What these accounts express, yet fail to consider, is the antinomian character of democracy. As Walter Benjamin points out, modernity is riven by “insoluble antinomies.”[4] In this view, there is no battle for democracy, only the battle of democracy. Democracy is a crisis state within which Marxists wage (or used to wage) the “permanent political campaign of the working class.” One of German Social Democracy’s founders, Karl Kautsky, synthesized the “social and political action” of the broad exploited masses through the political party for socialism and civil-social organizations. When Scalice says that “The fight to defend democracy must become the fight for socialism,” he neglects that, for Marxism, the masses would not merely defend democracy, but work through the “self-contradictory struggle of socialism and its tasks.” Scalice’s “two democracies” — the democracy of the masses versus that of the elites — flattens what was once contradictory into an “antinomy of having to choose between social movement activism and political activity.”


With the election of Marcos, we are not “witnessing the death rattle of democracy” but rather its contradictions. What is needed is not a “democracy of the masses” or a “people’s coalition” to preserve the erosion of democratic rights under the Marcos-Duterte presidency — after all, Marcos now holds a popular mandate based on a supermajority — but a Left that is cognizant of and able to organize the symptomology of its own defeat, that is able to become aware of, and ultimately work through its own contradictory historical basis.

[1] Sara Duterte won 61% of the vote for vice-president, which is voted for separately from the president in the Philippine system.

[2] So-called for the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue on which the public converged with military rebels to overthrow the Marcos government in 1986.

[3] Nathan Quimpo, “The Left, Elections, and that Political System in the Philippines, Critical Asian Studies, 37:1 (2005): 9.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 2 Part 2, 768-782, ed. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith Editorial Board (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 771.