Deconstructing the “strong republic”

Some say that we should not take State of the Nation Addresses (Sonas) too seriously; they are just words.  That we should look instead at the actual impact of government on the lives of the governed.  Are the masses less hungry?  Do they have jobs?  Are they more hopeful about the future?

That is a valid reminder.  But we should also be interested in the way a government represents its goals.  For this we turn to the annual Sona.  Here we get a glimpse of its self-understanding and its illusions, its dilemmas and its inclinations.

This year’s Sona sums up the goals of the Macapagal presidency into a call to build “a strong republic.”  Why “republic,” and not nation, or people?  The term “republic” refers to a specific form of government, and is often equated with the presidential form.  Strengthening the republic could be taken as closing the door to constitutional change. In contrast, the strengthening of a “nation” or “people” expresses a firmer commitment to democracy or the elimination of mass poverty, while keeping an open mind about the form of government.

The studious avoidance of concepts like “strong state” or “strong government” is obvious, even if, in fact, they capture more precisely the nuances of the President’s message.  We know that such terms are often used as euphemisms for authoritarian regimes.  But the preference for “strong republic” over the relatively more open-ended “strong nation” and “strong people” suggests a commitment to conservative rule that seems inconsistent with the experimental reformism of Edsa II.  Let’s examine this vision as the President describes it:

“Two essential features mark out a strong republic.  The first is independence from class and sectoral interests so that it stands for the interests of the people rather than of a powerful minority.  The second is the capacity, represented through strong institutions and a strong bureaucracy, to execute good policy and deliver essential services—the things that only governments can do.”

“The results of these two features—good policies and empowered institutions—is faster economic development and social reform.  A strong republic takes care of the people and takes care of their future. Thus, a strong republic is the bedrock of the victory we seek over poverty within the decade.”

The President (or her speechwriter) is clearly aware of the standard meaning of the concept of republic: supreme power resides in the people and is exercised by the representatives they elect, who remain accountable to them.  She underscores the need for government to be “independent from class and sectoral interests,” a phrase that echoes the progressive republican Samuel Bowles’s objection to “the unceasing effort of incorporated and syndicated wealth to conduct national affairs at the expense of the great body of the people.”  Yet, in the context of our times, she may well be referring to civil society groups, the sector that made it possible for her to become president but is now largely critical of her.

If the President were faithful to the core meaning of the word “republic”, one imagines her first concern might have been to ensure that the voice of the people is correctly recorded during elections, and that they are able to continue holding accountable those who make decisions in their name.  But this is not in the agenda of the President.  She mentions the word “republic” 27 times but is totally silent about the need to plug the loopholes in our electoral system, defects that have made it easy to thwart the will of the people. Neither does “civil society” figure anywhere in this year’s Sona, except as an angry force battling with the police as the President spoke.

Clearly what President Macapagal has in mind is a strong state.  This is what the curious phrase “empowered institutions” implies.  In a democracy, power resides in the people. Institutions are the tools of this power.  We want our institutions to be functional and stable, but it is either senseless or dangerous for us to call for their empowerment. Senseless because institutions are already authorized by the state, and dangerous if by this we mean vesting them with immunity from public scrutiny and accountability.  Institutional power comes from the people, even if many a time, adventurous wielders of state power have tried to reverse this relationship.

Like a head of state impatient for results, President Macapagal stresses the need for government to have the capacity to “execute good policy and deliver essential services.” This sounds too much like a plea to be spared the rigors of political debate.  Not too long ago, Marcos used the same reasoning to justify authoritarian rule.

By coincidence, the 2002 Global Human Development Report, titled “Deepening democracy in a fragmented world”, was launched last week in Malacanang Palace itself.  Its opening statement has these words: “Politics matter for human development because people everywhere want to be free to determine their destinies, express their views and participate in the decisions that shape their lives.  These capabilities are just as important for human development – for expanding people’s choices – as being able to read or enjoy good health.”

These are the sentiments of Edsa II but they are nowhere to be found in GMA’s Sona II.

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My new book, “Nation, Self and Citizenship”, compiles some of the more sociological of my columns and is organized as an introduction to Filipino sociology.  I am inviting friends and readers to its launch tomorrow, July 29, 4 p.m., at the Balay Kalinaw, UP Diliman campus.


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