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Antidemocratic move | Inquirer Opinion

Recently, some groups moved to eliminate an aspirant from the presidential race through petitions based on a cold interpretation of the law. They framed their narrative as deriving from the alleged false representation in the aspirant’s certificate of candidacy and a Court of Appeals case against him which became final in 2001. They insist on this narrative even though the aspirant had been previously elected to various public positions and the issue was never raised in the past elections.

Incidentally, some of those closely associated with this ploy are also leaders of a coalition that has presented itself as an anti-administration umbrella organization of pro-democracy groups.

What these groups seem to overlook is that their eagerness to eliminate the aspirant from the race through a “lawfare” strategy reflects their antidemocratic tendencies — their fear that their preferred aspirant will lose, and thus the inclination to curtail instead effective participation in the elections.

Section 1, Article 2 of the 1987 Constitution reminds us of two important guidelines as far as Philippine elections are concerned: (1) the Philippines is a democratic state, and (2) sovereignty resides in the people. There are essential democratic principles that are incorporated in these guidelines.

One essential democratic principle is forbearance. Merriam-Webster defines it as an act of “refraining from the enforcement of something…” It presupposes the existence of a right. But the right is deliberately not enforced to protect a greater good. Scholars believe that this principle is important to preserve the democratic system.

History has shown that the failure to exercise forbearance has often resulted in the resort to legal hardball among political players, with serious consequences for the democratic system. This was what happened in Perón’s Argentina, Maduro’s Venezuela, and Lugo’s Paraguay. In Allende’s Chile, the failure led to a democratic breakdown. The recent attempt to use the law to eliminate a hated aspirant based on a technicality fall under the same category.

The fear of losing seems to animate the legal hardball strategy to keep this one aspirant out of the race. The correlation between fear and forbearance is not something new in democratic literature. In their analysis of how democracies die, Harvard University scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted that “When the perceived cost of losing is sufficiently high, politicians will be tempted to abandon forbearance.” The current legal hardball strategy does appear to be caused by fear and a lack of appreciation of forbearance as a democratic principle.

However, credit must be given where it is due. Another aspirant distanced herself from the issue by saying that it “doesn’t make sense” for her to seek her rival’s technical elimination. She deserves credit for her stance. But since some proponents of the legal hardball strategy are also her supporters, she might want to consider encouraging such supporters to revisit their strategy and just let the Filipino people decide next year.

After all, the Filipino people, as the true sovereign, should be given the right to choose their leaders through the ballot box. That choice should not be limited or taken away from them through any form of legal maneuver.

And this brings us to another essential democratic principle, which is effective participation. In one of his works, Yale University scholar Robert Dahl traced the origin and development of democracy in Greece, Rome, and Italy and concluded that favorable conditions are needed for democracy to function properly. One of these conditions is effective participation—essentially, that the members of a society must be given “effective opportunities for making their views known.”

In a democracy, one way to make a person’s views known is through elections. But these views cannot be effectively known if the choices are curtailed simply for the sake of winning an election. They cannot be effectively known if the antidemocratic persuasions of one party or group are allowed to unduly interfere with the electoral exercise.

Aspirants, supporters, and other stakeholders must consider that the May 2022 elections are not simply about election victory. In the grander scheme of things, it is about Philippine democracy and how we choose to preserve it.

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Gian Paolo S. Ines is the chair of San Beda University’s Department of Political Science.

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