[My column in the Catalyst]
San Francisco, USA. Midway in the current direct democracy tour sponsored by the Initiative and Referendum Institute-Europe, Democracy International and Zocalo (Public Square), I realized the relevance of direct democracy in our current situation. The direct democracy mechanisms of people’s initiative, recall, referendum, plebiscite, and, at the local level, the barangay assembly have been introduced almost simultaneously in the American western states of California, Arizona, and Oregon during the first decades of the 20th century.
Certainly, these were asserted by the people in these states as a response to the capture of the State by the “robber barons” of the period, most notably the railroad companies and their owners. The period was marked by the massive corruption of public officials. The resulting failure of state governance institutions led many to espouse the strengthening of democracy by direct democratic actions. Inspired by the Swiss example of direct democracy, Hiram Johnson, a Californian lawyer campaigned for the inclusion of initiative, recall, and referendum in the state constitution. Similar movements appeared in Arizona and Oregon.
Direct democracy largely curbed the powers of elected officials, both executive and legislative, and made them more accountable to the people. Up to the present, these have played an important role in strengthening people’s participation in these states and form part of the practice of their democracy.
The current state of affairs in Philippine politics and governance roughly parallels the American West in the late 19th and early 20th century. Traditional politics, as we know it, has been made a preserve of the political and economic elite, who wield the instruments of “guns, goons, and gold” in order to maintain or grab power from each other through electoral fraud and violence.
Increasingly, money—including those coming from illegal gambling, drugs, smuggling, and other criminal activities—defined the arena and outcome of political contests. It is an open secret that candidates at all levels spent vast sums of money in order to bid for the posts they contest. A mayoral candidate of an average town now normally spends a minimum of five to ten million pesos in an electoral campaign he or she may not even win.
Many big business—be they foreign or local—are drawn to the game of electoral campaign financing as they themselves become attracted to the possibilities of vast profits offered by public-private partnership with corrupt public officials. Through every administration, these businessmen have built their businesses through government infrastructure contracts, licenses to exploit oil, mining and other resources, privatization of lucrative public assets, and services to the government.
Direct democracy provides the additional means (other than periodic elections) for the people to discipline their elected officials and the “robber barons” within the framework of strengthening Philippine democracy. The American West direct democracy experience says it can be done.