Are elections and international actors effective in promoting democracy?

Do elections guarantee democracy? Are international actors effective in promoting an agenda of change and democratization in the Philippine experience?

These are among the questions Fellows and researchers of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) explored in a Research Seminar held on June 7 to contextualize the May 10 elections in the wider social system and look at the role of all local and international actors in “democratizing” political processes in the Philippines.

The seminar came at an auspicious time when the Philippines has just gone through an automated election system participated in by international actors like service provider and technology vendor Smartmatic and observed by international governments and agencies, some of whom even sponsored observer missions to the country.


“Elections are a way of legitimizing rule. However, there are other ways of legitimizing the reign of leaders, such as through authoritarian rule and coercion and repression and revolutionary conquest of power,” said political scientist Dr. Temario Rivera, CenPEG vice-chair who facilitated the discussions. Rivera, a former chair of the University of the Philippines’ political science department in Diliman, is currently associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

Largely because of American tutelage, many Filipinos have learned to rely heavily on elections to maintain government since the first elections under U.S. colonialism were held at the turn of the 20th century when new village leaders were chosen under a new political regime.

However, Rivera said there are examples of legitimated authority where leaders are not accountable to the people. Among these are monarchies like Brunei, those in the Middle East, and in old England.

Legitimization was also done through revolutionary conquest of power in such countries as Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere that made themselves independent through their anti-tsarist and anti-colonial struggles. In many of these countries, the revolutionary struggles were led by workers parties and people’s armies guided by the socialist principle of proletarian dictatorship.

Western concepts of political legitimization, Rivera said, propound that the best way to do it is through democratic rule when leaders are chosen and made accountable to the people through predictable political mechanisms.

In the Philippines, the presidency is a powerful institution, with its power of the purse and appointment, development funding, political networks that can force realignments, and legitimate state powers.

Local political clans have survived even the support of political parties, or have created their own political parties, such as the Garcias in Cebu or the Josons in Nueva Ecija, Rivera noted.

Political parties

Meanwhile, he said, the differing electoral cycles for national and local officials have also weakened political parties operating on the national level because they tend to focus on personality campaigns, effectively dividing resources among the contending members.

In the Philippines, political parties are so weak that it cannot cope with internal dynamics and some are unable to cope, and overtaken by events. Many political clans won’t even bother with strengthening their own parties if they can win without a strong party. At the same time, political parties do not differ in ideology or substantial platforms, and thus, no substantial issue is posed by people flitting in and out of them.

With no strong demand for reforms within many political parties, there is no effective pressure for institution building or to champion significant reforms within the party system.


Rivera said one must distinguish between minimalist and maximalist conceptions of democratic rule. The minimalist concept promotes a procedural definition of democracy through free, competitive elections and the guarantee of civil liberties. The maximalist concept, however, insists on a more substantive definition that stresses empowerment of the people so they could be more effective in advancing their interests and achieve power, not just through elections and other procedures, but in actually achieving desired outcomes such as provision of socioeconomic and political relief, and actual participation in processes.

“That is the reason why in the Philippine Political Science Association, we are more careful in using terms and we use a lot of qualifiers, such as oligarchic democracy (to refer to elite-oriented politics),” said Rivera.

The participants agree that there is need to facilitate people’s empowerment and seek fundamental social changes, as mandated in the Philippine Constitution. Yet, democracy is defined as the rule of the majority, which means it should benefit the exploited and oppressed.


However, even without elections, certain socio-economic and political results can be achieved, as in Japan.

Rivera pointed out, however, that in some countries where socioeconomic goals were achieved, the party system has been weak.

Even activists, he said, have to recognize that so-called liberal reforms are progressive enough to lead to an upgrading of social, political and economic standards, such as the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the writs of habeas corpus and habeas data, and the formation of the International Criminal Court.

“We should support these developments as they help (the people) objectively,” he said.

Electoral procedures and civil liberties must be upheld for elections to be seen as credible, and for electoral results to be accepted by the competing elites and the people, he said, amid observations that in the Philippines, many voters are not politically enlightened to help them distinguish among the political programs promoted by those seeking public office.

The participants feel this explains the phenomenon of vote buying in the Philippines, and why some vote for politicians who they themselves feel do not have the people’s interests at heart. For instance, even farmers vote for politicians who are against agrarian reform or represent dynasties and oligarchies. Some sell their votes.

Weak institutions

All these also point to institutional weaknesses of election-related agencies like the Commission on Elections, the presence of weak governance amid a system of politically powerful oligarchies.

This phenomenon need not be exclusive to the Philippines, however. Rivera asserts that even in Western Europe, United States, Japan, and South Korea, democratization happened late as the process of nation building was promoted first.

In the Philippines, the weak state is shown by a highly politicized bureaucracy coupled by weak institutions of accountability, as exemplified by the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit, Comission on Human Rights and the Civil Service Comission. The weaker institutions have no capabilities to enforce even mundane state functions like peace and order, and taxation.

The saving grace of weak states in the modern world, however, is the big participation of civil society groups that provide services where the state fails. Said Rivera, the electoral process in weak states is not an effective mechanism in choosing leaders who can effectively challenge status quo. Elections are also weak mechanisms to compel leaders to facilitate social changes. Rather, they become a tool to perpetuate political dynasties.

Hence, to democratize, people should explore other mechanisms outside elections. One can make use of sectors and institutions that promote progressive tendencies. In South Korea, for instance, the chaebols or large, conglomerate family-controlled firms with strong ties with government agencies, were used to pressure the state to implement anti-corruption measures and make its economy more globally competitive.

International actors

International actors like the World Bank also played a role in decentralizing state functions and resources, primarily by transferring resources to non-government organizations that complemented state functions.

Outside intervention has been successful in states like Japan where the political and economic infrastructure is already existing, such as an industrial base and a meritocracy.

Reminded Rivera, institution building and reforms are best advanced when there is strong domestic demand for such reforms and an effective coalition or leadership is in place.

Change can also be possible if a president is committed to push for substantial reforms, create effective coalition, and will look for external resources and use them to implement a progressive agenda.

However, in many developing countries where democratization happened while institutions remained were weak, local elites were just strengthened, and resources became more concentrated in their hands.

Participants thus observed that “democratization” is being promoted by multilateral agencies that also push for market economies and liberalization. These aggressive intertwined approaches, it was noted, only led to the promotion of elite interests thus further weakening not only the economy but also the state system. Many failed states, after all, are actually products of external intervention, it was noted. (Nora Gamolo,

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