Democracy in the Philippines has been gravely wounded

Hundreds marched in support of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on May 11 in Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)
Hundreds marched in support of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on May 11 in Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

The recent decision by our Supreme Court to remove a sitting chief justice — whom President Rodrigo Duterte had declared his “enemy” — is nothing short of chilling. With one swift move, the high tribunal has succumbed to executive overreach, surrendered its judicial independence and reneged on its very duty to defend the constitution.

Our constitution is clear: The best way to hold accountable and remove high-ranking government officials is through the process of impeachment, in which the House of Representatives initiates all cases of impeachment and the Senate is convened as a court. With this ruling, our system of checks and balances has been seriously undermined and now tilts heavily in favor of Duterte. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the national organization of lawyers in the Philippines, has called the granting of the quo warranto petition brought against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno “fatally flawed.”

But it is consistent with Duterte’s strategy to silence all critics. Senator Leila de Lima was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Vice President Leni Robredo was sacked as housing czar and is facing a serious disqualification complaint from the unrepentant son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales has been threatened with impeachment. The country’s human rights commission was almost defunded. And media outlets and personalities have been harassed with legal cases or banned from doing their work.

The Philippines has not had a glowing reputation of late when it comes to upholding democratic values. Our ranking in the 2017-2018 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index has plummeted to 88th out of 113 countries. This is down 18 places from where we were a mere two years ago. Of the 15 countries from Asia and the Pacific region that were included in the report, the Philippines placed a dismal 13th. This is a shame for a country that has had a long history of commitment to the principles of human rights and transparency. Thirty-two years ago, in a People Power uprising that toppled a dictator, the Philippines became a beacon of democracy in the region. Despite its shortcomings, the historic event returned the country to the path of democratization.

Now, that democracy is gravely wounded. It is facing perhaps the direst threat to its existence since the Marcos dictatorship. Our country’s institutions of governance and culture of democracy are being fundamentally assaulted. Philippine democracy is in the dark.

But for all this darkness, I continue to have faith in the Filipino people. It will fall upon the media, academia and every citizen to come to the aid of our democratic institutions.

It’s so easy to be cynical. Cynicism can be convenient. In much the same way that it’s far easier to abandon things than to defend them, it can feel tempting to give up on democracy.

But if the history of my country has shown me anything, it is that we will always find our way back to democracy. Some of us may falter along the way and be seduced by authoritarian shortcuts, but the great multitude of us will eventually push back. My country survived and defeated a dictator before. We weathered the strongest typhoon in recorded human history. We will overcome and be stronger. All storms pass and all tyrants fall, and darkness will give way to a bright dawn.

Risa Hontiveros is a senator in the Philippine congress from the leftist political party Akbayan.

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