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Barry M. Gutierrez: Desperation for the silver lining

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It is time to stop mincing words. Our democracy is under attack. It has been for the past 18 months ever since Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 16th President of the Philippines, delivered in his inaugural speech a seemingly innocuous message to two Constitutional bodies intended to check Executive power – Congress and the Commission on Human Rights.

The message? “You mind your work and I will mind mine.”

While on the surface this seemed to be a simple enough plea to let him do the job he was elected to do, it reflects a perspective that is fundamentally at odds with a basic principle of our republican democracy, checks and balances.

Under our form of constitutional government, each branch is SUPPOSED to mind the actions of the others. They are not expected to work in separate silos, oblivious and indifferent to the acts of other branches, but rather, they are expected to ensure that everyone plays by the rules and that no one oversteps the bounds of their authority.

Thus the President is empowered to veto laws he or she believes Congress was ill-advised in passing, courts can review and declare legally invalid acts of various agencies, the Ombudsman can discipline public officers, and, lest we forget, Congress can impeach the President. Ultimately, this system of mutual oversight assures the public that power will always be exercised within the bounds of the Constitution – the basic contract between the people and the State – and that the rise of tyrants will be prevented.

This principle of mutual, continuing oversight is so central to republican democracy that its responsibilities extend even to institutions outside of government. The media, civil society, the academe, individual citizens, and even international bodies such as the United Nations and its organs, are all expected to play their own respective roles as watchdogs to prevent the abuse of official power and to ensure accountability when required.
Thus, in a functioning democracy, everyone minds each other.

We are well past feudal times when everyone was simply supposed to mind their places in life and in society; with ruling the exclusive
purview of kings, spiritual matters the sole domain of the church, and with common peasants simply expected to accept their harsh lot in life.

However, this appears to be unacceptable to President Duterte and his administration.

Since his inauguration, he has consistently attacked every institution that has attempted to exercise their duty of oversight: the Commission on Human Rights, the Ombudsman, the courts, the Senate, the United Nations, the Church, civil society, the media.

His allies in Congress have attempted the de facto abolition of the CHR, have embarked on a relentless campaign of defamation against a sitting Senator and the Chief Justice, have sat on the renewal of media franchises, and, just recently, proposed the abolition of Ombudsman, the Office of the Vice President, and the Judicial and Bar Council.

His Securities and Exchange Commission, just a few days ago, ordered the dissolution and closure of the online news site Rappler, an organization that has repeatedly been on the receiving end of public attacks by the President himself.

Clearly, the President’s aversion to any form of oversight, save that formally administered by entities run by his own pandering allies, has long crossed over from being a line in an inauguration speech to a full-fledged policy being implemented with the full might of the national government.

It is time to draw the line if our democracy is to survive. It is time to discard our desperation to look for the silver lining in even the most patently unconstitutional acts of this administration.

It is time to accept that Ferdinand Marcos was not buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani because “the law allowed it,” but because President Duterte wanted it to pay off a political debt. It is time to realize that Senator Leila De Lima is not incarcerated “because there is a strong case against her,” but because President Duterte wanted a vivid illustration of what fate awaited any who dared stand up to him. It is time to stop justifying Rappler’s closure with the supposed fact “that they violated the Constitution,” and embrace the simple truth that President Duterte has long wanted them silenced.

There is no silver lining. There is only the unapologetic, unrestrained, and unscrupulous exercise of government power to regress our democracy into a tyranny.

The sooner we realize this hard, difficult truth, the sooner we can get to actually doing something about it.