MANILA, JULY 29, 2005
(STAR) FROM A DISTANCE By Carmen N. Pedrosa - Democracy is a word often bandied around but hardly understood. This is true not only here but also in more sophisticated countries. With the debate on charter change heating up, it is worthwhile to examine the meaning of the word we are fighting about because it has been so misused. Some use it to describe public massing even if we know that the crowds were gathered by ‘hakot’. We also use it to describe the election of popular actors and broadcasters no matter why and how they were chosen by the ‘people’ as ‘democratic’. I think that in both instances the use of the word ‘democracy’ can and should be challenged.

In his best-selling book Setting the People Free’ The Story of Democracy, John Dunn tracks down the evolution of the word, what it meant to the Athenians who originated it and how it is now understood and used. To the Athenians, he says democracy was self-rule and a "price they chose to pay to protect their freedom as well as an expression of that freedom in itself." This is not always true in our time. Democracy is often used as a political ideal rather than as a form of rule. Both the idea and the reality are all too often mangled. The invasion of Iraq to make it ‘democratic’ is a good example when democracy was used as a political ideal but did not translate into the Athenian concept of self-rule. It may not be possible to protect our freedom in the same way as the Athenians did but as Dunn asserts that ‘freedom still needs protection’, and we must find a method or structure of government through which that freedom can be protected. The time and place may have changed but the Athenian quest for freedom is also our quest.

If we are to emulate the first organizers of ‘democracy’ we must search for solutions that come closest to what the Athenians wanted. ‘Democracy’, self-rule or direct participation by every qualified citizen in government met the needs of a small polis at the time. As society evolved, the meaning of democracy also evolved. Because larger communities had to be governed, self-rule became impractical. That was how representative democracy came to be. It resonated in town hall meetings of early America.

If we were to follow the Athenians’ path of self-rule, we need to adopt a system that would confront the size of our country’s population. We need a way through which citizens could participate in government or at least come as close as possible to government. Obviously in the Philippines, with more than 80 million people to govern in a unitary system,, ‘democracy’ is a very real problem. Democracy to us like most others means ‘representative democracy’ with others governing us. The larger the unit, the less people are able to participate or be involved in governance.

To be democratic in the Athenian sense of the word, we must reduce the size of government into manageable units. To me that is what makes federalism so attractive to many countries today. It is the modern day equivalent of political problem solving to achieve a democratic society as the Athenians had wanted. The federalist principle empowers smaller units of community so governance is more efficient. It is also more ‘democratic’ in the true sense of the word because more citizens, although not all, are able to participate in governance.

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We should be grateful if the Swiss government, being a good example of a federal system, should want to help us achieve what they did. In Switzerland, the people govern through referendums on substantial issues. As someone once asked me — does anyone know who the president of Switzerland is? It is not a perfect country but as far as federalism is concerned, they can teach us a thing or two.

There has been a recent upsurge of the spread of federalism and it has become fashionable to say it is the wave of the future because many countries have found in it the answer to some of their more difficult political problems. Other countries apart from Switzerland with federal systems are the US, Germany, Belgium and Canada in the developed world (with the exception of the US all are federal countries with parliamentary government) and Malaysia, our next door neighbor which is phenomenally successful. Indonesia as I said in an earlier column is watching Philippine efforts and are as eager to follow.

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Speaking of Canada, the Philippine-Canadian Centre, a Manila-based non-profit organization of Filipino-Canadians will hold a one-day conference on Federalism on Thursday, August 11, 9:30 a.m.- 3 p.m., at the Shangri-la EDSA Plaza Hotel in Ortigas Center. The Embassy of Canada is supporting the one-day invitational conference/forum on the federal and parliamentary forms of government and other issues.

"Prospects for Federalism: The Canadian context" will have three speakers from Canada: Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, a Filipino-Canadian who served as a member of Parliament and a Cabinet minister in the administrations of Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin; Dr. J. Peter Meekison from the University of Alberta, and Dr. Rupak Chattopadhyay from the Forum of Federations.

I have been invited as one of the reactors to the presentations. Dr. Pagtakhan will discuss the dynamics of Canadian parliamentary politics, the qualifications and the powers of the Prime Minister, the role and functions of the Cabinet and their ministers, the issue of minority governments, and the role of the opposition and the party system.

Dr. Meekison and Dr. Chattopadhyay will be discussing such significant topics as Canadian parliamentary and federal history, the institutions of government such as the House of Commons, the electoral system, the legislative process, the division of powers, equalization between provinces, and resolution of conflicts between provincial and federal powers. They will also discuss ethical issues as accountability and the commitments of representation. The conference aims to enrich the current discourse in the Philippines on the proposed shift to the parliamentary and federal forms of government.

The organizers hope that insights can be gained in the conference that will provide theoretical and practical guidance to Filipino legislators, policy and decision-makers as they attempt to model a form of government that best responds to the needs of the people. It may be relevant to note that Canada’s federal system was in response to problems between the English-speaking and French-speaking populations. It was a response to a problem on how differing cultures can co-exist in one political entity.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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