The Dictator’s Threat and the Challenge to Realize Democracy Beyond the Ballot


The National Elections is one of the prized components of the democracy. With its ideal captured in the epithet “for the people, by the people, of the people,” democracy’s appeal arguably lies not just in the way it supposedly accounts for the interests of the majority but also in how they endow the people with venues for such interests to be tackled. In the prevalence of representative democracy however, it can be said that the election becomes the foremost way by which the people can act on their interests. People are given the chance to “elect” whomever they think can rightfully represent their interests in the government. But in this manner, democracy lessens the extent by which the people can directly participate in governance. Democracy is simplistically equated into casting votes during elections. This tenably comes at the expense of more meaningful and engaged forms of democratic participation such as the articulation of political opinions and social interests, taking part in the expansion of venues or platforms for such articulation or joining organization or groups which can engage the government in more sustained ways. Aside from this, the continued hopeful spinning of the “power of the vote” tend to obscure the loopholes in the very context where the elections take place.

Elections: the Limiting View of Democracy

I always find handy to quote Alain Badiou’s valiant description of democracy at a time when the popularity of this political system is undoubted. As it appears in Slavoj Zizek’s The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Badiou asserts that “Today the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It’s called Democracy.” To this, Zizek added that there is the persistence of the “democratic illusion… the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change… which blows any radical transformation of capitalist relations” (87).

As an annotative remark, I think that what both Badiou and Zizek particularly have in mind here is the election, the esteemed feature of democracies. With too rosy and too often positive estimation, the limits of elections are hardly pointed out. For instance, a classic description of elections derived from the Philippine Left is its being a game for the ruling class (“laro ng mga naghaharing-uri”). We all know that in order for one to have a legitimate chance of winning an electoral post, one has to have the funds and machineries to conduct campaign projects/initiatives (the higher the office, the bigger the geographical scope of the campaign is). Notably, this is one of the criteria of the Comelec in determining the nuisance candidates. Most of the numerous people who filed a Certificate of Candidacy for the Presidency were weeded out after their incapacity to launch a campaign of nationwide scope was claimed. With this, the set of choices from which the people can “freely” decide who to vote is mostly confined to the ruling class: the traditional politicians, the daughters and sons of former or current politicians, the daughters and sons of hacienderos or corporate moguls. It is at this point that we can buttress the point that the elections, more than enabling the people to realize democracy’s ideals, actually point to the deadlock in existing representative and liberal democracy. Here, the utterance “Kahit sinong manalo, wala namang pagbabago” – the words as tired as what they mean – reverberates. It seems that casting a vote come Election Day has been reduced to choosing the lesser evil. The creeping in of resignation when it comes to the elections is then connected to our inability, or perhaps refusal to look and work for opportunities that go beyond that supplied by the ballot. Following this, rallying behind a candidate posturing as a budding dictator can pose more complications than resolutions. Duterte’s candidacy may disturb the existing democratic setup, but the challenge to democracy he presents is allied to his self-glorification (precisely in the ‘dictatorial’ possibility) and not to the more meaningful empowerment of the larger population.

The Rise of the Dictator at the Expense of Democracy

Maria Ressa’s article “Duterte, his 6 contradictions and planned dictatorship,” published by Rappler can be a good reference in making sense of Duterte and the dictatorial tendency not just attributed to him but which he himself enacts and proclaims.

I interpret that four of the contradictions mentioned in Ressa’s article point to a singular idea: the first (breaking the law), third (leftist and dictator), fourth (womanizer and women’s rights advocate) and fifth (sexist and gay rights supporter) contradictions all reinforce while also shedding more light on a common interpretation of Duterte and what he stands for — a preference for an iron-hand, if not autocratic government, which can be instituted, with him at the top of things — if he wins.

In the article, Ressa spoke of Duterte’s “insistence on the maintaining the rule of law” and quotes the mayor, “Sabihin mo sa kanya, THIS is the law. Putang ina, pag hindi mo sinunod ang batas, putang ina ka sa akin.” But I posit that the meaning of dictatorship or a dictatorial tendency here must be plumbed beyond the surface. They amount neither just to the fierce, unbuckling imposition of the law, nor even just the trenchant equation of the law with the words of a singular entity, the dictator. Underlying these contradictions, a unique relationship of the ‘dictator,’ the superior political figure, to the law is being suggested.

It intimates the “state of exception” which the Italian scholar Giorgio Agamben talks about in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life: “The violence exercised in the state of exception clearly neither preserves nor simply posits the law, but rather conserves it in suspending it and posits it in excepting itself from it” (64, emphasis mine). At the same time that Duterte doggedly affirms the inviolability of the law, he is not secretive about his own violations, or perceivable willingness to violate it, as we can see in Ressa’s article. Hence, the suspension of the law in order to “except” one from it adds weight to the supremacy of the ‘dictator.’ The closer the personality is to this image, the more the ideals of democracy are to fade. The more the applicability of the law is defined by a singular power, the less the people can claim for their active participation in the management of society. But the same premise can be the enabling condition for people to work together in skirting the singularly enforced law and challenging its very maintenance.

This brings us to the curiosity: a budding dictator’s popularity in a country that usually celebrates its being a “democracy.” I was reminded of Jaime Oscar Salazar’s thoughts about the film “Heneral Luna” at the peak of its fame. In the conclusion of his post “The General Lunacy of Empire posted at the Young Critics Circle Film Desk, Salazar spoke of “our paternalist lunacies” and our being “besotted by authoritarianism” (2015). A sentence earlier he referred to “an electoral season that has been marked by the resurgence of popular longings for the caress of an iron hand, for the smell of ‘gold and blood and flame’ (2015)” which I read as having Duterte in mind. To what extent can we affirm that the popularity of Duterte (and to an extent, the character of Heneral Luna) is tied to our yearning for “authoritarianism” and our perhaps unrecognized paternalism? What could this question imply to the state of our oft-boasted democracy and our changing evaluations of our role as political citizens in our society?

Forgoing Responsibility?

I can hazard to imply a correlation between the popularity of Duterte, particularly his persona as a budding ‘dictator,’ and the changing ways by which we appreciate our role in a democracy. I surmise that what is bubbling underneath is a quiescent wish to let a singular power see to it that the law – seen as a primordial factor in bringing about order in society — will be enforced. This is in contrast to a more encompassing view: a view where law is seen not just as something shakeable or contestable but also where the very participation and engagement of the people is entailed in its continual reassertion or re-examination. We can even go beyond the hardcore, sometimes limiting frame provided by the law and legalities. We can include in the agenda of our participation and engagement not just the content and execution of the law but more vitally the larger conditions that both comprise and enable democracy: the education of the citizens, the improvement of their living situations, the provision of healthcare to keep them mentally sound and physically fit among others. Following this view, greater responsibility is placed upon the entirety of the citizenship. The state of the affairs of a national community is not just for an elected autocratic personality to steer; it is for everyone to be concerned with.

In the end, this is tied to a broadening, nay, a revisiting of the ideals of democracy. We confine its substance and applicability to regular elections. We hardly appreciate, even actualize the idea that democracy should be about us, the citizens – the supposedly principal and systematic roles we should be playing in our political and societal organization: from creating multifarious venues where our interests and issues will be tackled and determined to the very programs which will reflect these interests.

People's assemblies as a feature of democracy (Kuha ito ni Jesa)
People’s assemblies as a feature of democracy (Kuha ito ni Jesa)

Democracy is not just about us selecting between the haciendero or the self-made woman, the celebrity or the dictator come elections. Democracy is not just about the established institutions and the personalities which are on top of such institutions. Democracy is about you and me and our daily, sweaty and excruciating experiences on the ground and the potential of us establishing platforms where common interests can be asserted and coming up with programs on how to materialize them concertedly.

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