Our weak institutions

Pundits, pubic intellectuals, political analysts and media practitioners have spoken and written about the decay of our national institutions. This seemingly unstoppable process threatens the very existence of the   Philippines.  Our country used to be called the “showcase of democracy” in Asia, do we still deserve that honor, no matter how dubious?  No one has ever bothered to explain to the electorate what our institutions are and why we should keep these strong and unsullied. Candidates for elective positions have waffled on this vital issue, so it has never surfaced during electoral debates, nor along the campaign trail.

Exactly what is an institution? Admittedly, it is hard to explain. That is probably why politicians of whatever level have studiously avoided discussing the problem of weak institutions.  To begin with, it is difficult to translate the word into Tagalog and other vernacular languages. Most media commentators use “ ïnstitusyon” which is an hispanismo and an anglicismo as well. It is much too literal a translation.    What kind of institutions existed during pre-colonial times? What were these called?   I will have to ask Mr. Rio Almario, National Artist for Filipino Literature. Rio and his team translated into Tagalog the monumental dictionary compiled by early Spanish missionaries, Juan de Noceda and Pedro Sanlucar, during the point of contact. He must have come across pre-colonial words and concepts related to institutions that we can use today.

The pillar institutions of our democratic system are the Senate, House of Representatives, the Executive and Judiciary, so are the Armed Forces, the National Police, education, health and civilian bureaucracy.  From my perch, I can see that they all need retrofitting as they have been corroded and disfigured by malpractice and by authoritarian leaders.

Which of these endangered and weakened institutions need immediate and intensive care?  In my opinion, all of the above, but we should begin with the entire electoral process, with special attention given to the political party system. What we now refer to as political parties are nothing more than unstable cats’ cradles of alliances bereft of ideology and platforms. Protean politicians fly from party-to-party, flaunting disloyalty and personal interests.  Today, a political party is nothing more than an electoral apparatus run by image-makers and fund raisers, fueled by a   porosity between politics and showbiz.

In a recent article titled “Strongman rule versus strong institutions” the erudite Prof. Randy David gave us a clear picture of what is at stake in the May 2022 elections. He said that strongmen view strong institutions as an obstruction, so they do not favor an independent judiciary, an assertive legislature nor a professional civilian bureaucracy.

That explains the quo warranto petition of Solicitor General Jose Calida against erstwhile Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the ab initio case hurled at former Sen. Antonino Trillanes. Now we know why   Senator Richard Gordon of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is wedged between a rock and a hard place. The civilian bureaucracy has become the repository of retired military officers now in charge of defending us against local communists and the invasion of Covid and its deadly variants. Education has ignobly diluted the study of Philippine history.   Now we know why.

During a recent zoom session, my former classmates and I could not define institutions. We were appalled at our ignorance.  We never had a subject called “Philippine Institutions 101”, like they do in most state universities, but that is not an excuse. Mention the word institution and we immediately think of the Catholic Church and the Vatican, marriage, the family, Holy Orders, the Santo Niño, Christmas, pilgrimages to Lourdes; all have perdured. We tapped Google for a definition which turned out to be a   list of intangibles: Institutions are norms set by a society, established ways of doing things, rules of behavior that insure the harmonious existence of a State. I felt I had to add some tangibles, heritage structures such as the imposing Manila Post Office, the National Museum of the Philippines and its three American-vintage buildings, the art deco Quezon Institute, PGH, the admin building of the University of Santo Tomas. We arrived at no conclusions except that the strength of our institutions depends on the choices made by the voting population.

Does the Filipino electorate prefer to live under a constitutional democracy where solid institutions with co-equal powers work harmoniously towards national progress? Or, do voters prefer a Chief Executive who bullies the other institutions because these are obstructions to his personal agenda? We may have committed the same mistake twice; first, the Marcos martial law dictatorship which ended with People Power 1, then, stricken with amnesia, voters elected Mayor R. Duterte president. Indeed, the 2022 elections will be crucial to the strength or weakness of our institutions.