From Protest to Participation: Accountability Reform and Civil Society in the Philippines - Part 1

It is widely accepted that curbing corruption and other forms of particularistic behavior is one of the most daunting challenges of the Philippines in its pursuit of more democratic governance. The country’s inability to create an accountability regime composed of legitimate, empowered, and operative institutions, processes, and mechanisms have resulted to a major deficit that could have dire implications for its democratic quality. To a certain extent, any attempt to enforce accountability and uphold public ethics in the country’s fledgling democratic polity have met with stringent resistance both at the elite and mass levels. This was displayed when the impeachment of then president Joseph Estrada on charges of cronyism and corruption was aborted thereby opening the floodgates of the mobilization of public protest, more known as the 2001 “People Power” Revolt.

There are two conclusions that could be drawn in that very contentious political episode. On the one hand, it has put the issues of accountability and public ethics to the fore. Moreover, it also demonstrated yet again the awesome power of the country’s civil society – a robust sphere of social movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civic associations, and people’s organizations (POs) – in demanding accountability from the state (See Arugay 2004).

In the literature, there is an increasing recognition of the role of the civil society in fostering accountability especially in developing countries (Fox 2000; Pope 1996). For example, there has been an emerging interest in studying the roles of civil society in Latin American countries using the concept of “social accountability”. According to its proponents, it rests on the actions of a multiple array of citizen’s associations and movements and also the media in monitoring the actions of public officials, exposing governmental wrongdoing, and the activation of state agencies (Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2005: 9). This article asserts that there is substantial evidence that the role of certain civil society organizations in eliciting accountability is transcending the framework of contention and protest and embracing the more constructive task of contributing to accountability reform. This entails a series of changes and transformations that seek to improve institutions and mechanisms aimed at exacting accountability from the government. In the end, this shift of orientation of civil society towards a more participatory orientation would have a more direct, meaningful, and lasting impact to the crusade against corruption in the Philippines.

This article serves as a snapshot of existing initiatives of civil society and their engagement with relevant accountability agencies in order to improve accountability of both elected and appointed officials. It cannot lay claim to exhaustively map all state-civil society partnerships in combating corruption as it merely employs a purposive sample in order to highlight select areas of accountability reform. Data for this paper were gathered using documentary research, key informant interviews, and other secondary sources.

The first section discusses the treatment of existing scholarship on the role of the civil society in promoting democratic accountability. The second section provides evidence on the weakness of the country’s accountability institutions and correspondingly juxtaposes it to existing studies and indicators of corruption in the Philippines. The third section examines the various civil society initiatives and engagements aimed at improving accountable governance and to examine the dynamics of their participation with government institutions. By way of conclusion, this article generates some lessons and challenges for both state and civil society actors in their effort to institute accountability reform.

Civil Society and Accountability: Insights from Theory and Research
As a much-cherished principle, the idea of accountability has always received significant attention from both scholars and practitioners of democracy. From its beginnings in normative political philosophy to the incorporation of positivist approaches such as rational choice theory, there has been a relentless pursuit on how to ensure that those vested with authority are made accountable for their actions and decisions. As one scholar astutely observed, the “norm of accountability appears to be the most widely practiced of democratic principles. It is more prevalent in the world than freedom of association to compete for governmental office, or popular participation in authoritative decision-making, or the right to dissent from official policies without fear of retaliation” (Sklar 1987: 714).

The field of public administration has also contributed to the contemporary theorizing on accountability, particularly with the discourses on new public management (Behn 1998) and good governance by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank (1992; 1994) and the United Nations Development Programme (Newell and Bellour 2002). Accountability is largely interpreted as the construction of a code of conduct and performance and a set of standards to be utilized to assess government performance. They emphasized that accountability being a political principle is the monopoly of the state and its various institutions. Through the separation of powers, the recognition of fundamental rights and the system of check and balances, the modern constitutional state establishes the institutions that could curb any arbitrary exercise of power. For mechanisms of such accountability to function effectively, there is an extreme stress in the creation of a legal system enforced by the agencies of the state.

The extensive focus of the aforesaid scholarship on the role of formal political institutions in generating accountability greatly influenced the notion that the state alone has the primary claim over it. However, this has been more and more challenged with new theories provided by democratization and contentious politics discourses. For example, Schedler recognizes that the current evolution of the concept of accountability permits it with much flexibility. It should no longer be seen as a core of invariable basic characteristics but must be construed as a “radial concept” (1999: 17-18). Therefore, it could no longer be exercised in one way nor could it come from a single source (Borowiak 2004).

Among the debates on accountability, a nascent type that goes beyond elections and other institutions of the state is emergent. The concept of social accountability aims at incorporating the insights from the literature on civil society and the public sphere into the analysis of accountability. It posits that “the working of civic associations, nongovernmental organizations, social movements, and the like add not only new resources to the classic repertoire of electoral and constitutional institutions for controlling government but also can, on occasion, compensate for many of the built-in deficits of those mechanisms” (Peruzzotti and Smulovitz 2005: 9-10). This is manifested through exposing cases of governmental wrongdoing, activating horizontal agencies of control and monitoring the operation of those agencies, mechanisms of social accountability make a crucial contribution to the enforcement of the rule of law.

Social accountability best captures the developments in democratizing countries and the increasing complexity with regard to engagements between the state and civil society. According to O’ Donnell (2005), the main orientation of this type of accountability is not the satisfaction of material interests. This entails that existing theories of collective action based on rational choice might be limited in explaining the politics of social accountability. To a great extent, it is assumed that civil society actors are not interest groups that exert demands on the state based on expected utility. Like the discourses on new social movements, the demands of societal accountability are usually framed in the language of people’s legitimate rights or claims like human rights violations, environmental degradation, lack of access to justice, and corruption. Moreover, the dynamics of social accountability must be understood in the context of the process of democratization in most countries that have made the transition from authoritarian rule. Given that they are fledgling democracies, institutions that should perform accountability functions found themselves ineffective, ill equipped, severely limited, and captured by partisan interests.

However, the proponents of the concept of societal accountability admitted that initiatives aimed by civil society could have an enduring and meaningful impact towards democratic deepening and consolidation if they are able to translate them into the actual reform of institutions legally mandated to enforce accountability. Fox concurred by arguing that “civil society demands for state accountability matter most when they empower the state’s own mechanisms for checks and balances” (2001: 1). It is in this regard that this paper hopes to contribute to the literature by providing evidence of how certain segments of Philippine civil society goes beyond its contentious or adversarial orientation in exacting political accountability from the state and the adoption of a more participatory and cooperative stance.

Protest Versus Participation: Modes of Philippine Civil Society Engagement
The Philippines has often considered as possessing one of the most vibrant, robust, dynamic, and participatory civil societies in the world (Clarke 2000, CariƱo 2002). Several cases has proven its efficacy in providing policy inputs (Magadia 2003), delivering social services, pursuing socioeconomic development, and generating accountability. This becomes increasingly significant if one analyzes the Philippines as a country that possesses a “weak state” (Hutchcroft 1991) that could be overwhelmed by the intensity of demands from civil society. But the more apparent reason for an active civil society is it contemporary origins that could be traced in its pivotal role in the anti-dictatorship campaign during the martial law era. Given this, it was palpable that it would participate in shaping much of the restored democracy” after 1986 (Racelis 2000). As one of the primary actors responsible for the transition from authoritarian rule, they cannot sit back, relax, and leave the task to the government as there remains a plethora of problems, inadequacies, and limitations of the current democratic polity (Velasco 2004). It could be said that civil society have more than adequately contributed its share in advocating for democratic reforms in governance (Wui and Lopez 1998; Caagusan 2005) whether successful or otherwise.

To some extent, one can imagine two interrelated modes of civil society engagement with regard to promoting the country’s democratization agenda (Eaton 2003). On the one hand, there is the protest mode which is what most civil society actors are familiar. The tactics of “expose and oppose” were exemplified in the so-called “parliament of the streets” during the authoritarian period. This comprises activities such as coalition-building, collective mobilization, mass actions, media campaigns, and community organizing, among others. As a mode of (dis)engagement, this is often a weapon of last resort, particularly if normal or available venues have been exhausted or confidence and political trust in the government has evaporated. Moreover, this contentious approach is often utilized when civil society perceives that the democratic gains that it vehemently fought for are being jeopardized by state actors.

This precedent had tremendous repercussions for the nature of civil society that developed in post-Marcos politics. It would not be the last time that groups were able to successfully demand accountability from the state. The anti-Estrada campaign that culminated in the so-called People Power II Revolt is a genuine testament of the efficacy and strength of collective mobilization in the Philippines. The range and intensity of contention spearheaded by the country’s civil society was not witnessed since the struggle against the Marcos regime in the 1980s. Collective action generally aimed at exacting accountability from Estrada was successfully mounted using the framework of resignation, impeachment, and ouster (RIO). In conjunction with other strategies of social accountability in different periods of the campaign, civil society groups were able to expose the President’s political scandals, maintain these issues in the public agenda, acquire media attention and national visibility, activate and exercise oversight over political institutions and legal processes, and invite public support and participation (See Arugay 2004).

On the other hand, there is the participation mode, a relatively more novel component in civil society’s repertoire of engagement with the state. The direct involvement in policy processes has been enshrined in the constitution and other legislation, thereby institutionalize their access to power and democratic space in the country’s political arena. This mode enables them to forge strategic partnerships to “collaborate and cooperate” with the state as well as other sectors in society in the creation of new structures, mechanisms, institutions, and policies that could improve the quality of democratic governance, among others. This requires civil society actors to devote their technical competence, experiences, insights, and skills in order to come up with viable alternatives and lasting solutions to lingering problems of the country. This mode may involve policy advocacy campaigns, the establishment of state-civil society partnerships, and direct consultations with political institutions.

(to be continued)

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