Contact Details

Rm. N-411, House of Representatives, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines
+63 2 931 5497, +63 2 931 5001 local 7370

(Lecture delivered by Rep. Edcel C. Lagman during the First Political Science Consortium at the Ateneo de Naga University on 17 February 2024)

Dios marhay na aga sa gabos. Special greetings to Miss Christine Escote for making sure I would be with you this morning, although only virtually. I truly appreciate the kind and comprehensive introduction.

Only a few know that I was born in San Fernando, Camarines Sur, several kilometers away from our venue this morning at Ateneo de Naga University.

On May 1, 1942, the Japanese imperial forces burned down Naga. Invasion and oppression marked my day of birth. Opposition to repression, abuses, and inequities define my political philosophy.

In the over three decades that I have been a Member of the House of Representatives, I have been known in the Congress as a conscientious fiscalizer during the few times I was with the ruling administration. I am, however, more acknowledged as a steadfast and indomitable critic of the majority the rest of the time when I was, and still am, with the authentic opposition.

Critical and judicious dissent and a credible and committed opposition are vital and indispensable for a genuine democracy to flourish and prevail.

A true and responsible opposition provides checks and balances to the government. Dissent serves as a critical voice that questions and challenges the policies and actions of the ruling party. An authentic opposition and the voice of dissent play crucial roles in holding the government accountable, ensuring transparency, and protecting the rights and interests of the citizens.

Moreover, they also offer alternative perspectives and policy proposals, fostering healthy debate and helping to shape public opinion, and subsequently the adoption and implementation of official policies and programs.

Ultimately, an authentic opposition supported by a citizenry that is unafraid to voice out their dissent strengthens the democratic process by providing a necessary counterbalance to the ruling party's power, and creates an enabling environment for discussion and debate that expands choices, offers options, and engenders positive societal change.

As political science students, I am certain that your professors and personal readings have taught you that while in a democracy the majority rules, the minority could rein in the majority.

There is truism in the statement of the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (Tok-vil) who stressed that “the majority makes the laws and may break them as well”. It is because of this that the minority or the opposition must exist and thrive.

Mission and role of the political opposition

Be it in the national or local levels, the avowed mission and indispensable role of a responsible and independent opposition or minority encompass the following:

  1. The constant critic of flawed administration policies and a serious sentinel against the majority’s importuning.

  2. The zealous guardian of constitutionalism and the rule of law.

  3. A sounding board of the people’s dissent, desolation and discontent. A credible opposition takes up the cudgels for them as their advocate and protector.

  4. A vettor of administration policy initiatives and a purger of constitutional transgressions or infirmities overtly or covertly afflicting some of the majority’s legislative proposals.

  5. A conscientious and consensus-seeking partner of the majority in the enactment of laws which are concretely designed for national development and those truly beneficial to the people, particularly the marginalized and disadvantaged.

    A responsible opposition is not the barrel of explosive expletives and disruptive denunciations. Once necessary and justified, it must seek and reach a consensus with the majority in legislating meaningful reforms after free debates are held and perfecting amendments are accommodated.

  6. A crusading advocate of alternative policies and programs which are more responsible and responsive than the agenda of the majority.

  7. A party or coalition which fields competent and credible aspirants against the candidates of the administration in periodic elections for the installation or rejection of transient leaders.

Ways the opposition can scrutinize government actions

An authentic opposition fulfills its role in scrutinizing government actions through various methods. Some ways in which it carries out this important function are:

  • Parliamentary questioning: Members of the opposition utilize parliamentary sessions to ask probing questions of government officials. They seek clarifications, demand explanations, and challenge the rationale behind government decisions and actions. This guarantees public scrutiny and ensures that government officials and other functionaries are held accountable for their actions.

  • Debates and discussions: The opposition actively engages in debates and discussions within the legislative body or other public forums. Through arguments based on reason and evidence, they analyze government policies, laws, and actions with a critical eye; and highlight any potential flaws, inconsistencies, or possible adverse consequences of proposed or existing policies and programs.

    These debates enable a comprehensive examination of government actions and contribute to the education of the citizenry and the development of public opinion based on actual facts and verified information.

  • Committee inquiries and investigations: Opposition members often take part in committees that conduct inquiries and investigations into specific issues or government activities. They use these platforms to gather evidence, interview witnesses, and scrutinize the details of official government actions. Through these inquiries, the opposition can expose any wrongdoing or official misconduct, hold officials liable, and propose necessary reforms. These investigations include inquiries in aid of legislation so that the enactment of laws passes the gamut of harmonizing contesting opinions.

  • Public statements and press conferences: The opposition utilizes public statements and press conferences to bring attention to government actions that they believe require further scrutiny and in-depth examination. This arena is used to raise concerns, present evidence, and communicate their own perspective to the media and the public. This helps ensure that government actions are subjected to public examination and discussion.

  • Engaging with civil society, grassroots organizations, and experts: The opposition actively seeks input and collaborates with civil society organizations, grassroots organizations, think tanks, and experts in various fields. By engaging with these stakeholders, they gain valuable insights and expertise that can assist in dissecting and evaluating government actions more effectively.

  • Utilizing social media and digital platforms: In this digital age, the opposition must capitalize on the far-reaching effects of social media and other digital platforms to examine government actions. These channels may be used to share information, engage with the public, and raise awareness about their concerns. It is important to note that social media allows for real-time feedback and amplifies and intensifies their messages and sentiments across a wider audience.

By employing these methods, an authentic opposition ensures that government actions are thoroughly studied and examined, flaws and potential shortcomings are identified right off the bat, and public accountability is encouraged and upheld. This, in turn, contributes to a more transparent, responsive, and accountable system of governance.

The right to dissent, freedom, and democracy are all intertwined

As students and youth leaders, you are cognizant that the right to dissent is integral to a free society and is at the heart of any democracy.

It encompasses our individual and collective rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and participation in nation-building. Dissent encourages discussion and deliberation. It is vital in making informed decisions about issues of public concern.

Dissent, especially from a citizenry armed with critical thinking skills and social consciousness, is indispensable to us in the authentic opposition.

Dissent revitalizes the political opposition and raises public awareness even as the voice of the people gives it the ammunition it needs to crusade forward on despite great odds and the seemingly unsurmountable political machinery of the administration of the day which uses without compunction historical revisionism, red-tagging, and fake news to discredit dissenters and suppress differing views.

It may interest you to know that the word “dissent” stems from the Latin dis-sentire which means exactly as it does today as it did centuries ago – “to differ in sentiments, disagree, be at odds, contradict”. It is broken down into two words – the prefix “dis” meaning “differently” and “sentire” which means “to feel or to think”.

Dissent is an honorable act

I maintain that dissent is irrevocably linked with the notion of honor. It is so much easier to keep silent and stand with the majority and take shelter under its numerical superiority than to speak up and espouse a differing view.

Those with real honor would opt to do the latter and be bound by principle, compelled by integrity to step away from the crowd even if it means to stand apart and be the lone voice in the wilderness simply because it is the right and honorable thing to do. 

Dissent is absolutely a matter of honor even as it also a matter of right. An administration worth its salt will not only allow, but encourage, dissent. It is a freedom we must not sleep on but exercise with vigilance.

Responsible dissent is often driven by a strong sense of justice and a desire for positive change. By speaking out against injustices or advocating for reforms, dissenters can contribute to the welfare of society and promote and protect the common good.

Dissent leads to freedom and fosters democratic ideals

Dissent leads to freedom and fosters democratic ideals. The American statesman and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey who espoused liberal causes such as civil rights, foreign humanitarian aid, and arms control during an era when it was not fashionable to do so, directly equates dissent with liberty when he said that “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”

Verily, it is in the furnace of dissent and debate where freedom is minted.

Dissent serves as a mechanism to protect and uphold fundamental rights and freedoms. In a democracy, individuals have the right to express their opinions, criticize the government, and advocate for change. Dissent allows citizens to challenge policies, laws, or actions that they believe infringe upon their rights or the rights of others.

Dissent acts as a counterweight to the power of the ruling government, ensuring that decisions are not made without scrutiny or accountability. By questioning and confronting government actions, dissent helps prevent the abuse of power and supports a more balanced and responsive governance.

Punishing dissent derogates democracy

On the other hand, a remark often attributed to former President Marcos Sr that “The one indisputable reality of dictatorship is that dissent, insult, and malevolent language do not go unpunished, if it is allowed at all” unmasks him as the tyrant and dictator that he really was.

As we prepare to celebrate the peaceful EDSA people power revolution which ousted the dictator, it is propitious to revisit the horrors, repression, and profligacy of martial law.

 Marcos Sr. singlehandedly threw the country back to the dark ages when he derogated democracy and diminished our democratic institutions by imposing martial law in 1972 for malevolent and contrived reasons to perpetuate himself in power and attempted to silence all dissent and opposition.

Besides plundering the economy, amassing ill-gotten hoards estimated to reach US $30 billion, and allowing his chosen cronies to inordinately and criminally enrich themselves, among the dictator Marcos’s other cardinal sins against the Filipino people are:

  • Padlocking the Congress and arrogating to himself the role of sole legislator;

  • Incarcerating titans in the political opposition and personalities in the Left to stifle political dissent;

  • Emasculating the judiciary;

  • Wantonly violating the people’s political, civil, economic and human rights;

  • Forcibly closing media outlets, detaining journalists, suppressing the freedom of the press and expression; and

  • The killing, enforced disappearance, torture, and rape of tens and thousands of dissenters during his malevolent martial law regime.

  • Sunk the growth of the Philippine economy to below zero.

But Marcos Sr. failed to realize that stifling dissent or throwing into prison genuine dissenters will not diminish dissent – it actually fostered it.

For the atrocities and brutalities he committed, he was ousted as a tyrant by people power and thus, dishonorably discharged by popular action, while the Supreme Court barred his return to the Philippines.

Democracy will not thrive without a genuine opposition

Verily, there can be no genuine freedom if valid and lawful dissenters are threatened, terrorized or muzzled. There can be no thriving democracy if the opposition, especially in deliberative bodies like the Congress and local Sanggunians, is silenced or coopted by an unholy alliance of pseudo-opposition members with the majority, and a subservient minority leader like what has happened and continues to happen in the House of Representatives. Where in the democratic world is the minority leader chosen and anointed by the majority leadership?

What is happening now in the House of Representatives where the “minority” is merely an adjunct of the majority is a cautionary tale which must not be replicated in our local legislative bodies.

Because to be truly effective in the discharge of its mission and role, the political opposition must be believable and independent. It must not be a useless appendage of the majority, or worse, the latter’s creation. A eunuch may stand erect, but his virility is lost.

A genuine and independent opposition will enrich and improve democracy

A democracy will only benefit and thrive if the political opposition remains unfettered and free to speak out responsibly, conscientiously criticize, and propose alternative solutions to problems plaguing the nation.

The political opposition carries a heavy but ultimately valuable load on its shoulders. If given the opportunity to play its role well and exercise its functions responsibly, the opposition can be instrumental to:

  1. Protecting fundamental civic and human rights.

  2. Maintaining a reliable check and balance within a democratic system.

  3. Promoting a culture of open debate and deliberation, which is essential for a strong and healthy democracy, and encourages the exploration of different ideas and solutions. Diversity of thought enriches the decision-making process, leading to more informed policies and better outcomes for society.

  4. Putting pressure on the authorities to justify their decisions and be more transparent about their intentions and processes.

  5. Promoting progress and innovation because by challenging the status quo, dissenters can identify areas for improvement, propose unconventional solutions to age-old problems, and help overcome stagnation or outdated and redundant policies.

Both national and local legislative bodies will benefit from a robust and genuine opposition

To reiterate, the importance and indispensability of an autonomous and courageous minority or opposition cannot be overemphasized in a democratic system, more so in a deliberative body that is mandated to enact laws that can only be refined in the furnace of debate, honed and sharpened to perfection in the heat of discussion.

A robust and genuine opposition is an indelible hallmark of a democratic legislature.

We must always keep in mind that the Congress and local legislative bodies are not majority-only conclaves. They are assemblies of duly mandated Representatives, provincial board members, city and municipal councilors, and barangay kagawads, including the minority whose inalienable rights of free expression and dissent must be respected always.

As mentioned previously, there is need for an independent minority who shall hold the government or ruling party to account for its commissions and omissions and serves as an ombudsman-regulator reining in the administration’s excesses and holding the government of the day accountable to the people.

A genuine opposition – both in the national and local levels – must be able to debate proposed laws and policies openly and vigorously in the legislative committees and the plenary by opposing measures which are violative of the Constitution or inimical to the people’s welfare even as it introduces perfecting amendments to sound legislative proposals of the administration.

A legitimate opposition must espouse alternative policies and views which are more responsible and responsive than the flawed importuning of the majority even as it is the trusted mouthpiece of the marginalized and the disadvantaged sectors.

We have a common dream of real and sustainable human development for all Filipinos. It cannot, however, be denied that progress and human development can only be truly achieved within a democratic framework.

More than Congressmen and Senators, local legislators are key players in ensuring an enabling democratic environment for progressive and pro-people ordinances – laws which must inevitably contribute to the realization of genuine and sustainable human development. 

Local legislators are presumably more attuned to the peculiar, specific, and valid needs of constituents in the barangay, municipal, city or provincial levels. Therefore, they can more easily create ordinances that will answer the unique and precise needs and problems of their constituents.

But legislators, be they national and local policymakers, must be armed with a progressive and pro-people legislative agenda to serve as a definitive guide and practical blueprint in proposing and enacting laws and policies that are truly rights-based, people-centered, and development-driven.

A progressive and pro-people legislative agenda will also help foreclose any attempts to enact laws that run counter to the principles of enduring peace and progress.

Dissent and opposition reflect society’s pluralistic nature

Democracies are composed of diverse societies with multiple perspectives, beliefs, and values. Dissent and opposition reflect the pluralistic nature of human society by allowing different voices to be heard.

More importantly, it acknowledges the importance of inclusivity and respects the rights of minority opinions or marginalized groups. By embracing dissent, democracies become more all-encompassing and representative of their citizens' diverse needs and aspirations.

Furthermore, dissent and opposition encourage civic engagement and active participation in democratic processes. When individuals feel that their voices matter and can make a difference, they are more likely to engage in political discourse, vote, pay the correct taxes, and participate in civic activities.

This increased participation strengthens the democratic fabric of society and empowers citizens to shape the direction of their country and help contribute to nation-building.

I am confident that since you have chosen the field of political science which focuses on politics and power and the theory of and practice of governance, you will be encouraged to fulfill your civic duty to do the honorable thing and dissent whenever needed; to make your voices heard; and to oppose oppressive government policies.

It is through open dialogue and constructive engagement that dissent can truly contribute to positive change and the political opposition can help overturn erroneous policies inconsistent with the tenets of egalitarianism and social justice.

This discourse on the indispensability and efficacy of dissent in a democratic society does not preclude anyone from joining the majority, but once you are in the majority be a conscientious fiscalizer and encourage the majority to allow adequate space for differing views.

In the final analysis, to dissent is not an exclusive right of the authentic opposition, it is as well a mitigating essential and a self-restraining factor within the ranks of the majority.

Thank you and congratulations for your initiative on “The 1st Bicol Political Science Consortium”.