Monday, February 12, 2007

Could the Philippines ever have an "issue-oriented" politics?

Count a few more days and soon we will see our communities being swamped by strangers who will shake our hands, kiss our babies, and promise to ease our pains and take away our sorrows.

We laugh at their antics, sneer at their pretensions, and get entertained by the platoons of clowns and scantily-clad girls they foist on the stage to get our attention. But in the end, their kind are going to have the last laugh for they will determine whether or not our garbage are collected, our towns and cities enjoy peace and stability, and our country grow and prosper. It’s really important therefore that we choose the right candidate to elect. No, we are not talking here about ideology or whether or not the guy hates globalization and loves an “ism”; we are talking about integrity, honesty and competence.

Why integrity and competence and not the issues? It’s because “issue-oriented politics” in the Philippine seem to have gone passé. But still we long for the “politics of principles and ideologies” and are disgusted by the current crop of candidates who don’t mouth the key words we always long to hear. These include the old left-leaning trigger words like “nationalism,” “cause-oriented,” “pro-people,” “pro-environment,” “against foreign debt,” “nationalist industrialization,” “land reform,” “against globalization,” to name a few.

But we no longer hear these words and we wonder if politics has completely gone down to the level of That’s Eentertainment or Starstruck. Maybe it has. But real reason could be that the kind of political process that those key words represented was long gone. Globalization has completely changed the references of political and social discourse thus making the old framework about what is Left and what is Right, from which the great debates have been traditionally anchored here in the Philippines, totally irrelevant.

In the formulation of yore, denizens of the left shade of the political spectrum long for change and embrace the flow of history in contrast with those of the Right who cling to the status quo. Not anymore. These days, for instance, the Left instinctively oppose market-oriented legislations that could undo local monopolies and oligopolies and therefore benefit consumers and the broader segment of the masses. Confused about their loyalties, leftists conveniently link arms with military adventurists and Marcos remnants for whatever issue they find convenient to oppose. How easy it is for human right activists these days to form “tactical alliances” with their former torturers, thus blurring the imagined political fault lines of the recent past.

It’s the collapse of Berlin Wall that ushered in the faster pace of globalization that brought all this confusion and change. Class struggle within the country’s borders, the imagined schism between the owners of capital and the possessor of the brawn, has lost its immediacy as both workers and capitalists suddenly found themselves struggling for survival against foreign competition. Suddenly, “global competitiveness” became the buzzword requiring strategic alliances and cooperation between the state, politicians, the business community, the working class, and civil society. It was the “end of history,” proclaimed political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the end grand theorizing; the business is now is about the nitty-gritty of fostering greater liberal democracy, growth and development the boring process and path for which hardly brings up contentious or bitter debates.

That explains the reason why we could no longer hear politicians and political players argue about grand ideas and competing models of development. With globalization in full throttle, the current crop of politicians now generally assume the future of the country lies in connectivity, and the only debate left is to what extent and how fast should we hitch on that global dynamics. But that these differences by themselves wouldn’t make interesting election discussions as politicians would rather go for mass marketing techniques characterized by hype and spectacle to get the most number of votes.

To some extent, the “success” of the post-Marcos reformers explains the characteristics how we do politics today. Many of the leaders that brought the Edsa Revolution became functionaries of the state even until the present, bringing with them their language of activism and protest. Terms like “sustainable development,” “bottom-up approach,” and “people-centered approach” to development became mainstream terminologies that everybody subscribe to.

The worst aspect of the post-Edsa reforms of course was the discrediting of the traditional party system through a systematic campaign against the “traditional politician” or trapo. That one really undermined the party system that in a functioning democracy should be the ideal avenue for political socialization and mobilization. The queen of the Edsa Revolution herself, Corazon Aquino, thrashed the credibility of the party system by dumping the archetypal traditional politician in Ramon Mitra in favor of Fidel Ramos, a military hero who by that time looked like “non-traditional politician,” despite an earlier gentlemen’s agreement that each aspirant would be abide by the results of the primaries within the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino.

Ramos then looked like a non-trapo simply because the post-Edsa reformers never really succeeded in defining what the alternative to trapo was. From the popular imagination, traditional politicians are those who have always been there since time immemorial and that definition damaged even the likes of Jovito Salonga, Teofisto Guingona, and Aquilino Pimentel. With the credibility of the party system and traditional politics in tatters, the stage was set for the next crop of “non-trapo” leaders like the actor Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo whose rose to power in the most nontraditional means. Cory’s action in anointing Ramos then simply confirmed that parties has always been flags of convenience that could be easily discarded once the direction of political winds changed.

It was plain naïveté for post-Marcos reformers to concoct the term “non-traditional politicians because in reality all politics are traditional. Politics in its barest essential—no matter what that politician’s motive is—is all about the capture and maintenance of political power. A reformer has to capture power first even he or she could ever dream of implementing well meaning social policies. The thrust after the Edsa Revolution therefore would have been reengineering and strengthening the party system the way the Americans and the Europeans did and not denigrating it without offering any alternative. Revitalizing the party system of course would take time but the Filipino nation and its social institutions could actually start the process by reemphazing the values that made political parties relevant and effective: competence, honesty, and integrity.

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