Monday, March 19, 2007

The death of the Philippine political party system

ARE political parties still relevant? Do they represent the “interest” of the people? What do Filipinos think of turncoats?

Last week, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies and the Ateneo School of Government released a study answering this question. The results simply confirmed what has been a common observation—that majority of Filipinos think that political parties have nothing to do with their lives.

This is unfortunate because if we want to put stability in the country’s political process—one that should ultimately result in a predictable and investment-friendly political economy—strengthening the party system in the Philippines is the only route.

The survey says that 67 percent of Filipinos think “no political party truly promotes [the people’s] welfare.” Only one-third of the respondents say they will join or stay within the party if there is opportunity to learn more about politics. Asked to name politicians when specific parties were mentioned, 75 percent of the respondents didn’t know any.

Thirty-one percent say parties have “no noble leaders,” 28 percent say no party does things that benefit citizens, 29 percent believe none has realistic party platform, 31 percent say no party recruits candidates who are truly qualified.

The list of complaints is endless. In fact, about half of the respondents don’t give a damn about turncoats. That feeling is understandable given the fact that most people think political parties are irrelevant anyway.

But why are people so critical of political parties these days? The usual explanation points to their elitist origins. Since the dawn of political parties in the Philippines, the electoral system has always been elite-based, with factions from the same ruling class alternating in holding power without any improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Sounds valid, but two major factors also account for the destruction of the party system.

First is the declaration of martial law in 1972 that abolished the elite-based two-party system (Liberal versus Nacionalista) and replaced it with the “dominant-party system” composed of one big ruling party (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan) and a small patch of opposition groups whose leaders were brutalized and killed to prevent them from emerging as real competitors to the dominant party.

Opposition groups in the days of Marcos’s “constitutional authoritarianism” were allowed, but the State made sure they didn’t have the slightest chance of capturing power. Since the late ’70s, alternative power centers like mass movements emerged. However, since these groups were not organized for electoral struggles but for direct seizure of power through mass and insurrectionary actions, the leaders who emerged from its ranks didn’t have the savvy and mindset for electoral politics. That really deprived the Philippines of credible politicians after the Edsa Revolution, thus weakening even more the people’s perception of electoral politics.

The second factor is the major error committed by the post-Edsa Revolution reformers. President Corazon Aquino has always stressed that in her time she “restored democratic institutions.” But whether she recognizes it or not, the view of many analysts is that she actually helped destroy the party system: by ignoring the system for nomination of candidates in the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino, when she anointed General Fidel Ramos, who formed his own party of convenience, Lakas ng Tao.

Aquino’s action was simply a culmination of a campaign by Edsa 1 reformers against the trapo, or traditional politicians. Traditional politicians were vilified as ugly, graying and corrupt—almost like dirty old men and women—who gain and maintain power through patronage, bribery and electoral fraud.

The problem was the same movement, contemptuous of party politics, failed to define what the alternative to the trapo was. Thus, when Aquino discarded Ramon Mitra—a man whose trademark gray beard and bush jackets gave him both the aura of an haciendero and an old patriarch, the usual suspect in the Philippine political zarzuela—the alternative to the trapo meant anybody who doesn’t come from the parties of yore.

Unwittingly, that perception about trapo applied to political stalwarts like Jovito Salonga, Teofisto Guingona Jr. and Aquilino Pimentel Jr. who could have been great statesmen. The party system went downhill since then, especially since insurrectionary action and direct seizure of power through coup d’état got enshrined in our consciousness as an “alternative mode” of changing government.

The concept of “traditional politicians” was faulty from the very start. In reality, all politics, especially electoral politics, are traditional. A reformer or visionary may either use “issue-oriented” or personality-oriented campaign strategy, but in the end that person may have to capture power in order to implement whatever agenda she/he has. Once in power, the same person must hold on to that power through a political machinery which is either a party or a mass movement. The post-Edsa reformers missed out on this aspect of politics and we are suffering politically because of that.

With the discrediting of the party system, which in the popular consciousness is associated with the traditional politics, naturally people looked for “nontraditional leaders.” Certainly, Joseph Estrada, forming his own Partido ng Masang Pilipino, was a “nontraditional” leader whose stature and popularity sprang from his good-guy roles in films.

When Estrada got into problems, the middle class poured out into the streets and took a “nontraditional” political action, an insurrection backed by some top brass in the military, to oust him—and we’ve never stopped paying for the seemingly small, but fundamental legal omissions, of those who played a part in Edsa 2. They put into power then-Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who by any measure, was also a “nontraditional” politician, having risen from government bureaucracy.

Mrs. Arroyo, who abandoned her father’s party, the Liberals, when she ran for her first Senate seat, later set up her own party Kampi—a curious situation downplayed in the current senatorial campaign where the administration party is called “Team Unity.”

Is there a way out of this trend? The survey says that a third of Filipinos will either join or stay with a party so they could learn about politics. That’s more than 10 million voters willing to join parties—a good recruitment base for parties willing to reestablish links with the grassroots. Of course, they may have to tailor their message well to capture the people’s imagination.

The medium, they say, is the message; that means parties themselves must formulate their ideology clearly, discipline their ranks (by not recruiting scoundrels and criminals, for instance), and maintain vigilance on the issues that emerge each day. They must reinvent themselves to get reconnected with the people.

But do parties have the motivation to do all these? If not, then we have a tragedy in our midst playing day in and day out without any hope of ending.
(Written as editorial for BusinessMirror, 20 March 2007)


Anonymous said...

hello sir dave, this is kat, last summer's intern at business mirror. congratulations for being chosen as a finalist for the philippine blog awards!

Anonymous said...

I've always maintained that our political parties are in dire need of an overhaul. That is why I am terrified by any attempted shifts to a parliamentary form of government. A strong political party is without a doubt a sine qua non for that.

Great work!

Dave Llorito said...

hi kat. thanks for informing me about this. its an honor to be among the finalists.

Dave Llorito said...

martin: i agree with you.