The experts prescribe for our dysfunctional politics our need to create cohesive electoral parties focused on policy instead of “pork.” But to do so is to go against the global trend. Political parties everywhere are fragmenting under the impact of the revolution in information and communication technology.
Elections are less and less debates about political beliefs and public policies, and more and more naked struggles for power and its perks. And the most successful politicians are those best able to reach out to voters with personal narratives closest to everyday people’s felt needs and life expectations.
In our country, political fragmentation has gone so far that our party system has become a negative model for the new democracies. German analysts—surveying Asian and Latin American party systems—say the Philippines has arguably the most “weakly rooted” and most “poorly institutionalized” parties. (Thailand they rank second.)
Not parties based on common principles but factions based on common interests have long been the active elements in our party system.
The Spaniards and the Americans in turn staffed their colonial governments with the tiny elite they found dominating the archipelago’s warring chiefdoms. Historically, the municipal factions these “big men” led, rather than national parties formed by professional politicians, have been the immediate objects of political loyalty. Until now more voters turn out for off-year, rather than for national, elections.
As early as 1642, the Spaniards began holding nominating conventions for municipal offices—the capitan municipal, his deputy and the various supervisors of taxes, fields, livestock, schools and public order. (From local nominees, Manila made the final choice.) Over these offices, elites fought as avidly as they contested precedence in the municipality’s every other social activity.
What were the Spanish-time factions competing about? Much the same perks of political infuence that today’s factions fight over: control of appointments, exemption from state impositions such as forced labor; preferences for their businesses; access to local graft.
Under American rule, the town elites adapted easily to electoral democracy as a relatively peaceful way of resolving their rivalries—though local elections until now feature episodes of bloodshed.
Factional loyalties easily overpower the attractions of good government, platforms and issues. A 2010 study by the National Statistical Coordinating Board concluded that Filipino voters do not choose their local leaders on the basis of good government, platform or issues: “Good governance is not sufficient for a governor to win; neither is bad performance sufficient for a governor to lose.”
The anthropologist Lee Junker (1999) notes that “[p]olitical allegiance is volatile, since it is given only to the leader immediately above an individual with whom he has personal ties of reciprocity….”
But for as long as the ties of patronage and deference are strongly rooted locally, they can evoke prodigies of loyalty. One politician famously won two congressional terms—while serving a jail sentence for raping a nine-year-old child.
Predictably, the turn toward populism has generated political dynasties. The enormously popular clan headed by the action-movie hero, Joseph “Erap” Estrada—patriarch, wife, son, daughter, mistress and illegitimate son—has been in power in San Juan City, Metro Manila, since 1968. Estrada has also been senator and President; currently he is mayor of Manila.
By keeping political offices in the family, the dynasty frustrates set term limits—and proves Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) right in asserting that “Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no experience is thought necessary.”
As another election year impends, “instant parties” grouped around charismatic politicians and political bosses continue to multiply. Fully 15 “parties” are represented in the 229-member Lower House elected in 2010, apart from 56 “party-list” lawmakers chosen by designated “under-represented sectoral groups.”
In the post-colonial period, the two-party system was starting to take hold, encouraged by an electoral subsidy for the mainstream parties.
The “Nacionalistas” and “Liberals” were beginning to divide ideologically on the issues of wartime collaboration, economic nationalism and Philippine-American relations. Meanwhile the municipal factions were evolving into conventional party chapters on the western model.
But in the tumultuous 1970s factional rivalries played out nationally overwhelmed electoral politics and set off an authoritarian transition (1972-86). And, in its haste to restore democratic processes, the 1987 Constitution abetted our factional tendency where it should have encouraged the consolidation of political power.
New political direction
Written in the post-martial-law era, the 1987 Charter sets a new political direction. It enshrined the concept of a “free and open party system,” in an effort to induce the CPP-NPA rebelsto give up their “people’s war” strategy and enter electoral politics.
Roused by the global student rebellions of the 1970s, the rebels had gained ground under martial rule. But they lost public favor when they opposed the peaceful “people power” uprising that brought down the strongman regime in February 1986.
Half-heartedly, the dissidents did put up candidates in the May 1987 general elections. But their ephemeral “Nation’s Party” won few district representatives and elected none of its senatorial nominees—confirming to the die-hard cadres their founding belief that “the electoral arena is not an alternative to the armed struggle.”
No partyless democracy
Since Independence, our civic energies have been focused on the question of corruption. But corruption is merely a symptom of the incoherence of our public life.
Our political processes we still conduct as in the old face-to-face society. But “party-less democracy” cannot work in political communities of modern scale.
Representative democracy cannot work without strong parties to represent the varieties of electoral opinion on national questions.
In my view, we have no civic duty as urgent as our need to build a sturdy party system. (That strong parties—mindful of their corporate reputations—restrain political corruption is a side benefit.)
But if representative government is to work, the political groupings that translate into practice the idea of majority rule should stop being factions and start becoming parties.
Because reforms are not always institutionalized— established as norms in the political culture—people worry that the next government might reverse the economic and social reforms of these last five years.
And in this fear they’re justified: How often have we heard insiders complain that policy is made by the last person who had a President’s ear?
A sense of the nation
Middle-class Filipinos take pride in the civil liberties they enjoy; but to a great extent Philippine democracy still is permitted only by the broadly equal dispersion of power—which makes it imprudent for any leader or group to try to overpower the others.
And modernization will not be easy, because the interest groups that resist reform are powerful, organized, and focused—while reform’s potential beneficiaries are weak, scattered and distracted.
Our next President must find ways of harnessing Filipino idealism—particularly that of our young people. He must point us toward a national purpose. He must set out a series of national goals that will engage our civic spirit.
Right now, we have no individual, no institution responsible for wider public interests beyond those of the individual and the family. We as a people need to develop a national ‘vision’—a shared preconception of the national future—and a set of national goals that everyone accepts.