No place for strong parties in our personalist politics


First of Two Parts

The experts routinely prescribe for our dysfunctional politics our need to create more cohesive and more effective parties oriented to policy rather than pork. But, in my view, any effort to build a party system in a severely factionalized democracy like ours would have little chance of success.

Party affiliation may remain useful when choosing the party leadership, contesting local positions, or dividing the spoils of office. But innovations in communication and information technology have made it easy for national politicians to appeal directly to the mass electorate, rather than through the party machine; and the most successful national candidates are those best able to project their affinity for everyday people.

Champions of the poor    
The electronic media have also enhanced for politicians the attractions of “populism”—of championing the rights and power of everyday people against elitism and privilege.

Once restricted to the literate and propertied, our electoral politics has become dominated by the poor and the marginally middle class.

The survey group Pulse Asia distinguishes five classes in national society, according to their wealth and assets. The three upper classes “ABC” together make up only 7 percent of the whole. “D” class makes up 67 percent, and “E”, 25 percent.

But Philippine populism has little of the class resentments and violent character of populism in Latin America, the US South, rural France, and Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thailand.

It is—as the Jesuit sociologist John Carroll has observed—“non-ideological, non-subversive of the established order.”

Even the charismatic Magsaysay in the 1950s, seeking the presidency at the height of agrarian unrest, made no promise of redistributing wealth—the classic populist battle cry.

Only the millenarians of the Revolution and the early American period ever “spoke of brotherhood and a future that included land distribution.”

Movie-star populism    
Rather than a system of ideas and ideals, Philippine populism is a political style. So far it is just an offshoot of our personalist politics, which gives authority and loyalty to an individual rather than to an institutionalized office.

The Estrada and “FPJ” phenomena, a western student of our politics has called “movie star populism.” Even our big-city poor—apart from its fondness for the roguish Joseph Estrada, who bills himself as everybody’s drinking buddy—still endorses the status quo. So that we need not despair of reform for want of programmatic parties.

In fact the historical record suggests that individual leaders—rather than nationalist parties—have been decisive for the modernization of the ex-colonial countries.

Modernizing authoritarians
East Asia’s “growth miracle” (1965-90) it owed to strong, authoritarian—typically military—leaders building up national strength in the face of internal or external crisis.

For Gen. Park Chung-hee in Korea and Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan, the compulsion was civil war. For Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda in Thailand, it was the threat of an Indochina unified under North Vietnam. For Mahathir Mohammad in Malaysia, it was the experience of ethnic conflict. For Gen. Suharto in Indonesia, it was a Communist rebellion; and for Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, it was the prospect of isolation as an ethnic Chinese island in a sea of Malay peoples.

For Deng Xiaoping, it was the resolve to redeem China after 150 years of humiliation at the hands of the imperialist powers.

Typically these strongmen ruled with the help of technocrats. Park did not scruple to deal with corrupt big businessmen, whom he coerced to carry out his development programs.

Suharto centralized graft and doled it out to his supporters. Prem allowed politicians the run of the patronage-rich Cabinet agencies—provided they kept away from the key development ministries. As late as August 1992, Singapore was holding some 1000 political prisoners in “preventive detention.”

Authoritarian transition
The role of strongmen in East Asia’s modernization has been so striking that the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington justified the region’s need for an “authoritarian transition.”

Huntington conceded that democratic contestation in the new nations is not always conducive to political stability. He accepted that there are national situations where political order—within which investment and industry could thrive—should receive priority over democratization.

We too experienced what might have become our authoritarian transition—the 13 years (1972-86) during which President Marcos ruled by decree.

But our crisis of that period resulted, above all else, from an internecine struggle between self-regarding elite factions. Our geographic isolation and the American umbrella continued to keep out unwelcome foreign influences. Not even a consequent Maoist insurgency scared our leaders enough to concentrate their minds on why we were lagging in the indices of development.

Our need for reform persists
Since then, most of our neighbors have won for themselves a measure of democratic rule. But our need for deep reform persists. Our poverty rate and our income inequalities are East Asia’s worst.

In 2011, the 40 richest Philippine families on the Forbes Magazine Wealth List accounted for 76 percent of our GDP. Even in Thailand, the 40 richest families accounted for only 33.7 percent of GDP; in Malaysia, 5.6 percent; and in Japan, only 2.8 percent.

In national society, the privileged few and the many who are poor are as far apart as Disraeli’s “Two Nations” were in mid-nineteenth-century England.

And for the Filipino poor to accept things as they are isn’t all that strange, since poor people’s sense of grievance about inequality sharpens only once they feel a rise in their own station.

It is their relative deprivation that drives men to action. The absolutely deprived are passive, seeing no way out of their predicament.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.

1 Comment

  1. frank de la cruz on

    One common man will rise from the ashes of the poor disenfranchised sector of Filipino society to lead the demise of the monopolists and their minions in politics, military, and the judiciary who keep the wealth coming from the OFWs to trickle down to the barrios. Filipinos have been deprived but not passive. In time with social media the spring of discontent will rise from the youth of today . It will change the socio-economic, and political structure of our discombobulated society to a proud nation of intellectuals. And it will not come from a bloody revolution like the other countries. This next generation of leaders will have moral values, integrity, and self-respect that will ensure that the child of today will not sell his body to feed his family or go to school hungry. The future is bright and it will be made brighter by actions started today! I shall keep the flames burning in my dreams that one day that reality will come and that tourists will come to the Philippines “Not For Fun” but to be awed by the awesome beauty of our islands and forests and the kindness our people. Mabuhay!