Our parties have become negative models of political disintegration
Our dysfunctional political system has achieved a distinction of sorts. Political scientists are apparently beginning to recognize a phenomenon among political parties that they identify as “Philippinization.”
A political party infected with “Philippinization” is both extremely fractionalized and weakly institutionalized. These two traits—weak organic linkages and the inability to develop stable norms and practices—have become so pronounced in Philippine parties that they have come to typify a new species of political “disease” fit for academic study.
In a pioneering paper, a German academic, Andreas Ufen, looked into the condition of political parties in post-authoritarian Indonesia—and found them to be “weakly rooted and at the brink of ‘Philippinization’.”
Being afflicted with Philippinization is apparently no small matter. The consolidation of democratic practices is most difficult to carry out in political systems of this sort. Such systems are also the most vulnerable to political collapse and state failure.
From parties to factions
Institutionalization is the conventional goal of political organizations; but party systems are breaking up almost everywhere. The communications revolution is making it remarkably easy for charismatic politicians to reach out directly to the volatile mass electorate over the heads of the party functionaries.
As we might expect, the most successful of these new-type politicians are film-TV stars, champion athletes and other media celebrities—all personalities practised at projecting their affinity with everyday people.
One such personality, Jakarta’s governor—fondly known as “Joko” Widodo—has just become Indonesia’s first President drawn from outside the political-military-bureaucratic elite. Joko lives and functions in the style of the Indonesian Everyman. Since he is without any experience in national politics, his partisans anxiously await his first test at governance—deciding on Indonesia’s increasingly burdensome energy subsidies.
The role of ideological politics
While the political role of ideology is declining in the new states, it is regaining its passion in Western politics.
The American “Tea Party” faction’s split from the mainstream Republicans has been more acrimonious than the historical rift between the GOP and its Democratic Party rival.
Even the established parties of Western Europe have not been exempt from this return of ideological politics. They’re losing ground to right-wing party factions raging against non-white migrants and the costs of integrating into a bureaucratic European Union.
Meanwhile, Third-World parties are degenerating into competing factions held together only by personalist ties of reciprocity, loyalty—and the pork barrel.
Many of them have lost the ideological edge that had given them their sense of purpose. Even our Communist parties, once models of party discipline, have broken up into quarrelsome—and sometimes murderous—factions.
The moral cost of faction
Factionalism also has a moral cost. Parties—in the opinion of the British conservative Edmund Burke (1729-97)—are formed to promote a view of the national interest on some shared principle. But factions are by nature self-interested; they concern themselves with nothing more than “the mean and interested struggle for place and emolument.”
The overwhelming influence of corporate contributions on party financing has heightened the corruption and deceit associated with “money politics.”
In Indonesia, critics accuse the multiparty coalitions contesting seats in Parliament of being more interested in sharing the spoils of office than in building competing parties, and of operating as “Kartel Politik,” or political cartels.
In some new countries, the struggle for power among these contending factions has become so intense it has induced disillusion and despair among electorates—paralysis in governments—and even state collapse.
Most recently, 15 years of parliamentary deadlock between the Bangkok royalist and business elite and the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s “Thais Love Thais” party has set off yet another episode of authoritarian rule in our close neighbor, Thailand.
Democracy’s need for parties
Populism is the new political mode; and it has attracted even the Catholic Church of the first Latin-American pontiff. Pope Francis is trying to invigorate Rome’s populist “preferential option for the Poor” in its effort to compete with pentecostal and charismatic breakaway faiths in the Third World.
In India and the Philippines, the corruption and ineffectuality of established parties have revived interest in the concept of “partyless democracy” that Gandhi and Quezon espoused in the 1930s.
Direct democracy may have sufficed for classical Athens. But once the electorate exceeds the capacity of the marketplace, representative government cannot be anything but party government. Our political problems are in fact rooted in our lack of groupings able to think—and act—coherently in the national interest.
Our politicians—beyond their obligation to deliver “pork-barrel” benefits to their ward-leaders and constituencies—are individually responsible only to themselves. They can pursue their self-interest without inhibition.
Rebuilding our party system
Rebuilding our party system, then, must become our central political task. We will need to re-establish norms and practices as conventions within which our parties can compete.
Since a party structure is shaped by its funding source, we must face up to the centrality of our party-financing regime. A measure of public financing for mainstream parties must become a central reform—as soon as the Philippine State becomes strong enough to enforce it.
Because our “parties”are financed by their leaders, they revolve around individual ambitions. As a result, our politics—like our economy—is run by “an anarchy of families.”
The lack of an accepted financing system also makes our parties vulnerable to corrupt practices and the intervention of special interests.
We must put our political system on a stable footing; and the Supreme Court has set us on the right path by outlawing every variety of the pork barrel.
A multitude of parties
We must also do something about the multitude of “parties” that have formed from the slipshod drafting of the 1987 Charter. We’ve stumbled into a Constitution that mixes features of both the two-party and multiparty systems.
We’ve lost most every semblance of the relative stability that had resulted from the alternation in power of the Nacionalistas and Liberals in post-Independence politics.
Our transition to a “free and open party system” has so far resulted only in a series of “minority” presidents—because the 1987 Charter does not even prescribe the usual “run-off elections” to decide on a final winner.
In my view, we cannot escape doing a great deal of serious and thoughtful constitutional engineering.