We can hazard a better guess where the nation is headed in the balance of President Aquino’s term, if there is clarity and light in the alignment of political forces in the public arena.
Instead of clarity, however, there is a gaping void at the heart of our democracy today. To adopt the cadences of Anderson Cooper’s famous tweet at the height of the Yolanda disaster: “There is no party, there is no leader, and there is no program of the political opposition in the Philippines today.”
While President Aquino and his allies are out in front, eager to claim the power and privileges of the majority party, and hog the national budget, there is no one taking the role of the opposition with equal gusto.
“Missing” is the right word to use here, because instead of eager faces and voices presenting the position of the opposition, we find a black hole as deep and empty as the hole in outer space.
‘Fiscalize’ does not exist in English language
In our political vocabulary, we call this work “fiscalizing” the administration. But the word does not exist in the English language. No English dictionary of note has an entry on it. The Philippines can submit the word for inclusion in the next editions; but why bother? That would only call attention to the lapses and excesses of our democracy.
The nullity of “fiscalize” does not explain why no member of Congress or politician today wants to identify himself as a member, let alone a leader, of the opposition.
UNA (the coalition that contested the May elections with the administration coalition) does not automatically get the billing because the coalition ended with the balloting. Coalition members and candidates have returned to their respective parties, to prepare for the next electoral battle. The opposition will materialize only if elected officials and political leaders claim the role of the opposition and formally discharge its functions in our democracy.
The confusion stems from the fact that the triumvirate that led UNA in the midterm elections—Vice President Jejomar Binay, Manila Mayor and former president Joseph Estrada, and former Senate President and now Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile—are all hesitant to claim the scepter of the opposition. Consequently, all their allies are now wandering around without identity papers, looking for a horse to ride.
The highest ranking UNA leader, Vice president Binay, values his membership in the Aquino cabinet as housing czar and he fears that an early break with the administration would damage his plans to run for president in 2016. Even now, he is already feeling the heat of negative propaganda.
We only see every now and then a press release hinting at the existence of an opposition, and usually it comes from Rep. Toby Tiangco. A press release cannot be construed, however, as “proof of life.” In the session halls of Congress and in the salas of the judiciary, where the battles between the administration and the opposition are usually fought, the opposition has not made a formal appearance. The public strains to behold its presence and hear its voice.
At the House of Representatives, House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora ought to fill the shoes of top opposition leader, but he is totally preoccupied with playing toady to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, who is rumored to have helped Zamora’s election as minority leader.
In the Senate, the situation is even more murky. Enrile’s once formidable caucus, which used to command the chamber’s leadership, is now reduced to a subordinate role, cast into limbo by the Corona impeachment trial, Franklin Drilon’s election as Senate President, and the sensational pork barrel scandal.
When 20 senators of the 15th Congress, led by Enrile, played ball with President Aquino in convicting Corona in exchange for quick releases of their pork barrel and substantial funds from the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), the evident case of bribery diminished the Senate considerably. The subsequent pork barrel scandal is an even bigger blow.
The rush of the lower house to file the impeachment complaint (without giving itself time to read it) turned the chamber into a rubber stamp of the president, without Aquino even requesting it.
Why do representatives and senators today look like zombies unlike their confident counterparts in past congresses?
Is President Aquino so intimidating despite his mediocre record in Congress? Is this a case of a profound strategy implemented to perfection by the Administration?
To some of us in the media, who opt for truth telling instead of cheerleading, the situation is truly perplexing, though not incomprehensible.
One explanation is the nastiness of President Aquino’s political style and methods. The man does not cajole or persuade or woo to secure political support for his initiatives. He is vindictive to the point of catatonia. This is off-putting to politicians who are used to the polished style of seasoned political leaders
Another reason is that Aquino has not spelled out a clear vision and program for his administration. Since there is no roadmap, no one can see where they fit in Aquino’s Reich.
The indispensable opposition
More than anyone, the political thinker Walter Lippmann was instrumental in crystallizing the system of majority rule and the role of the opposition in a liberal democracy. To Lippmann, the opposition is as vital to democracy as the majority that governs: “The principle which distinguishes democracy from all other forms of government is that in a democracy the opposition not only is tolerated as constitutional but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable.”
Elaborating on this point, he wrote: “The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition. For in making the great experiment of governing people by consent rather than by coercion, it is not sufficient that the party in power should have a majority. It is just as necessary that the party in power should never outrage the minority. That means that it must listen to the minority and be moved by the criticisms of the minority….
“The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters…. So if he is wise he ought to pray never to be left without opponents, for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense.”
As things stand in our politics today, majority rule has been taken by President Aquino to ridiculous lengths and limits—contrary to the spirit of limited government and separated powers in our constitutional system. Aquino seems to think that he can do anything he likes because he is the president—which is not so different from the delusion that led Estrada astray.
Political discourse has sunk to an abysmal level. No one seems to be thinking very much. All the politicians do is issue press releases.
Just as crucial as the absence of political leaders standing as the opposition, is the sheer absence of leaders who stand for something, for clear values and policy ideas. What is sorely missing from national politics today is the practice of what the British call “conviction politics”, which was exemplified by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The essence of conviction politics is the profession by political leaders of a clear set of principles, policies and programs in public life. We don’t have such leaders in our country. Neither do we have political parties that articulate a clear agenda of governance, and provide an organized base of support.
On assuming leadership of the Conservative party in 1975, Mrs. Thatcher declared, “I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician.”
With her, conviction politics took hold. In the US, Sen. Paul Wellstone took up the theme and launched Wellstone Action, which trains future politicians in the theory of conviction politics.
There are many arguments in favor of conviction politics. One is that it is more honest—a conviction politician simply says what he believes rather than shading his opinions to be more palatable to audiences. Another is that by voicing strong opinions he pushes public debate forward and promotes a genuine discussion of political issues. By arguing forcefully for his positions during the campaign, a politician is more able to pursue those goals once in office.
In Philippine politics today, an authentic conviction politician is hard to find.