Personalism in politics

As elections near and politicians scramble for party slots the surprise begins. Surprise because one is simply amazed at the spectacle of party switching and loyalty merging, of horse-trading and secret deals. There are no permanent friends or enemies, quipped a political observer, only permanent interests.

And so we see party bedfellows parting ways to lock horns over an elective post, or siblings clawing against each other, or a father contesting the ambition of a son, and vice-versa. The motivation? Not in support of an idea or conviction or in defense of a style of governance, but of something else growing out of personal considerations.

The human person - this is the very fulcrum of party alignment in this country. Who the person is, is what draws or repels loyalties, the "who" being measured in terms of power and influence as well as financial clout. What is happening? Are Filipino leaders so bankrupt of principles and convictions that there's nothing to underpin their political ambition except their pocketbooks?

Time was when party affiliation marked one's political persuasion. In the early days of our nationhood there was a clear bifurcation of policies and thrusts as championed by either the Nacionalista or the Liberal party. The first was driven by nationalistic sentiments articulated in the catch phase, "Filipino first", while the second by a more expansive outlook of development involving acceptance of foreign influences in culture, arts and other fields.

With party platforms delineated political affiliation was clearly defined. Party switching was a rare phenomenon and "balimbings" were unheard of. Personal loyalty, it's true, factored in group identity but it exerted only a subdued influence on political positioning. A Nacionalista was always a Nacionalista and a Liberal always a liberal whoever headed the government.

But Ferdinand Marcos, the first high-profile balimbing (he switched loyalty from Liberal to Nacionalista to get the latter's nomination), destroyed the country's two-party system. He jailed party leaders, then set up his own party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, the only one allowed to exist during martial law.

After Edsa I, the Cory government came up with a new constitution. Written under the atmosphere of a newly-gained freedom, openness was the rule of the game. Thus the multi-party system was crafted and so began the bedlam we are experiencing in the political scene to this day.

One problem with the multi-party system is that any Juan de la Cruz with an overflow of cash can easily gather enough sycophants and start his own political camp. The sad thing is that the founder's design more often than not is seldom service for other people, but service for himself. He may, for instance, have a business empire to protect. So he fields his own candidates and gets them elected using tricks money can buy. With his own people in the power circles, who can touch his business concerns?

Sometimes it's the craze for power and prestige that drives a Filipino to found his own party and aspire for key offices. Given a win he can then use his office to strengthen his financial base. This done, he can ensure another term and still another, and who can prevent him from fielding his wife or kids to take his place? This is the very practice that spawns a trapo and a political dynasty, both a blackeye to Philippine democracy.

Sometimes a party is formed to protect the political future of its members. Acting individually a less-moneyed aspirant is peanuts in the eyes of big party moguls. But acting collectively, the group can leverage for concessions for its members. Parties of this type function like welfare agencies for its card-bearing affiliates, but its pro-poor programs are either undefined or nonexistent.

The cult of personality in the Philippines is undoubtedly one factor that foments corruption in the socio-political scene. The cult leader is looked upon as some kind of "pater de familia", a provider for his people. But since the leader gets only so much pay from his office, he is forced to scrounge for funds from various sources including those from clandestine ones. Media may now and then expose his shenanigans, but money can buy silence. Besides, a simple denial can neutralize a negative disclosure and people have short memories.

A Filipino sociologist once commented that as long as people are poor they will always swallow the guiles of politicians and reforms are simply impossible. Is this the reason why politicians love to pose as champions of the poor but are doing little to improve their lot?











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