Political parties and the question of democracy

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani (Philstar.com) - November 15, 2015 - 9:00am

In our post-Martial Law era, political parties have been replaced by ad hoc political coalitions dominated by powerful personalities. While the 1986 EDSA uprising restored our government’s democratic institutions, it also arguably brought back elite democracy. As a result, political parties based on platform, ideology and constituency have not fared well. Partly, this was because dictatorship meant that policy debates were muted within Marcos’s single party rule. Intra-party factionalism thus became the norm and set the precedent for today’s party politics.

The early post-EDSA years were characterized less by the emergence of political parties dedicated or opposed to particular programs, allied or opposed to Cory Aquino. Instead, the dominant form of political opposition took the form of coup attempts. Coup d’état as a mode of opposition wreaked great economic damage and contributed further to the failure to bring about genuinely representative political parties. Indeed, it was simply an extension of patronage politics as powerful generals and their political backers used the military in several attempts to unseat Cory and arbitrarily impose their rule. Parties nonetheless formed, but even those that had sprung in opposition to Marcos quickly fragmented.

Parties proliferated—around the wealthy and powerful elites who had the necessary name-recognition, regional support and campaign war-chest—so that the remnants of our traditional Nacionalista and Liberal Parties were swamped into a sea of coalition-building. “Electability” itself became the de facto platform.

In most liberal democracies, political parties play the important role of representing the interests of their constituencies, using elections to translate these into policies with which to fulfill the aspirations of party members and supporters. Political parties therefore broker the demands of particular publics usually in coalition with other parties. As Professor Clarita Carlos of UP’s Department of Political Science has noted, political parties provide citizens with an institutional means with which to articulate their demands to the government. Without such parties, they feel disconnected and alienated, growing dissatisfied and contemptuous and, at certain moments, even openly rebellious. Political parties, therefore, remain an important vehicle for fostering democracy by channeling the clamor of citizens in ways that can be heard and addressed by the state.

However, given the continued domination of elites that make for uneven representation in the Philippines, political parties often work to deter democracy. UP Sociology Professor Randy David gives a compelling description of what distinguishes political parties in the Philippines from other working democracies:

“Our political parties are incoherent and unstable. They have no enduring organizational identities and no clear constituencies. They promote no distinctive visions or programs. Their hold on their leaders and members is weak. They are dormant much of the time, coming alive only during elections. They have no sustained programs for recruiting and nurturing new leaders. The leader of the party is usually the one who can fund its electoral participation. A leader with no funds of his own to dispense will be unable to hold the party together. Party members do not pay regular dues to fund party operations. They expect the party to financially support them. Philippine political parties are really brand names whose current owners trade on a bit of history to give themselves a touch of stature.”     

Other scholars such as Carl Lande and Julio Teehankee have long pointed out that the relative weakness of Philippine parties, dating back to the post-World War II era, has meant that they are dependent upon personalities rather than platforms. Politicians are compelled to use political parties as financial vehicles to win elections. In place of party principles, platforms, and programs, there is only celebrity and clientelism.

In the West, political parties, while often formed under the thrall of charismatic leadership, emerge as sites for organizing either opposition or support for the ruling order. Here, political opposition is usually limited within intra-class terms—elites versus elites—rather than inter-class struggle. As in much of Asia, Philippine oppositional parties, especially those composed of agrarian or labor constituencies opposing elite rule, tend to be seen as subversive. Witness the fate of the Left-leaning Democratic Alliance in 1946, and the CPP today. Worse, among the poor, patronage and clientelism tend to be the default response to elite rule. The poor—in the absence of genuine political parties—have been reduced to the double bind of choosing between radical Left-wing organizations or elite patronage. Having no real voice in either, they suffer from both.

A closer look at four major political coalitions fielding presidential candidates for the 2016 national elections—Partido Pilipinas; United Nationalist Alliance (UNA); People’s Reform Party; and Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwid—reveals how fragmented our political parties are and how slight differences in their platforms make them virtually indistinguishable.

The Partido Pilipinas is an umbrella coalition composed of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, Aksyon Demokratiko and the deeply divided Nacionalista Party—where nominal party-mates Bongbong Marcos and Alan Peter Cayetano are both running for Vice-President, while party president Manny Villar is reportedly co-financing Grace Poe’s presidential bid. The coalition is fielding Senator Grace Poe for President and Senator Chiz Escudero for Vice-President. In announcing her presidential bid, Poe said that Partido Pilipinas is pushing for a 20-point governance agenda that ostensibly will lead to inclusive growth, global competitiveness, and transparent administration. One might suggest that their electoral agenda appears to echo that of the incumbent administration. She herself asserts that no one has a monopoly over Daang Matuwid.

Real unity within the coalition seems lacking, however. It is hard to believe in any uniform agenda among a senatorial slate that includes Ralph Recto of the Liberal Party/Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwid, on the one hand, and Ping Lacson, who is also a guest candidate in Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwid and UNA, on the other; not to mention Tito Sotto, Dick Gordon, and Migz Zubiri, who are also guest candidates of the UNA.

UNA is considered a political party, but is actually a multi-party electoral alliance replacing the former United Opposition (UNO) that fielded senatorial candidates in the 2013 national elections. It is composed of the Bagumbayan-Volunteers for a New Philippines, the Lakas-CMD, and various local parties from all over the country. Its standard bearers are Vice-President Jejomar Binay and Senator Gregorio Honasan, who himself was a coup plotter. Essentially, UNA is pushing for a program of government anchored on three pillars—social inclusion/improvement of basic services, economic dynamism, and an effective and caring governance. Under Binay’s leadership, UNA presents Makati City as a model for social services expansion and development. They also support amending the Constitution’s economic provisions to attract foreign investments and create jobs. The presence of senatorial candidates in other political alliances on UNA’s slate may also indicate less unity than is publicly projected.

This election season, the People’s Reform Party (PRP) is another political alliance: the PRP, a center-left political party founded by Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and the Nacionalista Party, the party of Marcos, which had ruled in the country for the majority of the 20th century. Their standard bearers are Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Senator Bongbong Marcos. They have yet to provide a platform of government, but Santiago has spoken of tax system reform and overhaul; customs modernization and tariffs act amendment; infrastructure development; and a referendum on any amendment to the Constitution to attract foreign investments. Except for Manila Vice-Mayor Isko Moreno, a guest candidate from UNA, the rest of their senatorial candidates are from PRP. Both the NP and the PRP are older than many of the other parties, but whether such a coalition of center-Left with conservative can hold beyond the election remains to be seen.

Lastly, the Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwid or Daang Matuwid Coalition is the administration-backed alliance between the Liberal Party, Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, Cooperative-National Confederation of Cooperatives (Coop-NATCCO), and Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC). Its standard bearers are former DILG Secretary Mar Roxas and Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo. Since the coalition is Liberal Party-dominated, the continuation of President Aquino’s Daang Matuwid Agenda of anti-corruption, good governance, and inclusive growth is central to its platform. It is also seeking to expand public-private partnerships; food security and rural development; poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor; and amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution to attract foreign investments. However, two out of its twelve senatorial candidates—Lacson and Recto, again—are guest candidates also backed by rival political coalitions. This is likely to weaken leadership cohesion. No doubt, some politicians who joined when the LP came to power may move yet again if the party loses the election.

What is apparent is that every party in the race has adopted some version of the same rhetoric that propounds inclusive growth, improved services, and eliminating corruption (although UNA has avoided mentioning it). They also concede the need, if not the inevitability, of some sort of statutory or constitutional move to improve the foreign investment climate—though too often what is meant by such advocacies is somewhat ill-defined. These nearly identical platforms underline precisely the place of personalities over policies and ideas.

Party-switching is rife in our present system—seen for example in the term “guest candidate” to show how little commitment there is to the party. In the absence of constituency-backed political platforms, our elections can often seem like a reality television show or a sports contest. Both US President George Washington and our own President Quezon actually warned against political parties—distrusting them as harbingers of intrigue and divisiveness. However, they could never imagine the power of media and public relations we see today—capable, with the right combination of popular mood and production power, of catapulting personalities to the viral level of AlDub hysteria.

And yet, elite democracy endures—through coup attempts, impeachments and massive street protests. That endurance, however, is like that of a three-legged stool—seemingly stable but always on the verge of collapse. In the present case, we could consider one leg to be genuine public servants who treat their positions to be a public trust, a second leg being the elite holders of political and economic power whose motives are to one degree or another entangled with interests of personal power and financial gain, while the third leg—the weakest, most wobbly leg of all—is the voters, with their desires and dreams.  Indeed, the absence of constituency-based political parties can only undercut their democratic aspirations.

Is change possible? It is—but not quickly. Better education is critical, so that voters are better informed—which is to say, better able to sort the wheat from the chaff during campaigns. Another kind of education comes from participating in bottom-up policy development, where people are directly consulted and enjoined to participate in the definition of their problems and the design of their solutions.

But any change has to contend with the single greatest obstacle to the formation of genuinely representative political parties: poverty. The burden of poverty entails having to spend every waking hour struggling to keep yourself and your family alive. It means having few moments in the day to think and reflect, much less organize and participate in the political process. The solution then to the problem of personalistic, elite-driven political parties is freedom from poverty. How that, in turn, will be accomplished, is precisely what parties should, but often fail, to address. 

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