FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Can democracy remain robust without an elected opposition?

As party loyalties become even weaker and turning coats the norm, an elected opposition in Congress appears an endangered species. I specify “elected” because in an open society such as we have, any loony can mount a soapbox and denounce the party in power, proclaiming himself the “genuine opposition.” An elected opposition, by contrast, is somehow accountable to a definable constituency.

If, after each presidential election, all the professional politicians defect to the new patron-in-chief, our democracy will be impoverished. Not only will the party system be completely undermined. There will be no organized group within government cultivating an alternative program of government or challenging the dominant worldview.

There are clear advantages to being aligned with the faction in power, to be sure.

The new “super majorities” in the House and Senate get to distribute the spoils: the choice committee chairs, the allowances that go with that and, most important, the good ear of the President who holds billions in lump sums and discretionary funds.

Being in the majority means a better chance to get public works projects diverted to one’s district. It means getting to insert pet projects in the national budget. It means a superior ability to leverage influence into something more quantifiable.

The “pork barrel state,” as Jose Almonte once described the essential logic of our quasi-democracy, has its way of eroding party-based politics and principled policy engagement.

When the Supreme Court reversed itself and finally declared the congressional pork barrel unconstitutional, that did not erode the pork barrel state. It only made the lump sums and discretionary funds under the control of the President vitally important. Without access to those monies, the legislator will have no bacon to bring home to his constituents who measure the usefulness of their “representative” on the basis of how much he is able to extract from the center of government.

This is the tragic feature of the politics we have gotten used to: no legislator ever won reelection on the basis of the quality of legislation he managed to pass.

Six years of Liberal Party (LP) rule reinforced rather than diminished pork barrel politics.

Before congressional pork was outlawed, the Aquino administration tripled the size of the loot. When declared unconstitutional, the Aquino administration supplemented the lump sums and discretionary funds under the executive’s control. There was no surer way to tame the Congress and kill the opposition.

When Aquino won the presidential contest in 2010, legislators flocked to the LP.  Those who did not formally switch had their parties “coalesce” with the new rulers.

So complete was the LP’s dominance, the ruling party did not only get to designate the Speaker of the House and the Senate President. The party effectively determined who would stand as the opposition.

The opposition was so weak, with even the left-wing party-list groups capitulating to the administration side, it could not even designate itself as such.

At the House, Ronaldo Zamora was designated the minority leader. True to form, as designated leader of the company union, he did nothing the following six years to check the ruling coalition’s excesses. He was neither seen nor heard.

In place of the absent minority leader, the tandem of party-list congressmen Lito Atienza and Jonathan de la Cruz found themselves bearing the burden of offering some resistance to the administration’s legislative steamroller.

Where they could, the tandem forced amendments to onerous bills. Where they could not, they raised questions of quorum to stall proceedings – forcing many congressmen to grudgingly appear for legislative duty if only to register when the rolls were called.

The two gallant “opposition-of-two” managed something truly important: they stopped the BBL in its tracks, sparing us the constitutional crisis this would have wrought.

I found it odd seeing Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez making the pilgrimage to Davao City on the day the LP capitulated to the new “super majority.” With the LP’s capitulation, only UNA is left outside the ruling coalition at the House.

He was not there to capitulate as well. He was there for an odder reason: he was seeking the new majority’s blessings to become leader of the new minority.

What can he promise in exchange for the blessings? It can only be to be as tame as Ronnie Zamora was in the last Congress, (non)performing as the majority-designated minority leader.

The incoming president is brusque and forceful. He is bound to shove the legislative branch aside, totally focused on his war with criminality. Our democracy cannot afford to have a company union in place of a real opposition in Congress. Someone needs to stand staunchly for due process.

It might be preferable to have Lito Atienza lead the opposition in the House. He has proven tireless, eloquent and relentless in the past Congress, standing firm against possible railroading and immovable where his core principles are involved.

As a staunch pro-life advocate, he can be relied upon to stand against the lynch mob. He stands on principled ground against the restoration of the death penalty and surely against the ugly spectacle to death by hanging the incoming president prefers.

The task of the opposition in the coming period is to provide our people a clear moral reference point.

True, the war against illegal drugs and other forms of organized crime is an urgent one. But we should not tolerate the loss of our civilizing values as nothing more than collateral damage in the unholy war that must be waged.

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