Stabilizing and destabilizing trends

This is a curious season for Philippine politics:  while the political left is stabilizing the electoral process by joining it with enthusiasm, the right seems bent on destabilizing it by spreading wild talk about fraud and failure of elections.

This is only the second time in more than 50 years that the left has found it worthwhile to participate in the country’s elections.  Its target, as before, is Congress, but its vehicle this time is the new party list. Since 1946, after six elected candidates from the left-wing Democratic

Alliance party were brazenly barred from taking their seats in Congress on the allegation that they had won by resort to fraud and terror, the left has stayed away from elections.

When finally in 1987, it decided to come out and test its constituency, the results were so disappointing that everyone agreed that the leftist mystique probably stood a better chance of surviving if it remained underground.  Having been outmaneuvered in the confused period leading to the Edsa events, the national democrats who formed the largest segment of the left at that time had sought to reconstitute their forces by forming the Partido ng Bayan (PnB).   The party fielded candidates nationwide but its inexperience in the electoral field — the logical product of its long absence from that arena — prevented it from making any dent on elite politics.

Thereafter, disdain for elections became a virtue, and authentic radicalism became once more synonymous with armed struggle.  Any suggestion to take elections seriously was quickly denounced as bourgeois reformism.

But all this seems to be changing today, even if only gradually, with the introduction of the party-list system.  While the national democrats persist in waging war in the hope of compelling the government to agree to a political settlement in which they can share power, other segments of the left are seizing the moment and joining the elections in the hope not only of gaining a few voices in Congress but also of developing the skills and experience necessary for a long-term electoral presence.   Their attitude is the same forward-looking and risk-taking pragmatism that brought them to Edsa in February 1986.

They intend to win and, in the process, develop the ramparts of an alternative electoral party. The alternative framework is still there, but this time it is not being made to wait for the revolution.

Detailed programs of radical policy change, previously confined only to the pages of underground documents, have been rewritten in less strident language to serve as serious legislative agenda in an elitedominated Congress.  Militant sounds that used to be heard only in red-banner demonstrations have re-surfaced in the modulated campaign spiels of party-list candidates.  The May Day rally, traditionally a testament to ideological grimness and left-wing intransigence, has this year also become a festive occasion to court party-list votes and to endorse progressive candidates from mainstream parties.

Something new is clearly emerging here: a Filipino left speaking the language of hope in the face of traditional elections, and departing from its accustomed spectatorial stance on elections to take up the challenge of engagement in a game in which it is,for now, consigned to play a minority role.

In contrast to all this, the nation has now to contend with a cynical right that seems capable only of sending out messages of pessimism and doubt in the face of the impending victory of a president it cannot completely fathom.  Not solely by its recent doomsday pronouncements about election failure in Mindanao, but more importantly by its controversial composition, the present Comelec seems almost custom-made to be disbelieved.  Its apparent lack of any regard for institutional self-esteem in the conduct of its affairs is a great disservice to anyone who has the misfortune to be elected under its watch.   It also places the nation on a dangerous track.

For, far more important than the identity of the next president is the credibility of the electoral process by which he or she is chosen.  The institutionalization of that process is the key to political stability.

Countries that have been unable to get a neutral and credible agency to preside over their elections are the same countries today that are floundering in political uncertainty.  By placing highly credible and competent individuals at the helm of Comelec and by ensuring an orderly transition to the next government, Pres. Cory Aquino redeemed her otherwise dull presidency.

In contrast, by flirting with constitutional change to pave the way for a second term and by failing to appoint only the best to the Comelec, Pres. Ramos has thrown the country back to the erratic days of the immediate post-Marcos period.  Everything that his administration has accomplished in the economic field is now in danger of being nullified by a flawed electoral process.

But there is still time to ensure that the electoral system, defective as it is, is not further discredited in the public eye.  First, he must give his personal guarantee of a smooth transition process regardless of who wins the presidency.  Second, he must reach out to all the candidates and political parties in this election and get them to agree to a covenant for peaceful and honest elections.  And third, on the last week before the elections, he must stop campaigning for his candidates, and donning a non-partisan cap, lend to the independent citizens’ monitoring groups all the support they need to preserve the integrity of the elections.


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