The crisis of political parties

In Western democracies, the public pays for a large part of the expenses of political parties.  This subsidy acknowledges two essential functions that electoral parties play in a democracy.  These are: one, to aggregate and represent the interests of citizens in the nation’s political life; and two, to participate in the orderly contest for governmental power.

Would we pay for the expenses of Filipino political parties?  I very much doubt that we would.  Our view of the nature and functions of political parties in our country is not flattering.  We see them more as personal tools of self-seeking politicians than as social vehicles of collective interests. Their relation to grassroots communities is fictional, and their political visions are a litany of cliches with neither coherence nor imagination. As a result, they have no steady membership bases to speak of — people who would pay regular dues to the organization as a manifestation of commitment to party programs and ideals.

Their leaders and candidates are in the same party out of expediency and not because they share a common vision or philosophy.  Party loyalty and discipline are alien to their nature, and turncoatism is the norm rather than the exception.  In truth, we are dealing here not so much with political parties in the theoretical sense as with syndicates formed by the convergence of the most transitory interests.

Our recent political history attests to the growing irrelevance of political parties to our public life.  Our people did not mourn their demise when Marcos shut them out in 1972.  Fourteen years later, when the Filipino people began to mobilize against the dictatorship, the organizations that spearheaded the protest movement were not political parties but non-party formations like cause-oriented groups and people’s organizations.  The parties came to life again only when the Aquino government announced new elections.

The same thing happened in 2001 when the mobilizations against the corrupt and incompetent Estrada government came to a head.  It was not the political parties that offered an intelligent and credible critique of the regime but civil society groups.  Only the elections of May 2001 saved the political parties from total marginalization.  But it is obvious to many thoughtful Filipinos that the public disenchantment that has crept into our political life since Edsa II is as much directed against politicians in general as it is against individual officials like the president.

The political parties in our country have failed our people in at least three ways: first, they have failed to offer alternative practical ideas for the reconstruction of our society and the re-invention of the role of government; second, they have failed to map out the persistent class and communal divisions that have fragmented our country and to represent the interests notably of those who have little or no access to government; and third, they have failed to organize stable constituencies at the grassroots level.  These failures lie very much at the core of our people’s disaffection with our political system and have made the repeated resort to extra-constitutional politics look reasonable.

Our people are tired.  They want stability in their lives.  They want their leaders to stop bickering and to get on with the business of developing the country.  This is a good time to pause and to imagine new arrangements that will define the terms of our practical relations to one another as citizens of this nation.  It is time we went beyond an understanding of our society as, in the graphic words of Roberto Unger, “merely the truce lines and trophies of an ongoing social warfare.”

But, for this to happen, it will not be enough for our political parties to simply declare, as the ongoing All-Parties Conference at the Manila Hotel does in its United Declaration, that “There is only one way to change government and that is by regularly scheduled elections…. We unreservedly condemn coups, putsches, rebellions, insurrections, civil disorder, lawlessness and mass demonstrations aimed at a change of duly elected and democratic governments other than by regular scheduled elections.”

How can they say this without mocking those who risked their lives to bring down the corrupt Estrada presidency?  Of course, it goes without saying that, under normal circumstances, elections are to be preferred over extra-constitutional action.  But it is not for the political parties, they who live for elections, to say this. Let us not forget that people power was as much a statement against discredited regimes as it was against the limits of conventional politics.

The political party system in our country has been in crisis since the early 70s. It is caught in the rituals and vocabulary of a borrowed 19th century model of political rivalry that bears no relation to the actual divisions in our society. It has been unable to respond to the growing activism and self-organization of various sectors of our people. Filipinos vote for individuals, not parties.  They don’t take political parties seriously.

The All-Parties Conference seems to have looked at everything about our society except the reasons for the increasing insignificance of political parties to our national life.  It nearly pronounces itself on every urgent task, except what to do to re-invent political parties so they may one day be deemed worthy of public subsidy.


Comments to <>