Politics without limits

Politics is an inescapable element of collective life.  In itself, it is neither good nor bad.  All of us engage in politics when we seek to enhance our power or influence over others or try to free ourselves from others’ control over us.

In the life of nations, politics is a way of negotiating and reconciling competing social interests.  When handled well, it allows the community to form a broad consensus on social goals and to find the best means for achieving these.  Politics can be vicious and destructive.  A nation needs to manage it so that it does not totally consume the energies of its citizens or provoke antagonisms that lead to a cycle of relentless violence.  The first step toward this is the institutionalization of the rules of fair and acceptable competition.

Politicians are, for example, allowed to campaign only within a designated period.  Minimum qualifications are set for those who intend to stand for elections.  They must respect limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures.  The use of violence and inflammatory language is expressly forbidden.  Where values of fairness are strong in the culture, politics is ruled by basic decency, and politicians are effectively deterred from improper behavior. Where values are weak, politicians advance their interests by finding loopholes in the law and exploiting unfair advantage not foreseen by existing legislation.

In this sense, we do suffer, at present, not only from an excess of politics, but also from an erosion of political ethics.  Non-stop political contestation creates in its wake a climate of permanent mobilization and agitation.  Everything is politicized.  Beyond this, the old rules of the game appear irrelevant, and everything seems permissible.

A great deal of the adventurism we see today in politics is made possible by the advent of modern mass media.  With television, image replaces substance, innuendo is taken as proof, and media exposure substitutes for solid performance.  When televised, judicial proceedings and congressional hearings acquire a new dimension that shapes the outcomes of these processes. This is a new terrain that politicians are mastering faster than society can find ways of preventing its abuse.

Where political authority is unsettled, government spends much time defending itself rather than doing what it is supposed to do – i.e., creating the conditions by which the nation can effectively achieve its goals. Yet, this is still preferable to banning politics altogether.  In a fascist dictatorship, opposition does not fade away, it only goes underground and adopts other means.

The goal of every nation-state is to build a stable consensus on the kind of state that will best serve its citizens.  When this is done successfully, politics becomes a routine way of allocating power to those who can offer the best and most feasible means of attaining the goals envisioned in the constitution.  As in other former colonies, however, our problems begin from the fact that the rituals of electoral politics came ahead of any real agreement on the basic objectives of the Filipino nation-state.  This has bred a series of insurgencies whose goal is not only to capture power but to change the form of the state itself, and ultimately, the manner in which society is to be organized.

The archetype of non-conventional politics is the armed communist movement.  Yet, ironically, in the last 30 years, the most serious assaults on state authority have not come from the communist insurgents but from the armed forces of the state.  In 1986, tired of being used as instruments of a corrupt dictatorship, a segment of the armed forces woke up and actively sought the overthrow of the Marcos regime.  They failed, but their action triggered a peaceful popular uprising that unseated the government.

Again, in 2001, the leadership of the armed forces intervened in an ongoing political process by withdrawing support from the duly elected president and transferring it to his vice president, a prerogative they did not have under the law.  What made these military interventions more acceptable than other forms of military adventurism, however, is that they did not produce military-led governments.  But they inaugurated a new and risky form of politics that is inconsistent with the traditional role of the military in a democracy.

The July 27 Oakwood mutiny models itself after these benign modes of military intervention.  Unfortunately for its leaders, the government survived the challenge, and now they must face the consequences of their adventurism.  Yet, even as they are being prosecuted, they seem to have achieved a moral victory.  They have forced the resignation of Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and ISAFP Chief Brigadier Gen. Victor Corpus. They have compelled government to order an investigation of their complaints, and to release funds to address the pressing needs of soldiers in the field.

The government survived its soldiers’ mutiny, but it has not become stronger.  The political opposition has pounced on this vulnerable moment by accusing the president’s husband of corruption in order to further weaken her hold on political power.  The objective is two-fold: to compel her to renounce her political ambitions once and for all, or failing that, to erode her moral right to rule so completely as to make her defeat in 2004 inevitable.

What we are seeing here is a curious blending of conventional and unconventional politics, a politics without limits.  Its short-term costs are enormous.  We can only hope it creates in the long term a stronger nation.


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