The decline of political parties

The demand of responsible voters to know the platforms of the presidential candidates is quite tragic, if not amusing.  Political platforms go hand in hand with political parties; they make no sense if there are no parties to carry them out. With the exception of a few party-list groups, political parties became totally irrelevant in the 2004 elections.

Their role in choosing candidates was reduced to zero. Almost everywhere, individuals carrying the banner of the same party are running against one another.  To local politicians, the whole country has become a “free zone.” Their link to national politics is not a program of action but a presidential candidate, to whom they turn not for leadership or guidance but for campaign funds.

Whoever wins the presidency in 2004 will owe nothing to any political party. The president will dictate the shape of coalitions in Congress, relying purely upon personal relations built during the campaign.  No party will be strong or influential enough to whip its members into line and deal as one bloc with a powerful president.

This has implications for the anticipated shift to a parliamentary system. Those who dream of a 2007 transition triggered by the voluntary resignation of the elected president after three years are naïve.  President Macapagal-Arroyo, who floated such an idea in a moment of weakness, would not want to be reminded of what she said if she wins in May.  A parliamentary system would breathe new life to a moribund party system, and transfer to members of parliament powers now exclusively enjoyed by the executive.  Why would any sitting president want to cut short what he/she worked so hard to win unless it is in exchange for remaining in power indefinitely? The shift to a parliamentary system requires vigorous parties that can override the personal strength and cunning of individual politicians.

Parties do not become strong without investing in elections.  Sadly, in these elections, not one of the major political parties did what was necessary to earn the right to determine who may run, what issues should be carried, and how the campaign is to be managed.  This explains how Lakas secretary-general Heherson Alvarez found himself bumped off from his own party’s senatorial slate, and why the opposition Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) ended up having two presidential candidates.

The marginalization of political parties is particularly notable in Pampanga, the president’s home province.  Here, the movie actor Lito Lapid, who is stepping down as governor after three forgettable terms, has chosen his 26-year-old son Mark, another actor, to be his successor.  Lakas stalwarts Andrea Domingo, who served as Ms Macapagal’s immigration commissioner, and Congressman Oscar Rodriguez, another GMA ally, had been eyeing the governorship for the longest time.  The president brushed aside experience and competence to anoint Mark Lapid instead so that the elder Lapid would agree to join her senatorial slate.  Domingo and Rodriguez are now running against each other for mayor of San Fernando.

Mirroring the fatal ambivalence of their own party’s national leadership, Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) leaders – Cong. Rimpy Bondoc and Cong. Zeny Ducut – are slugging it out with the young Lapid. All of the above-named politicians are supporting the candidacy of Ms. Macapagal, whose son, Mikey Arroyo, is running virtually unopposed in one of Pampanga’s congressional districts.

It all boils down to money politics.  Unable to deploy their own troops and resources, political parties are meekly taking their cues from the presidential candidates in order to stay alive.  And in these elections, no other candidate, apart from the incumbent, has shown an inexhaustible capacity to purchase the loyalty of every local politician worth buying.

The collapse of the political parties signifies the return of the political clans as the principal agents of political mobilization at the local level. When we hear talk of political machine these days, we must note that the reference is not to political party machine but to the temporary coalition of local notables assembled by a presidential candidate in every place.  This is a game for which Ms Macapagal has had the longest preparation and one in which she excels.  The connections she taps go back to the era of her father.  She has activated and strengthened these in the course of her own stint in government. They constitute a personal network that has served her steadily in place of charisma.

Educated voters have only worried about the entry of unworthy celebrities into politics.  They have not paid equal attention to the retrogression in our national life that the resurgence of political dynasties represents.  Since 1986, political families have managed to wrest control of local politics, shutting the door to public life to many highly qualified professionals.  A good example is the progressive city of Las Pinas in Metro Manila, where the bright young UP-trained lawyer Roel Pulido has launched a quixotic quest to dislodge a member of the Aguilar clan from the city’s lone congressional seat. Without any political party to back him up, Pulido has formed his own core of young volunteers to battle a machine that has been honed to perfection by decades of patronage.  People think he is foolish, but there are many like him.

Perhaps the real hope for enduring change in these elections is to be found at the local level, where new faces confront the old without fear.  They are the harbingers of a different future, the unorganized party of hope.


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