The end of consensual politics

Not a few people from both the opposition and the administration were surprised by the launching of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Chacha Express.  The resort to “people’s initiative” as the vehicle for Charter change effectively demobilizes Congress.  It transfers political debate from the halls of Congress to the uncharted terrain of public forums and mass actions.  This open-ended political space is not particularly hospitable to politicians; its agenda cannot be controlled.

In many ways, what we are witnessing here is the end of consensual politics.  This is a direct offshoot of the inability of the political system to arrive at a satisfactory closure of the issues thrust upon it.  This failure breeds intense mutual distrust, and encourages a zero-sum approach to politics.  The government believes it can no longer deal with the opposition-dominated Senate; so it seeks its abolition.  The opposition believes it can no longer deal with Ms Arroyo; so it seeks her ouster.

This is not the way politics is supposed to work.  Politics is supposed to serve as society’s mechanism for arriving at collectively-binding decisions.  In stable democracies, such decisions are the outcomes of reasoned debate between the government and the opposition, or between the majority party and the minority party.  The clarity of the arguments and the transparency of the procedures for arriving at a consensus create legitimacy for the whole system.  The decisions that the system regularly churns out assume the force of law and are accepted by the public.

We know that our political system has ground to a halt when every year, in the last four years, we have failed to pass the national budget twice, and twice not on time.  The budget is supposed to mirror a nation’s targets and priorities.  Throughout Ms Arroyo’s presidency, we have had to make do with a re-enacted budget, as if time has stopped for us.  The whole budget process has become a theater of the absurd, where politicians of every stripe flash their teeth to secure concessions or extract information from hapless civil servants.

Because so many questions have been left unanswered by the Arroyo government, one can hardly fault the opposition for using the power of congressional investigation to get some answers from her minions.  In this manner is so much precious time lost that should have gone into productive legislative work.

Executive Order 464, which effectively bars top officials of the bureaucracy and the armed services from appearing in congressional hearings without the approval of the president, is born of the distrust that has accumulated in the system since the Garci tapes scandal.  It took a while before the Supreme Court could decide on the constitutionality of this order.  In the meanwhile, relations between the senators and the president have taken a turn for the worse.  The prevailing mutual hostility prevents both parties from interpreting the SC ruling in a give-and-take way.

We see this too in the way both the government and the opposition claim victory over the SC decision that declares as unconstitutional the government’s “calibrated preemptive response” policy on rallies. The decision strikes down CPR but upholds the validity of the law regulating public assemblies.  As expected, both sides have claimed victory in this latest decision.  Instead of stabilizing notions of what is legal and illegal, the high court’s ruling may have unwittingly provided ammunition that both sides can use to shoot one another.

In the final analysis, we cannot expect the judicial system to resolve problems that are basically political in origin.   Locked in conflict, the parties are bound to read even the clearest court ruling through the prism of their respective political agendas.

Thus, political questions must be resolved politically.  Where Congress loses its function as an instrument of consensual politics, we may increasingly be treated to the spectacle of legislators marching in the streets alongside leaders of social movements.  We caught a glimpse of this seemingly strange alliance at the recent launching of “STOP (Sa Tamang Oras at Panahon) Cha-cha” – a broad coalition of politicians and social activists, aimed at derailing Ms Arroyo’s push for Charter change through people’s initiative.  It is too early to say how this tactical partnership will progress and what new political combinations it will spawn.  One thing is sure though: the present political system has reached its breaking point.  One cannot imagine how this can be reversed.

The present political crisis started as a crisis of presidential legitimacy.  Now it is engulfing the whole political system.  When the issues against the president began to accumulate, the administration found itself calling upon the coercive powers of the state to block the flow of information.  Every unresolved issue generates more pressure that the administration is unable to contain without doing further damage to the other institutions of government.

This is how political systems die.  But their passing signifies the birth of new visions and the tapping of new sources of legitimacy.

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