When the political system fails

Political leaders have a duty to make sure that the decisions they produce in the nation’s name are not only legal but also legitimate. Politicians cannot perform their tasks as if they were mere consumers of a political order’s legitimacy; they must themselves continuously reproduce that legitimacy. The traditional politicians in Malacanang and in the Lower House are learning this painful lesson today. They are likely to be penalized.  If it must survive, the political system has to find a way of expelling them.

The failure of a political system to maintain its integrity is an invitation to be colonized by other systems like religion, the market, science, etc.  In modern societies, issues left unresolved by politics are referred to the legal system.  Politics and law thus work as a pair, reinforcing one another but also respecting each other’s autonomy. Judges do not take on functions reserved to the political authorities, and vice-versa, politicians do not make servants of the nation’s judges.

The function of the political system is to produce decisions that bind every member of society.  This function must be performed legitimately – meaning, in a way that people will accept.  Legitimacy is much broader than legality. Some actions that strictly adhere to the law may be rejected as illegitimate.

The 1972 declaration of Martial Law by Marcos was judged to be legal, but many Filipinos opposed it as an illegitimate exercise of a presidential prerogative.  The 1973 Constitution that Marcos subsequently crafted to suit his own purposes was declared by the Supreme Court to be legally in force. But it did not prevent Filipinos from overthrowing the political order it spawned.

In past columns, I have repeatedly stated that what is in crisis in our country today is not just the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but the whole political system.  At the most visible level, this crisis manifests itself in the distrust of the Filipino people for nearly all their politicians regardless of where they stand on issues.  It is also seen in their skepticism about elections and the sense of futility they express when they talk about corruption in government.

I think that what our people are seeking at this point is not an overhaul of the whole political order, but a collective resolve to allow our present institutions to work as they should. They see this as requiring not so much a change in the form of government as a change in the quality of our leaders.  That is the reason why the question of alternative leaders keeps coming up.  The question of “who” however hides a host of other more difficult questions.

Where do we find these alternative leaders?  What assurance do we have that, once in power, they will not behave in exactly the same way as today’s politicians?  Aren’t a society’s politicians, after all, merely the reflection of the mindset of its citizens?  In considering the political problems of our society, can we avoid inquiring into the nature of our economic system, our moral system, and the rest of our way of life?

The complexity of these questions overwhelms people, often inducing in them a paralysis of will that favors the status quo.  Ms Arroyo has been the biggest beneficiary of this confusing moment in the nation’s political life.

But difficult as it may be, the problem is not insoluble as it appears. Marx once said that we become aware of problems typically because the conditions for solving them already exist.  One of the conditions, to my mind, that has made us increasingly aware of our political problems is the change in consciousness that has been quietly taking place among Filipinos in the last three decades.  Its spear point is a growing assertive middle class with modern expectations about governance, leadership, and citizenship.  It is this class that has been most vocal in defending our democratic institutions from corruption.

These institutions are as modern as we can hope to build them, but, alas, they are still run by politicians with feudal instincts.  Viewed from this perspective, our political crisis is really a symptom of this disconnect between design and performance.  More and more of our people are seeing this contradiction and want to end it.  Many, it is true, are putting up their hands in surrender, but countless others persist in the fight to close the gap.  They know this will not be achieved overnight.

Some observers are alarmed over the kind of responses that are generated by the growing frustration with the current political impasse.  They say that while critics of the Arroyo government strongly condemn the shameless behavior of the traditional politicians, they do not seem to mind going back to an era of religious hegemony, when preachers acted as the arbiters of political power. This warning is fair and important; it should not be ignored.

In this regard, I am personally gratified by the statement of Catholic

Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) head, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, on the nature of the “prayer rally” being held today at the Luneta. “It is a religious response to a political situation.  Our government needs to be prayed for,” he said.  There is progress here. Church leaders are mindful of their moral functions.  But one may detect in such tempered statements a wish to leave political advocacy and leadership to the laity. We must welcome this.  Without this restraint, churches risk losing their own legitimacy as communities in an increasingly differentiated world.


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