Necessary noise

The senatorial race, with its shining stars and famous faces, may seem like the defining contest of the May 2007 election, the one on which the administration and opposition are expected to focus their greatest energies.  But a hard look at what the government is doing on the ground suggests a different picture.  My view is that this election is not going to be a referendum on anybody.  It is rather going to be a purge, a cleansing of elements that the system cannot assimilate.

The crucial contest is going to be over the party-list seats, and the government’s objective is unambiguously the total elimination of the small but noisy band of left-leaning parties.

It is now clear that this has been the goal all along of the deployment of troops in Metro Manila’s slums in the last few weeks.  These impoverished but vote-rich communities have steadily provided the progressive party-list groups their winning margins since the first party-list elections of 1998. Their voters must be inoculated against the virus of party-list “communism”.  They must be alerted to the hidden agenda of these “enemies of the state”, who have used public office to undermine the political order that gives them space.  This is the line being peddled by the military in urban slums and remote rural communities, and also, increasingly, in various universities and colleges all over the country.

Why the government has assigned the military to undertake this propaganda war may seem puzzling.  Ms Arroyo’s regime has radio and television stations and newspapers at its disposal.  It can make use of these and the entire local government machinery to spread its word.  It has more than enough mercenaries in both houses of Congress to launch a sustained offensive against its perceived ideological antagonists.  Why ask the troops to perform what is patently a political function?

The answer can only be that the government has run out of arguments.  That is why it is sending out the military to universities and communities.  Their mission is not to debate but to indoctrinate, not to educate but to intimidate, not to enlighten but to threaten.  So, it is not puzzling why the military is at the forefront of this campaign. The objective is not to use the vote to eliminate the radical party-list groups; the aim is to eliminate them, period.  What is puzzling is how, in the face of this, we can continue to believe this is still a democracy.

It is ironic that the party-list system, for all its imperfections, has somehow functioned as a safety-valve mechanism for a society that has been choking from its ineradicable dysfunctions.  Indeed it has prolonged the life of this obsolete political system by lending to its elitist institutions a patina of democratic openness.

One doesn’t need to be a political theorist to know that the present party-list system is no more than a token, a concession that came by installment.  The party-list system, as provided for under Art. VI, Sec. 5 of the 1987 Constitution, reserves 20% of all congressional seats to “registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations.” It took 11 years after the ratification of the new constitution before this limited version of the European system of proportional representation could be put in place.

It also took a while before the progressive forces that battled the Marcos dictatorship from aboveground and underground could see in this tokenism the promise of a peaceful road to social emancipation. For decades, the Philippine Left had known no other form of politics but armed revolution and pressure politics. Activists debated the wisdom of accepting this token, and many scoffed at the idea of entering a terrain that had been previously mapped by traditional politicians.

One of the very first leftwing groups to take up the challenge of mainstream politics was Akbayan, which wove into the organization various strands of the Filipino Left.  Akbayan joined the 1998 congressional election and won one seat.  Encouraged, it made a bid again in the 2001 election and won two seats.  In 2004, it got the maximum number of three seats.  Bayan Muna entered the process in 2001 and garnered the maximum number of three seats on its first try.

The party-list representatives contribute new perspectives to the deliberations of the House of Representatives.  As outsiders to the game of traditional politics, they question the basic assumptions of government policy.  As veterans of movement politics, they inject a refreshing irreverence into legislative discourse.

In the language of social systems analysis, the party-list groups introduce necessary “noise” into a system that is prone to lull itself into a fake consensual tranquility. By generating feedback, they make it possible for society to observe itself, to talk to itself, and to reform itself.

Not surprisngly, the Arroyo regime is allergic to feedback.  It is scared of its own shadow.  It is so paranoid it regards every criticism as a threat to its survival. If it should ever succeed in revising the Charter, the first thing it would surely do is erase the party-list system.  But for as long as it is there, the regime strategy is to deny the progressives any place in it.  Now, Akbayan’s Etta Rosales has charged that the government has created its own party-list pawns which it is bent on installing by hook or by crook. I trust that the voting public will see through this scheme.  We don’t need more stooges in Congress.  We need fearless party-list legislators who will irritate the system.


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