Parties of the future

In the campaign leading up to tomorrow’s election, political platforms or programs of government – the basic ingredients of a functioning democracy — predictably took a backseat.  This sad reality not only mirrors the relative immaturity of the country’s politics, it also explains the lack of coherence in the nation’s governance.

As in previous elections, this year’s campaign was driven mainly by personalities.  But even here, the messages stayed at the primitive level of ensuring name recall, which favored heavy investments in repetitive television and radio advertising.  Candidates with nothing to offer but money and celebrity appeal stayed away from forums and debates, where they ran the risk of exposing the void in their minds.

The senatorial race pits two alliances of convenience against each other — one supported by the sitting president, Gloria MacapagalArroyo, and the other closely identified with the detained expresident, Joseph Ejercito Estrada.  Nothing substantial distinguishes the two teams from one another, surely not in terms of shared principles or visions.

Even more dismal is the contest at the local level, where the usual political families or factions of Ms Arroyo’s political circle are locked in bitter struggle.  In a few instances, as in Pampanga’s gubernatorial race, a dark horse representing a spontaneous third force has come forward to offer an alternative.  But, the political passion that makes such reformist breakthroughs possible is bound to dissipate immediately after the election, unless someone takes the lead to organize a new political party.

Apart from electoral reforms aimed at minimizing if not totally eliminating fraud in the counting and canvassing of votes, a modern political system will require the formation of stable political parties that represent competing analyses of the national situation and alternative visions of the future.  Dynasties and “trapos” flourish because of the absence of program-based political parties.

It was for the purpose of breaking the cycle of traditional politics that the framers of the 1987 Constitution introduced the concept of the party-list under a multi-party system.  But the idea of allocating parliamentary seats according to the proportion of votes obtained by parties was so unfamiliar that its proponents had to settle for an experiemental compromise.  That compromise fused two distinct concepts — proportional representation and sectoral representation – into a single confusing system. Still, the open terrain prescribed by the 1987 Charter has been hospitable to the birth of a new breed of parties.  I shall mention only two here: Akbayan and Kapatiran.

I had a chance to read the documentation of the multi-layered process that culminated in the Akbayan platform of governance.  I was impressed not only by participatory character of the process but by the high level of research and analysis that informs the document. This is Akbayan’s principal strength.

But, in addition, its nominees are among the best that the progressive community can offer.  Risa Hontiveros is a leading peace advocate and passionate champion of women’s causes. Hers is the gentle but courageous voice behind every campaign against the abuses of power.  Walden Bello, a professor of sociology and public administration at UP, is the Philippines’ best known intellectual activist against the excesses of globalization.  No other Filipino has written and spoken as widely as he has on the complexities of the global political economy. Gico Dayanghirang combines his broad experience as a former Davao Oriental congressman with local grassroots work in Mindanao’s countryside.  Gico offers the local perspective of communities on the ground.

Kapatiran, on the other hand, is not running in the crowded party-list race.  In its very first election, it has boldly decided to go national by fielding a small team of three senatorial candidates.  I know a little about the birth pains that attended the formation of Kapatiran, having spoken at a couple of gatherings organized by its founder, the irrepressible Nandy Pacheco.  Nandy belongs to that rare breed of lay Catholics who take to heart the social teachings of the Church.

Kapatiran’s vision is communitarian; its battle hymn is social solidarity.

The surveys have shown Kapatiran’s senatorial candidates trailing behind the better-known political names.  Martin Bautista, a physician who enjoyed a successful practice in the US came home for good a few years ago to help rebuild the country.  In a small but significant gesture of patriotism, Zosimo Paredes quit the Arroyo government after a basic disagreement over the scope of Filipino jurisdiction in the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement.  Adrian Sison, a lawyer, has eloquently articulated Kapatiran’s position on almost every issue in various media appearances.  Whether or not they make it to the Senate, they have already won the hearts of many thoughtful Filipinos who believe in the power of example.

Today, there is a strong push to abolish the party list and to go back to the old two-party system, as if this alone would cure the dysfunctions of an obsolete political system. Should that happen, the new visionary parties like Kapatiran and Akbayan – the kind of parties we expect to find in a modern society – would likely vanish.  That would be a setback.  For, if there is anything bright in this uninspiring political season, it has to be the presence of these two unique parties.

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