What Among Ed’s victory means

Pampanga’s pride today is no longer Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who, for a growing number of Filipinos, represents everything that is decadent in Philippine politics.  It is its newly-elected governor, the priest, Father Eddie T. Panlilio, whose campaign for the governorship against Ms Arroyo’s two well-funded candidates brought out the passionate volunteerism of Pampanga’s young professionals, entrepreneurs, and students.  Their euphoria is understandable: Among Ed’s victory signifies the recovery of Kapampangan selfesteem from the lowest levels to which it had sunk under the successive leadership of corrupt politicians.

Ms Arroyo has been ominously quiet about the defeat of her gubernatorial bets in her own province. It is possible she doesn’t quite know yet when and how to reach out to this quiet priest who had crushed two of her most loyal political allies.  Or maybe she doesn’t wish to hurt her friends, Baby and Bong Pineda, who must still be smarting from their stunning defeat.

But being the clever politician that she is, Ms Arroyo will surely find a way to minimize the fallout from the rejection of her candidates in Pampanga.  She will not allow Among Ed’s triumph to be represented as a rejection of her own leadership.  For indeed, she can always point to the successful bid of her eldest son, re-elected Representative Mikey Arroyo of the 2nd District, as an affirmation of her continuing influence on the politics of the province.  Mikey was virtually unopposed in his bid.  Moreover, Among Ed’s campaign stayed away from the national issues that have been raised against Ms Arroyo’s administration.

The gubernatorial outcome in Pampanga is certainly a bright ray of hope in an otherwise relentlessly gloomy political sky.  But we cannot exaggerate its importance to national politics.  It can lead to something new, or it can remain just another flash in the pan; a proof of what middle-class militancy can do, but also a reminder that the politics of reform does not end with the installation of a new leader. Baby Pineda, Mark Lapid, and Mikey Arroyo – like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself – are not themselves the enemy.  The enemy is the entrenched political system that allows money to purchase public office and to corrupt every institution of governance.  It is this that needs to be brought down.

We can rail against the immorality of this system, and demonize the people who run it, but there is no way to overthrow it other than from within politics itself — by the painstaking process of organizing citizens for long-term political engagement and governance.  This means harnessing, and going beyond, the energy of people power movements.  It means building an informed and self-reliant public, recruiting a new breed of political leaders and professional administrators into government service, and forming new stable political vehicles as alternatives to the obsolete patronage networks that have long dominated the nation’s political life.

There is every reason to hope that the new governor, with the help of advisers on local governance, can succeed in setting up a modern administrative system that is adequately insulated from short-term political interests. Demonstrating the power of exemplary behavior, he may even be able to tame the rapacious inclinations of local politicians who invested a lot of money to win public office. The impact of all this on revenue generation and delivery of basic services is immediately felt.

But can these reforms survive beyond the term of a solitary party-less governor?  Yes – but only if the reform impulse that thrust Among Ed into this unlikely role is stabilized and organized.  If this happens, the amorphous movement of volunteers that made the breakthrough possible may evolve into a broad-based reform constituency from which future leaders can be recruited.  That is how a new political party takes shape.  This political task, beyond governance itself, is not as easy as it may seem. It is cumulative, unceasing, latent, and often shadowy – in contrast to the dramatic and heroic moments that mark actual campaigns.  The skills it requires are of a different sort.

Reluctant individuals, drawn into politics by extraordinary circumstances, may often choose to stand above the cesspool of politics, hoping to preserve their purity.  They usually end up being overwhelmed by politics, unable to grasp its imperatives or to live with the imperfect choices it presents.  Potent and inspiring as political symbols, they however fail to establish enduring legacies.  In Max Weber’s sense, they are too good for politics.  In a famous essay, Weber wrote: “Only he has a calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.”

There is a strong undercurrent in our political life that is pushing the rest of our society toward modernity.  But it has been unable to gather enough force to produce a wave of such intensity as to sweep the dysfunctional structures that have hobbled us.  Among Ed’s triumph is a small version of the same phenomenon that brought the Marcos regime to its dramatic end in 1986.  Like Cory Aquino in Edsa I, this soft-spoken priest was the only one who could have tapped that current in Pampanga in 2007. Every thoughtful Filipino knows this is not where it should end. For this reform current to grow into a swell, it must be tracked down and activated at its deepest level — among the poor, who have been the most vulnerable victims of money politics.

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