Splitting the summit

In mature democracies, the majority governs and the minority opposes.  This is how the political system serves the larger society. The majority forms the government, and the minority shadows it. In this manner are issues clarified, and collectively-binding decisions made.

The principal actors in this process are political parties, not individual politicians.  Parties are presumed to hold regular caucuses aimed at distilling the party line on crucial issues, and instilling party discipline among its members.  Only in rare instances do politicians cross party lines, or change political parties.

Where political parties are of marginal importance in the election of politicians, such as we have in our country today, majorities tend to shift, rendering the separation of government and opposition unclear. Mobile majorities are nothing new in Philippine politics.

What is new is the increasing diversity of interests that are being brought into play in the formation of majorities.  What is happening in Congress today testifies to this.  In the House of Representatives, Speaker Jose de Venecia had to fight tooth and nail to retain the speakership in the face of the challenge mounted — not by the opposition, but – by a bloc in the same government coalition that the president is supposed to lead.  Despite her vaunted political skills, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not been able to consolidate and stabilize this coalition.  It is bound to disintegrate as soon as she exits from office.

Pretty much the same thing is taking place in the Senate today, where Senator Manuel Villar, who ran with the opposition, has managed to keep the senate presidency only by enlisting the support of the administration senators.  An attempt by his fellow opposition senators to replace him prompted him to form his own majority.  It is, however, a fragile majority, resting entirely on his ability to please everyone who has cast his lot with him.

Lost in this personality-driven power play is the whole question of mandate.  The voting public was sending out a message through the 2007 midterm election.  It comes in the form of a command to those who won in the election. This mandate may be interpreted in various ways, but there is no way one can omit the fact that it is, first and foremost, a mandate to check the Arroyo government’s abuse of governmental power.  That is why Antonio Trillanes IV won and Michael Defensor lost; why Prospero Pichay lost and Panfilo Lacson won, etc. A candidate’s chances of being elected senator in 2007 were inversely proportional to his/her perceived closeness to President Arroyo.

If parties were strong in our system, as they are in other countries, the opposition senators would take heed of the message of the 2007 election, drawing from this the criteria for deciding who should take on which committee for the sake of what effects.  In this manner, individual interests are subsumed under the general program and strategy of the opposition.

This is not happening here.  The opposition has no unified strategy for taking power in 2010 because it is not an opposition in the real sense, just as the Arroyo administration is not a government in the real sense.  In the absence of long-term programs and visions, our politicians are reduced to the status of free-floating elements that attach themselves to any tissue of power.  None of them becomes strong and charismatic enough to lead a stable constituency, or to weave a coherent program that can attract politicians and voters alike.  Some of them may win the presidency, but their influence on the nation’s political life never endures; it dissipates as soon as they are out of power.

This set up is what leads to authoritarian adventurism and, consequently, political instability.  Some presidents think they can execute a political shortcut, exploiting the tremendous powers of the presidency and justifying it in the name of governance, in order to remain in power indefinitely.  They end up killing politics itself, unable to tap its problem-solving potential in the face of enormous complexity in the social environment.

But things are changing, albeit slowly.  Structural changes in our society are steadily bringing into the political stage individuals and social movements that are challenging the existing organization of our political life.  They are non-traditional political actors that do not respond to the beat of old-style elite politics.  It is not to say they do not play its games.  In the short-term, I am sure they do.  But in the present state of disarray in which they find themselves, one might detect a glimmer of possible alternatives, of a politics based on clear programs and deeply-held beliefs, of governance based on consultation, accountability, and professionalism.

Right now, this promise is coming in the form of unusual individuals who have found themselves thrust into politics almost against their will – like Governor Eddie Panlilio of Pampanga and Senator Trillanes.  By themselves, they are unlikely to change the face of Philippine politics.  But the same social impulses that brought them to the center stage of politics could, under the right circumstances, catalyze the formation of new political movements and parties that would permanently transform the rules of our political life.

Until this happens, the summit of our society will remain monolithic. Politics will only start working for us if the summit is split.


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