The crisis of cash politics

The recent expose of the distribution of cash bundles in the presidential palace at the end of a day-long meeting with legislators and local government executives casts new light on the evolving nature of Philippine politics.  In the early years of the nation’s politics, the top officials of the land commanded enough awe and respect to be able to whip their followers into line without having to purchase their loyalty.  This was when moral ascendancy was a key ingredient of political legitimacy, and moral power was assiduously protected against erosion. So much has changed in the succeeding years.

The concern with one’s honor, integrity, and trustworthiness, which characterized the behavior of our early politicians, has been replaced by an almost exclusive fixation with political capital – party machinery, funds, media popularity, and political networks.  A distrust rating of 46%, Pulse Asia’s most recent finding for President Arroyo would have compelled a Roxas, a Quirino, a Magsaysay or a Garcia to consider stepping down from the presidency.  For trust, more than solid performance, lies at the heart of the Filipino public’s valuation of their political leaders.  When this is low, nothing that a president reports about the state of the country merits any attention.

The fact that Ms Arroyo has seen it fit not to say anything at all about the payola scandal at her doorstep shows the level to which honor as a value has sunk in the present political system.  From a moral standpoint, this is indeed cause for despair.  But, looking at it objectively, the cash distribution at Malacanang provides interesting signs of the transition that the political system is undergoing.  The system appears hopelessly trapped in its own paradox, unable to manage the problems it has brought upon itself.

The resources at the disposal of any leader, writes the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, consist basically of three types: normative, remunerative, and coercive.  Of these three, the most favored and the most effective is normative power.  Normative power generates moral or dutiful compliance.  Remunerative power, in contrast, only breeds calculative compliance.  On the other hand, coercive power brings out alienated or resentful compliance. Wise leaders basically rely on normative power, resorting to remuneration and coercion only sparingly.  But the more illegitimate a leader is perceived to be, the more that leader would be inclined to depend heavily on remuneration and coercion to maintain power. That kind of power, by its nature, is short-lived.

If Ms Arroyo were confident about her grip on the presidency, it is doubtful if she would deploy the kind of powers she has lately been using.  Why would she dole out cash to political allies who profess to be on her side?  She might grant favors, but she would not want to appear as if she was literally buying political support — unless she is still fighting for survival and is fast running out of options.

Because of this, it is hard to imagine how Ms Arroyo’s regime can avoid the fate of the despised Marcos regime.  If it is lucky to survive until 2010, it will most likely remain the object of so much scorn that anyone it anoints as successor will not be able to proudly wear its coat of arms and expect to win in a fair election.  The results of the 2007 senatorial election gave us a foretaste of this.

Still, it is important to bear in mind that while Ms Arroyo is today the most visible symbol of a decadent political system, she is not its sole surviving practitioner.  Out there is a whole set of aspiring politicians bent on capturing the presidency, and relying more or less on the same tested resources – cash, charisma, and connections. Even the enlightened among them appear unprepared to go against the culture of patronage in which the whole nation is mired.

Where lies the hope then?  I believe the most interesting changes are unfolding at the local level.  New leaders like Pampanga Governor Ed Panlilio are showing the way. He is bent on dismantling the structures of patronage in his home province.  And he has done this by simply draining the cash out of the patronage kitty of politicians.  When he took over as governor, the first thing he did was to clean up the system of collecting fees from the lahar quarrying operations in the province.  The result is dramatic: without raising quarry fees, he collected in three months the equivalent of more than three years of quarry taxes under the preceding administration.  In contrast to previous practice, these funds are officially and equitably disbursed among the various municipal and barangay units for specific projects. The channels used are institutional and all expenditures are audited. No one gets a chance to play the role of patron.

But lo and behold — the mayors of the province recently demanded greater control over quarrying, something they were content to forego under previous administrations when they were getting a pittance. The provincial board instantly complied and passed Ordinance No. 176, effectively taking away from the governor the power to supervise the tax collection and transferring it to the mayors and the municipal and provincial associations of quarry operators.   It is the old system gasping for life.  It will take more than one reformist governor to overturn patronage politics.  But the transition is underway, and it cannot be reversed.  It is in search of energetic champions, and it is good to look at the profiles of the newly-elected barangay captains to see if there has been an infusion of fresh blood.


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