To talk about politics while the country confronts a looming food crisis would seem insensitive. Politics connotes divisiveness, and one has to be callous not to see the need to come together and act as a unified community if we are to solve the basic problem of feeding our people. But if the search for consensus is to be more than a public relations gesture, we cannot lose sight of the connections that link our national problems to one another. These connections remain deeply political.
Some refer to it as the problem of governance, but the political crisis is more than that. We need to start with an appreciation of the social function of politics. Politics is society’s way of producing collectivelybinding decisions. We have a crisis when nearly every government decision taken is endlessly disputed. The decisions pertain to everything we do as a nation – from choosing the leaders who will make decisions in our name to deciding whether to get more foreign loans or rely on domestic savings, whether to pursue peace or wage war, whether to grow our own food or to import it, what language to use in school, etc.
These decisions are not equal in weight. A few, like the choosing of leaders, have more far-reaching consequences than others. Such decisions are thus directly made by the people through elections and plebiscites. Most decisions, however, are entrusted to the leaders we elect, and to the officials appointed by the people we elect. This simple picture will at once tell us how crucial the credible conduct of elections is to the whole functioning of a democratic government.
Politics is supposed to bind a people together, not tear them apart.
When there is overwhelming doubt about the fairness of the electoral process, the legitimacy of the people who assume the reins of government is compromised. The authority they command is weakened.
To compensate, leaders hounded by questions of political legitimacy will do all they can to bolster their power. They do this by resorting to pre-modern techniques of patronage and coercion. They may often succeed for a while, in the sense of being able to survive, but, in the long-term, because they are forced to micromanage, they find themselves mired in small decisions. More importantly, they undermine the institutions of government itself. These institutions work best when their accountability is clearly defined and their operational autonomy is respected. Instead of being impressed, I found it pathetic that President Arroyo stayed for two hours at the Bureau of Customs recently just to watch a bureau official type out a criminal complaint against smugglers. If she cannot trust her own appointees to do their work properly, she ought to fire them.
So much has been written about the roots of the present political crisis, and some people say it is now time to move past this crisis. It is difficult to imagine how we can move on without carrying forward the same dysfunctions that have hobbled the government throughout the Arroyo presidency. Nothing has been done to repair the shattered credibility of the electoral process. Far from being dismantled, the walls of political patronage that have prevented the free expression of the public will are being buttressed. Far from being reorganized according to professional criteria, the armed forces are further compromised by interlocking personal allegiances.
Under these circumstances, the 2010 elections, if they ever come, will only reproduce the crisis. The appearance of new faces in government may lull us into thinking that we have survived the crisis, and that a new era is upon us. But, as the worsening poverty and hunger figures in our country show, unless we institute dramatic changes in the way we conduct our politics, government will, sooner than we think, become irrelevant to the lives of Filipinos.
Decisive government action has to be taken to meet the urgent needs of the poorest and most desperate of our people. This has to go beyond short-term patronage. Their skills have to be developed and their lives made productive, their children must be properly fed and educated, and their communities and their culture protected so they can look to the future with confidence.
The whole electoral system must be overhauled, beginning with the appointment of election officials with unsullied reputations. We must not think that the credibility deficit of the electoral process can be cured by merely automating it. Electoral spending has gotten out of hand. It has driven good people out of politics, but worse, it has made corruption a standard component of the political system. If we cannot firmly enforce the rules, we should just abolish them. If responsible officials cannot ensure a credible process, they should be made to quit.
I am not one of those who believe that Ms Arroyo can be an agent of political change. She has abundantly shown that she is not. To be fair, it is doubtful if any president can change the system overnight. But no matter how long the process may take, the potential for enduring institutional change is always greater when people implicitly trust their leaders. Such trust has been massively eroded during Ms Arroyo’s watch. That is why every appointment or decision she makes is immediately suspect. We can do better than merely wait until her term is over. The time to rebuild is now — by keeping the pressure on her regime and by making sure that none of her proxies will have any place in the next government.
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