Moral symbols in politics

The rise of moral symbols in politics always provides a dramatic starting point for a society’s transformation.  Figures like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, and Cory Aquino quickly come to mind.  In an instant, they symbolize everything that their people aspire to be as a community.  They trigger the recovery of national self-esteem and morale.

Most moral symbols find themselves reluctantly drawn into politics. Thus did Mandela make the overnight passage from prison to the presidency, for Fernando Lugo the transition from the priesthood to the presidency, and for our own Cory Aquino the crossover from family affairs to state affairs.

Moral symbols are also usually spiritual leaders.  They articulate a philosophy of life and a vision for society that goes beyond the politics of any given moment.  Their presence in their society is both redemptive and educative.  Their moral authority emanates from their bigger-than-life significance, and so when they are made to assume the more mundane roles of politics, the result is often a demystification that erodes the very basis of their authority.

The partnership between Gandhi and Nehru in India worked well because there was an implicit division of labor between these two great leaders.  While Nehru, the astute politician, went to work to consolidate and build the nation, Gandhi stayed out of government, preferring the role of unifier.  Although he was an organizer and leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi shunned government, believing that the only real basis for social order was self-rule, i.e. every person learning to govern himself.

Gandhi exerted a powerful influence on Indian politics.  And he did so by exemplifying an exacting moral purity that no one could challenge. Yet, he understood the demands of politics enough to know when to continue arguing and when to accept defeat, when to fight and when to give in.  He opposed the British partition of India and Pakistan from the start, but he bowed to the decision of his party to accept partition. He mediated in the rivalry between Nehru and Patel, his two disciples, always concerned to protect the strength and unity of the party.  Such is the role of moral symbols.  Their power stems from their precise disavowal of power.

Moral capital seems in such short supply in politics nowadays that there is a strong current to recruit moral figures from outside.  This is perfectly understandable.  But the outcomes can be risky and highly unpredictable.  Mandela remained an inspirational figure until he finished his term.  Cory’s image suffered because of her government’s failure to unite the country and address the needs of the poor by pursuing a meaningful land reform program.  In Paraguay, all eyes are on Fernando Lugo, the former Catholic bishop who gave up the priesthood in order to challenge the party of the elite that had ruled his country for more than 60 years.  He won.

In the province of Pampanga, all eyes too are on Governor Eddie “Among Ed” Panlilio, the parish priest who accepted suspension from his priestly duties in order to challenge the entrenched leadership of traditional politicians. In a stunning campaign run completely by nonparty formations and individuals, he managed to win by a very slim margin.  A recall campaign to remove him from the governorship has recently been launched by his political enemies.  This campaign may be gaining ground in Pampanga, but in the rest of the country, the priest-turned-politician retains the image of a moral crusader bent on cleansing Filipino politics.

Because I am Kapampangan, I am often asked to explain what is happening in Pampanga.  People want to know if there is any basis to the charge that Among Ed has not been able to do very much as governor.  They ask if it is true that his original supporters have either turned against him or left him.

This is how I see the situation in the province.  Governance in Pampanga is unfortunately caught in a political stalemate.  The partyless governor has been unable to get any support for his programs from the other elected officials of the province.  The latter are now more disposed to fight the governor openly because his own forces appear disillusioned and divided.  It is certainly not easy to govern when you are coming to government all by your self, as in Among Ed’s case.  The situation compels you to reach out to the other officials to seek areas of agreement.  The last thing you need under the circumstances is to deploy moral righteousness as a strategy for securing cooperation.  Among Ed does not see it this way, and that is the problem.

The Panlilio campaign for the governorship was launched wholly on the basis of a good versus evil contrast.  This may be effective as a campaign strategy, but not as a guide to governance. The code of politics does not revolve around the good-evil axis but around the distinction between majority and minority. Thus the key to political success is building a strong constituency around a program of government.

Among Ed rose to the governorship of Pampanga almost entirely on the basis of an urgent yearning for change.  It was an extraordinary time, and he had no preparation for politics.  He still insists he is a priest in politics.  Wrong. He gave up the priesthood to enter politics. With the little time left, he must now map out the road to change, unify his forces, reach out to his opponents, and ask his fellow Kapampangans to join hands in realizing the promise of new politics.


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