The promise of politics

The public has watched with great interest the almost weekly visits of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to Pampanga, particularly to the province’s second district, where she is a registered voter.  These unusual visits, too numerous to ignore, have fueled speculation that Ms Arroyo may be preparing to contest the district’s seat, either as representative in the present Congress or as member of parliament in a new parliamentary government.

At this point, no one, except Ms Arroyo herself, really knows what she intends to do when she is no longer president.  Her critics have assumed that a president with a record as shady as hers will surely be hounded by charges of corruption, abuse of power, and betrayal of public trust as soon as she leaves the presidency. Thus, she is expected to cling to some form of public power at the end of her term to provide her leverage if not protection against such charges.  One way to do this is precisely by becoming prime minister in a parliamentary system.  There are many other ways – legal, quasilegal, or even illegal.  In societies like ours, it is foolish to think that those who have tasted power are necessarily bound by what is constitutional.  This particular president has consistently shown a willful readiness to test the outer limits of the law in order to achieve political objectives.

And so, to ask whether it is legal or moral or proper for Ms Arroyo to aim for a congressional or parliamentary position seems to me to miss the point.  It is not the number of times she has visited Pampanga in the past three months that is important, nor is it her desire to represent the district come 2010.  The point that should be examined is the kind of politics she brings to the province.

Hardly anyone has paid much attention to what Ms Arroyo does during these Pampanga sorties.  Of course she meets with local politicians and other influentials, and wades through the gathered throngs of expectant province mates.  But, more than this, she distributes checks, ancestral domain titles, Philhealth cards, food, and medicines. She orders the dredging of waterways, the construction of school buildings, health centers, roads, bridges, irrigation canals, etc. In short, she becomes during these visits the chief patron that makes all things possible with the wave of her magic wand.  More of these she promises so long as they continue to support her.

Indeed, Ms Arroyo has played the game of patronage politics with consummate skill. But if this were all there is to politics, we should not be needing presidents.  We should not even be needing legislators. At most we should have only town mayors or provincial governors with enough resources to take care of the material needs of local constituents.

Ms Arroyo is supposed to be president of the whole nation, not of one province.  As a Kapampangan myself, who has seen far more impoverished provinces than Pampanga in the course of my travels, I object to the idea of using the powers of the presidency to favor the needs of one’s home  province or district over another.  But more than this, I object to the idea of short-circuiting the regular channels and procedures of government to deliver public goods and services, so that these may be passed off as emanations of a politician’s personal generosity.

It is not to deny that there are still needy and materially deprived communities in the first class province of Pampanga.  For indeed there are.  But if I were a local politician from Pampanga — with its highly-developed infrastructure, enormously talented artisans, creative entrepreneurs, and accomplished professionals — I would feel ashamed, rather than proud, that the President of the country would find it necessary to distribute basic goods and services when she comes for a visit.  It only means I have failed in my job.

That we should find nothing wrong in charity politics makes one wonder whether we are at all prepared for politics as it is supposed to be.  Hannah Arendt, from whose book I borrow the title of this column, has written: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”  Politics is the activity of human beings who must find a way of living together despite their differences.  Arendt sought to rehabilitate politics from its ancient origins, when it was treated as inferior to philosophy.

Among the Greeks, politics was nothing more than a necessary chore – a lesser activity that needed to be pursued so that human beings might be freed from the pressure of material needs and thus allowed to enjoy the pleasures of philosophical contemplation and solitude.  In this traditional context, the public realm was reserved to those who did not have to work because they owned slaves.  We have come a long way from this negative conception of politics.  Thanks to Marx, it has become possible to think of politics as a means for changing the world so that everyone, not just owners of property, may be able to live in freedom.

Without any doubt, the pressure of poverty — of keeping body and soul together — continues to oppress the majority of Filipinos, undermining their capacity to participate meaningfully in public life. They will be able to exercise political agency only when they are freed from such pressure.  Patronage politics is politics of the worst kind precisely because it exploits the material deprivation of the many.  Ms Arroyo’s political moves are objectionable not only because they are aimed at perpetuating herself in power, but more importantly because they perpetuate the impotence of our people.


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