Political immaturity

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo often describes Philippine politics as if she were a detached observer analyzing its dysfunctions, rather than a key player very much implicated in the perpetuation of these dysfunctions.

Consider her remarks the other day at the opening ceremonies of the 35th Top Level Management Conference of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas in Tagaytay.  Referring to the recently released Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Report on the NBN-ZTE deal that has recommended, among others, her impeachment for failing to uphold the law after then Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri told her he was offered a bribe to approve the project, she dismisses the charges against her as “unsubstantiated allegations.”

“It is part of our immature institutions,” she proclaims with an air of academic certainty. “And this immaturity hurts the growth of the nation. That is why after economic reform, I have long called for fundamental reform of our political system and our institutions…. That is why once again I call for fundamental reform of our political system to ensure greater accountability and transparency. But also reform to make politics less destructive.”

One wonders how any speech writer can put these words into the mouth of Ms Arroyo without being bothered by second thoughts. What she’s saying here in so many words is that the committee’s findings are politically-motivated, ignoring the fact that the head of the Senate anti-graft committee and many of its leading members who signed the report can hardly be considered Opposition.  In the exercise of its check-and-balance function, the Senate has demanded accountability of the President.  And all the President could say is this is “part of our immature institutions”!

The interesting thing is that many people will agree that indeed our political system is immature.  But one must ask whether Ms Arroyo understands what it means for a political system to be mature, and whether a politician with a record like hers has the will or credibility to reform the system.

What exactly is a mature political system?  I propose a definition that addresses both the external and internal relations of systems.

Firstly, we may consider a political system mature when its operations and decisions are not determined by interests coming from the other systems of society, like religion, the economic sphere, kinship, etc.  Any system that has not fully differentiated itself from its environment and cannot stand alone may therefore be considered immature.  This does not mean that a mature system must be blind to the demands of the other systems in society.  Maturity simply means being able to decide and act solely in accordance with the system’s own values, rules and priorities.  This is as true for persons as it is for social systems.

Secondly, a mature system develops an internal complexity that allows it to confront a wide range of problems without burdening the entire system.  Thus, instead of one ruler making all decisions, a mature political system differentiates itself into autonomous sub-parts like the presidency, the legislature, and the bureaucracy, etc.  In mature democracies, political leaders respect the autonomy of government agencies like the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Ombudsman; they let them do their work according to the law and their institutional mandates.  Appointing authorities ensure their independence by appointing only the most qualified, who are expected to rise above the claims of loyalty and gratitude.  Most importantly, they don’t use them as weapons in their own political battles.

Ms Arroyo loves to project herself as the victim of an “immature” and “degenerate” political system, when in fact she has been, along with Marcos, its craftiest player.   By casting the presidency in the role of the ultimate patron, she has undermined the integrity and autonomy of a broad range of public institutions and government agencies – the armed forces, the police, the Ombudsman, the revenue collection agencies, the House of Representatives, the civil service, the health and welfare agencies, the justice department, and indeed the local government units.   And she has done so with a nihilistic and calculating pragmatism seldom seen among our politicians.

When the history of the Arroyo regime is finally written, the focus of analysis will surely be on the conditions that made it possible for someone like her to set back the clock of political modernity almost at will.  Three factors will likely stand out: one, the irregular circumstances that thrust her to the presidency in 2001; two, the extraordinary length of time in which she held the presidency; and three, the absence of a sharp distinction between Administration and Opposition.  It will be seen that all of these are in one way or another outcomes of our immature political system.

Curiously, the late President Cory Aquino faced more or less similar contingencies during her time.  Yet Cory is remembered as the president who paved the way for the restoration of our democratic institutions, whereas GMA will long be remembered as the one who did everything to destroy them.  It is hardly surprising that Cory also cut clean from political power when her term was up, while GMA aspires to linger on.

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