Politics is not all addition

There is a view of politics that is very popular among Filipino politicians.  It is summed up by the oft-repeated line attributed to the late Senator Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez: “Politics is addition.” This belief has been made to rationalize all the opportunism, the horsetrading, and the painless party-switching that we find in our electoral campaigns.

This axiom is true in one sense, but false in another.  Insofar as politics involves the aggregation of interests, politics is indeed addition.  But a political group that adds without discrimination eventually undermines itself.  The very conditions that made it possible and gave it its identity are bound to be eroded when it can no longer distinguish itself from its environment.  Addition therefore works for politics only to the extent that it proceeds from a sharp differentiation between what it includes and what it excludes.

Politics that merely adds and does not divide is no politics at all — at least not in the modern sense of the word.  The line that separates the opposition from the administration would get blurred with every indiscriminate addition.  Politics would remain a mere extension of the more developed institutional spheres of social life – like religion, the economy, the mass media, or the family.  It would fail to evolve into an autonomous function in society.

Ideally, politics operates on the basis of a distinction – a distinction between what one opposes and what one advocates.  Where these are left undefined, politics becomes nothing more than a battle of personalities that draw their primary identities from the other functional systems of society.  The mode of governance that results from this type of politics will tend to be opportunistic rather than program-driven, transactional rather than transformational.

That Filipino politicians are allowed to switch parties with ease only perpetuates the shallowness of our political life.  This habit robs politics of its revitalizing power.  It renders it difficult to weave new constituencies around new ideas.  But more than this, it makes it difficult to nurture new political leaders.  There is little room left for young and relatively unknown leaders when the veterans of traditional politics, regardless of their political stripe or persuasion, are indiscriminately recruited and permitted to occupy the limited seats in every winning side.

One can appreciate, against this background, former senator Serge Osmena’s decision to dissociate himself from the senatorial slate of the Liberal Party immediately after the party recruited former Neda director-general and socio-economic planning secretary Ralph Recto into its slate.  Recto ran as a senatorial candidate of the ruling party in the 2007 election and lost.  He thereafter accepted an appointment as a member of the Arroyo Cabinet, resigning from this position only recently for reasons that remain unclear.  Osmena asks on what grounds is Recto to be classified as opposition.  Recto was not just a technocrat recruited into government for a specific function.  He was a stalwart of the ruling political party.  Did he leave the Arroyo government because he could not accept the way President Arroyo was running the country?  Did he refuse a seat in the government’s senatorial slate because he could not agree with its program? It is Recto’s difficult task to provide the public persuasive answers to such questions.

But the burden of explaining lies as much with the Liberal Party.

Osmena said that the recruitment of Recto into the LP senatorial slate “does not fit the image of what we want Senator Noynoy Aquino (the standard bearer) to project to the nation, to show goodwill in bringing about new politics and decency in government.”  He has a point. New politics and integrity in public service are indeed the standards by which the Noynoy-Mar team seeks to distinguish itself from the rest of the candidates for president and vice-president.  A code like this will inevitably be applied to the LP’s own choices, particularly at the national level.

In the 1987 senatorial election, following the ratification of the new Constitution, President Cory Aquino lent to her 24 handpicked senatorial candidates the magic of her Marian charisma.  Many of them were fresh faces drawn from the battles against the Marcos dictatorship.  Only two failed to make it.  The recent surveys have shown the enduring power of the late president’s legacy of decency in public office.  They indicate that the public believes Noynoy to be the principal legatee of this gift.  Yet, it is amazing to see how Noynoy’s party seems bent on squandering this inheritance by using it to buy the support of traditional politicians, rather than to engage and organize the scattered forces of reform into a stable constituency.

The latter, of course, is the more difficult road to take.  It is filled with uncertainty, and it could end in defeat.  But the journey it promises cannot be other than paradigm-changing, regardless of how it ends. In contrast, the conventional route, while perhaps more calculable in its outcome, contradicts from the start the very essence of what this journey is supposed to be about – the quest for genuine change. Noynoy finds himself at a crossroads: does he want badly to be president, or does he want to be a president who can catalyze change?

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