Political change

Approaching the end of its protracted term, after wielding power for more than nine years, the Arroyo administration is now engaged in what can only be called a pathetic effort to banner its achievements. It has been buying advertisement space in the mass media to show how much progress has been attained under Ms Arroyo.  It has plastered the name and face of the president on highway bill boards, public buildings, ports, bridges, etc.  Recently, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) shrouded the city’s pedestrian overpasses with long banners proclaiming: “Thank you very much, President Arroyo, for this footbridge!”

All this can only backfire on Ms Arroyo in the form of even lower trust and approval ratings.  For, no government can use its power to command public trust.  Like love and affection, trust is freely given.  It can neither be coerced nor bought.

Malacanang’s image makers call it “presidential branding.”  It is nothing but arrogance – this habit of claiming as one’s own personal achievements public works projects that belong to entire institutions. Most of these were started by past administrations.  They were conceptualized and executed by a corps of dedicated and anonymous public servants.   Public money, not the personal wealth of the Arroyos, was used to build these structures.

Some may think attaching the names of officials to public property is a harmless way of recognizing the initiatives of hardworking presidents.  If that is so, we should allow the next generation to do the honors.  But let us leave the public character of buildings, institutions, and infrastructure intact, free from the branding virus that seems to have particularly afflicted this administration.   The same rule must apply to congressmen and local elected officials who love to paint their names on public ambulances, fire trucks, and other official vehicles.  Personal branding of public property is a form of appropriation.  If it is not right to use an official vehicle for a private purpose, why should it be right to paint one’s name on it?

Indeed, we can ask all the candidates in the 2010 election, from the president to the lowest councilor, to pledge that, if elected, they would not continue this odious practice.  That, instead, they would put up, for every public works project, a small board showing the name of the contractor, the technical specifications, the budget, and beginning and completion dates.  These may be little things, but they are not insignificant.  In the long term, they strengthen institutions and compel government to be accountable and transparent.

For this is what modern governance is really about.  Individuals fade into the background, while institutional systems take front stage. Services are delivered systematically to an appreciative public by the agencies of government, rather than personally by the nation’s politicians.  Accordingly, citizens express their gratitude to government itself, rather than to individual patrons.  The political leaders only take credit when the government they lead as a whole is able to meet the expectations of the people.

Here, at once, we may see what troubles governance in our country at the current stage of its development.  It remains much too personal; it cannot stand strong institutions and professional civil servants.  It is still trapped in the patron-client ways of a hierarchical society.  A proof of this is that, after 65 years of independence, we still do not have stable political parties.  Our elections are still personality contests driven by charisma, patronage, and kinship networks – rather than by issues, programs, or ideologies.

Has it always been like this?  Our elders will likely tell us that we have moved backward politically despite the growth of a middle and educated class, and despite the presence of a more informed public. They will say that there was a more reliable and professional civil service in their time, that our leaders behaved like statesmen, and that there was less corruption.   They will also say that political parties played a bigger role in politics then than they do today.  If they are right, how do we account for this deterioration in the quality of our public life?

Perhaps we can begin to answer this question by noting that recruitment to leadership roles in Philippine politics up to 1972 was distinctly elitist, controlled by a two-party system dominated by the landed oligarchy.  Filipino leaders were conscious of their responsibility as builders of a free nation.  They were keen to show the world that Filipinos were capable of governing themselves.  A whole generation of Filipino professionals was educated to take over the reins of government.  In a sense, that golden period concealed the underlying weakness of our society – the mass poverty and sharp inequalities that reduced most of our people into dependent spectators.

With the passing of that pre-war generation, the stresses and strains of an underdeveloped society struggling to govern itself democratically began to surface.  The old feudal values of restraint and nobility quickly vanished, as the logic of a cash economy prevailed.  The intervening martial law period destroyed the political parties.  With the return of democracy, the doors to the nation’s political system opened widely, but minus the gate-keeping role of political parties.  Gone is the goal of nation-building.  The result has been the steady depreciation of politics and governance.  We are in transition.  We can neither return to the old nor be content with the present.  We have no choice but to re-invent the nation.