Political parties and grassroots movements

In modern democracies, the ideal role of political parties is to listen to the problems and aspirations of citizens, and, in the course of this, to organize and empower them. The outcome of this effort should be a collective force devoted to a vision of the common good and subscribing to set of well-defined policies and programs. On this basis, parties compete for the right to govern.

Yet, even the best democracies often do not measure well by these standards.  Political parties may be captured by professional politicians whose dominance rests solely on their ability to exploit the weaknesses of the prevailing political culture.  Instead of allowing fresh blood to renew their ranks, parties may ossify and become no more than tools of vested interests and personal ambitions.  As such, they fail to adapt to the realities of a complex society.

The problem in the Philippines is the opposite.  Our political parties are incoherent and unstable.  They have no enduring organizational identities or clear constituencies.  They promote no distinctive visions or programs.  Their hold on their leaders and members is weak. They are dormant much of the time, coming alive only during elections.  They have no sustained programs for recruiting and nurturing new leaders.  The leader of the party is usually the one who can fund its electoral participation.  A leader with no funds of his own to dispense will be unable to hold the party together. Party members do not pay regular dues to fund party operations; they expect the party to financially support them.  Philippine political parties are really brand names whose current owners trade on a bit of history to give themselves a touch of stature.

There have been efforts to institutionalize the organization and functioning of our political parties.  These efforts typically begin with the establishment of a party institute that takes on the basic tasks of policy research and the training of new leaders.  But these initiatives have had little impact on the conduct of our politics.

Politics in our society remains in the grip of old and new political families.   It is these families and the personal networks they create that perform the function of political parties.  Kinship continues to be the chief determinant of access to political power because of the massive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families.  A few of these are the same old land-owning clans that have dominated our nation’s life since independence, but the rest are the new rich that have made a killing in the country’s distorted economy, using strategic political influence to enhance their private fortunes.  Only they are in any position to fund our insanely expensive electoral campaigns.

The growth of an educated and self-sufficient middle class should pave the way for political parties with clear constituencies and welldefined visions and platforms of government.  Yet there is no guarantee that they can replace the patronage-driven traditional parties.  They can be hijacked by entrenched political and business interests in much the same way young, bright and promising leaders are sometimes recruited and groomed to serve as proxies of the elite.

Where, then, will change come from?  The emerging view is that it can only come from the political forces that crystallize from the participatory experiments of non-party formations.  It will not come from the existing political parties themselves. Indeed, the latter’s survival in the long term may depend on their readiness to integrate the practices of grassroots movements into their own operations.  In this regard, the unique “people’s campaign” of the Aquino-Roxas tandem, which combines traditional party campaigning with the unconventional techniques of community organizing, is worth observing.

Interestingly, this political trend is what also seems to be radically altering the electoral landscape in America today.  Obama’s capture of the US presidency in 2008 is largely credited to the unorthodox parallel campaign waged by unaffiliated grassroots volunteers. Taking their cue from that political disaster, America’s conservatives have recently re-grouped into an amorphous political movement known as the “Tea Party” that is publicly opposing the Obama presidency’s policy initiatives.  The birth of this movement is rattling the Republican Party itself. For now, the movement’s rhetoric is aimed at officialdom as a whole, echoing the distrust for Washingtontype politicians that Obama was able to tap into on his way to the presidency.

Although our situation here is different in that it is not the established parties but the political clans that are in control, the problem for transformative politics is the same — how to create an empowered democracy in this political wasteland.  The solution is also the same: By enlisting citizens as active participants in the political process, instead of treating them as passive recipients of patronage.  And, as important, by involving the people as partners in the planning and execution of programs, instead of treating them as clients who must beg at every turn for their entitlements.

The governance of an entire society has become an increasingly complex business.  Goodwill and integrity are necessary, but they are not enough.  A leader needs a stable party to help him govern.  More crucially today, he needs a solid reform constituency at the grassroots, not only to give him leverage when he must fend off entrenched interests, but also to check him when he is veering off course.