Politicians and their parties

Two leading lights of the Nacionalista Party (NP), Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, have formally declared their intention to run for vice president in the 2016 elections. A third member of the party, Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is also expected anytime soon to announce his availability for the vice presidency. As baffling as it is, this bizarre twist in the fortunes of the NP is a symptom of the premodern state in which our political system is stuck.

Since these three young politicians are vying for the same position, why can’t their party, to whose goals and principles they are all supposed to be committed, settle their rivalry through a party convention, instead of letting them fight one another at the polls? Better still, why can’t the party field its own slate for president and vice president, instead of watching its aspiring leaders pathetically cast around for a standard-bearer who will adopt them?

What kind of politicians are these, and what kind of party is the Nacionalista Party? Does the NP, whose franchise is now held by former senator Manuel Villar’s family, have anything in common with the venerable pre-martial-law party that, with the Liberal Party, once hogged the nation’s political stage? Or, is it now nothing more than a brand name with a constitution and bylaws, a headquarters, and a dubious claim to a glorious past—but with no unifying program and functioning party organization?

Clearly, the NP has no clout over its own people. But, to be fair, it is not alone in this characterization. Today’s political parties tend to be controlled by the nation’s wealthy political clans, probably differing only in the degree to which the latter share decision-making with nonmembers of the dynasty.

Of the nation’s traditional parties, perhaps only the Liberal Party has consistently shown any effort to transform itself into a modern party. Like most national parties, it, too, has had its ups and downs. But, even during those times when it seemed in decline, its party institute persisted in forming young cadres who subscribed to the basic ideology of the party. After the resounding defeat of LP standard-bearer Jovito Salonga in the 1992 presidential election, I thought the party had finally reached its end. To my surprise, I was invited to speak on contemporary issues at a party-sponsored seminar meant for young recruits to the party.

I was one of those who welcomed the introduction of the party-list system into our Constitution, hoping this would encourage the formation of modern political parties with a definite constituency, a clear ideology and a coherent program. My dream at that time was to revive the socialist parliamentary tradition that once thrived in our country, with the working class as its base. But the collapse of socialist governments in Europe at the end of that historic decade completely pulled the rug out from under that idea.

Years later, younger comrades with a rich experience in social movements organized the Akbayan Party from a coalition of activist formations who believed in the basic tenets of social democracy. The formation of the party was long in the making. We debated its pros and cons, and analyzed the challenges and dilemmas that a leftwing party was bound to face in the electoral arena. Though successful in elections, it has not made much of a dent on the nation’s politics.

At around the same time, my good friend Nandy Pacheco was organizing Ang Kapatiran, a party whose philosophy draws much from the radical social teachings of the Catholic Church. The Kapatiran’s basic documents and organizational framework impressed me, and, seeing a genuine party in the making, I did not hesitate to share my views on party formation when Nandy invited me to speak to its founding members. The party has fielded candidates for various national positions in almost every election. Its persistence, despite its failure to get its candidates elected, is proof to me that it is ahead of the political culture of its milieu.

That culture has always suffered from a fundamental weakness, namely, its inability to differentiate politics from the rest of society. Behind every candidate stands, not a political party organization, but a patron-client network centered on a family and encompassing a loyal base bound by affinities other than political. Bongbong Marcos banks on the strong Ilocano and Waray ties of the Marcos-Romualdez clan. Sonny Trillanes, a former military officer, relies on the support of the nation’s uniformed personnel and their families. Alan Cayetano falls back on the patron-client network created in a short time by his family’s successful run in politics. To all intents and purposes, each one of them commands a personal network that is probably larger and more reliable than what the Nacionalista Party, as a party, can mobilize.

Modern political parties emerged in Europe in the course of the progressive differentiation of the political system from the other spheres of society—the family, the Church, ethnolinguistic communities, business, etc. They provided an antidote to the lingering influence of the upper classes in political life. In lieu of the old nobility and the charismatic figures, these political parties recruit young people with a vocation for politics from all sectors of society, and prepare them, like other professionals, for a life devoted to government service.

In contrast, we are content to entrust the complex functions of the modern state to individuals chosen according to the vagaries of premodern politics. This has been our system’s fatal blind spot.

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