The realities that define our elections

Our political institutions are as modern in conception as they could possibly be. They were, after all, copied from the most advanced democratic system of our time — the United States of America. But, like almost all our borrowed institutions, our political system can only perform to the extent permitted by our society’s basic structure. That structure is highly hierarchical and essentially still segmented into families and tribalistic communities.

The sad reality of our time is that the prevailing social conditions of Philippine society cannot sustain the operation of its modern institutions. The evidence for this is all around us. Membership in our political parties means almost nothing. Our politicians feel neither shame nor awkwardness as they merrily move from one political party to another, depending on who is in power.

These so-called parties exert little effort in promoting the fundamental beliefs and vision of their organization. They admit members and field candidates with no regard for the seriousness of their commitment to party principles and objectives. Indeed, it is far more difficult to be admitted into a university student organization than to become a member of the average Filipino political party.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, a party with very clear democratic socialist goals, is one. Formed as a party-list organization by an alliance of ideological social movements, it matured into a disciplined political party with a national presence. It managed to win seats in every party-list election, and, in 2016, succeeded in electing one of its young leaders, Risa Hontiveros, as senator.

Bayan Muna is another progressive leftwing political movement that registered and won seats as a party-list organization. Its representatives infused congressional deliberations with cogent views arising from a clear ideological perspective. Its success spawned the formation of likeminded parties representing the sectoral interests of marginalized groups.

Alas, it didn’t take long for traditional politicians to make a mockery of the party-list experiment by riding on the inclusive language of the law and creating their own party-list groups.

We are dealing here with the same problems that have bedeviled our politics for a long time.  The most glaring of these is the mass poverty that afflicts our people, a condition that compels them to seek the patronage of those who have access to public services like healthcare, housing, and educational assistance. So long as elected politicians can claim a role in deciding who actually gets access to these services, so long will ordinary people see elections primarily as a quest for personal connections than as a contest of political visions.

Though we may think it perverse, there is actually some rationality at work here. We may think that the Filipino voters support the likes of Lito Lapid out of ignorance or out of a failure to distinguish between characters played in the movies and those played in real life. But, no, many vote for such candidates because they see them as approachable and compassionate protectors of the poor, so different from the ones with a pretense to high-mindedness and competence but keep their distance from the people.

Indeed, Filipino voters are not unaware that their compassionate patrons are often engaged in the shady business of enriching themselves at government expense. But, they quickly find excuses for this practice as long as their “idols” don’t do it brazenly (“hindi garapalan”), and are not perceived as taking for themselves much more than what they need (“moderated greed”). In our present scale of values, patronage morally trumps modern governance, making it extremely difficult for the Ombudsman to enforce the law against the high and mighty in government.

A modern party system cannot thrive in such environment. There is simply too much disparity in wealth and power between leaders and their followers. Ordinary members look to the party for their everyday material needs in exchange for continuing loyalty. Leaders end up financing the party they lead if only to keep it alive when it’s out of power.

Small wonder then that, in our system, political clans assume the function of grooming candidates that, in modern systems, belongs to political parties. It is foolish to expect that legislation alone can neutralize the monopoly of power by political families. They will always find ways of complying with the letter of the law while violating its spirit.

But, politics being what it is, the competition for power eventually splits political families and pits members of the same clan against one another. At the start, political dynasties may succeed in placing their scions in various elective positions. But, soon, they run out of positions, and the aging patriarch who started it all can no longer command enough moral authority to have the last say on who gets to run for which position. The respective rivalries of the Estrada and Binay siblings only mirror a more general trend that has been taking place much earlier in the provinces.

This is clearly a part of our society’s wrenching transition to modernity. It is a process that can be completed only when the majority of our people achieve enough economic security to make them take their political rights seriously. That moment may not be as remote as we think it is. Akbayan’s Senator Hontiveros finally won after her third attempt, demonstrating that a constituency for democratic change is already growing in the womb of the old society.