Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Localizing National Politics

Patrick I. Patino
Political Reform Program
Institute for Popular Democracy

The Supreme Court thrashing of the petition for a People's Initiative dealt a big blow to Malacanang and humiliated its political operators behind the Sigaw ng Bayan. The efforts, maneuvering and resources Malacanang and its political operators invested for the People's Initiative were too much for Sigaw ng Bayan's legal counsels to justify them legally and constitutionally to the Supreme Court.

The failure of the People's Initiative reflects a weakness of the Arroyo administration. Malacanang has a clear strategy to stabilize the legitimacy and governance of the Arroyo administration, but its political projects towards such strategy are risky in the sense that they threaten institutions and infuse rather than diffuse polarization. These can be gleaned how the Arroyo administration and its political allies blatantly handled its campaign to quash the impeachment complaints in the House of Representatives and the “grand deception” in gathering signatures for the People's Initiative.

The dismissal of the People's Initiative also manifested the Arroyo government's vulnerability to differences from within its administration. To override frustration from the defeat of the People's Initiative, the same political operators led in the open by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales immediately attacked the “The Firm”, that allegedly dealt the stinging dismissal of the petition in the Supreme Court. Focus of the attack were “the Firm's front men” Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. and Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. The latter penned the Supreme Court decision against the People's Initiative. While the former, a cabinet member, did not toe Malacanang's line on the People's Initiative and instead criticized the project as “harebrained”.

President Macapagal-Arroyo is now confronted with two major concerns: first, how to go about her agenda for Charter Change which remains a major arena to stabilize her rule until 2010, and second, how to patch the crack-in-the-wall of her ruling coalition.

The administration has three options left for Charter Changeconstituent assembly, constitutional convention or leave the issue until after the May 2007 elections. The 8 against 7 Supreme Court decision against the People's Initiative was reflective of a heated and deep debate among the justices for or against the petition. However close the decision, it will likely stay against reconsidering an appeal from the proponents of the People's Initiative.

House Speaker Jose de Venecia's stubbornness to constitute Congress into a Constituent Assembly will likely be sailing a raft that will soon to be swallowed by the high seas, unless the Senate agrees with the proposed constitutional amendments of the House of Representatives and that both the Lower House and the Senate vote “as one” to constitute the legislature as a constituent assembly. Time is also against the de Venecia as he has until December 21 (the day congress takes its recess) to materialize the constituent assembly.

Macapagal-Arroyo's open support to the constituent assembly was strong before because, on the immediate term, she needed de Venecia to rally the House of Representatives against the impeachment complaint filed against her in the Lower House. And on the long term, to change the Constitution. Thanks to de Venecia, Macapagal-Arroyo survived two impeachment complaints against her in the House of Representatives. Since then, she had engrossed her administration to stabilizing the neo-liberal economic regime and moving to strengthen both her political and social base.

But at this point in time, it will be politically risky for President Macapagal-Arroyo to be identified with de Venecia's perverse undertaking to ram the constituent assembly without the Senate participation and canceling the upcoming May 2007 elections as it will re-ignite political fissures, much more, of a constitutional crisis. After the trashing of the petition for People's Initiative, Malacanang is not even sure of the disposition of the Supreme Court towards the Constituent Assembly, if ever the Senate submits its case to the Court.

For the administration, the May 2007 elections further diffuses polarization and coming out with a credible conduct of elections legitimizes its rule.

The dismissal of the People's Initiative cleared the path towards the May 2007 senatorial and local elections. Thus, even if the con ass fails to materialize, it can serve as a last big push for the ruling political coalition to translate the con ass campaign to do a headcount and consolidate its forces for the elections. That is, win majority of their candidates for the congressional and local elections and frustrate the opposition candidates.

The Constitutional Convention is the acceptable mode for charter change from the broad sectors more than the Constituent Assembly. But the ConCon will be a risky and costly project for the Arroyo administration if held alongside the congressional and local elections. First, it will potentially magnify the underlying differences of political agenda on charter change between de Venecia and Macapagal-Arroyo and between the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is the role of Congress to legislate the call for a Constitutional Convention, and doing so requires a complete turn-around for de Venecia and his cohorts in the House of Representatives. Second, it will be a double dilemma for the administration to ensure victory of its candidates for the senatorial and local elections and for the delegates to the constitutional convention. Doing so, would highly expose how Malacanang will maximize exactions and expenditures of government resources including the military and election officers. Third, while elections diffuse polarization of politics, the elections for the delegates to the constitutional convention may polarize national issues at the local level.

As mentioned above, the 2007 elections will diffuse polarization that has engulfed this nation since the Hello Garci scandal. But while the diffusion effects at the national level politics, polarization of national politics may instead transpire at the local level politics. Like the past elections, the upcoming one will be highly-competitive, capital-intensive and most local contests will be a battle of margins and machine. These factors contribute to election-related violence and fraud. On the other hand, the May 2007 elections has its own particularity. First, the intervention of Malacanang in the elections will be markedly manifested to ensure the victories of its ally-candidates against the opposition forces. This will highly contribute to the Second.

The issues for and against the Arroyo administration like the use of its Presidential and discretionary powers and its bastardization of institutions; the role of the House of Representatives in the impeachment proceedings and the politics of the pork barrels; Malacanang's influence-peddling to the independence and integrity of the constitutional bodies like the Comelec, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court; among others, will likely be touched during the election campaign.

Elections for Reform

Philippine elections is highly characterized by the three Ps: Personality, Patronage and Power of the Machine and these remain in the upcoming elections. But there are occasions and areas in the post-1986 elections where another P is injecting itself: the Platform for Reform. The Platform for Reform will highly inject in the May 2007 elections and color the substance of the exercise beyond competition for personality, patronage and power of the machine.

The senatorial race will not simply be a partisan race between pro-administration and opposition candidates but also a race between the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration against the viability of opposition alternative. In as much as the senatorial contest is a battle for market votes, issues against each camp will be sharper and the articulation of platform messages will be elaborate.

The race for seats in the House of Representatives will be colorful and discursive. Not only because of the posters, streamers, buntings, tarpaulins and other election visibility materials that will decorate the electorate's environment but also the leaflets, primers, and other campaign literatures. Campaign literatures are regarded by election strategists and communicators as becoming the most effective forms of political advertising given the advances in the communications world and ever complicating concerns surrounding the lives of voters. These campaign literatures articulate why the candidate is running for office; why should voters care and what are the key issues facing the electorate and why are these important to them.

Re-electionist congressmen identified with the Arroyo coalition would likely distance themselves from the issues against Arroyo and the impeachment proceedings in Congress. But since, there will be more candidates to the contested seat, opposition challengers will campaign on issues beyond development projects and public service delivery and touch on the politics of pork barrels, reforming Congress, charter change, abuses of the Arroyo administration and the first family, among others.

Election for posts in the local government units will revolve around public service delivery, infrastructure and development projects, the allocation and dispersal of internal revenues but will likely not get away on issues on charter change, the role of local executives in gathering signatures for the People's Initiative, intervention of the Arroyo administration in local governance, among others.

Localization of national politics during election campaign will likely polarize in the highly urbanized areas; in areas where there are strong reform-minded candidates or in traditionally-opposition-to-the-administration areas during mid-term elections like the National Capital Region, Laguna, Cavite, the Bicol Region, Nueva Ecija, Central Visayas, Iloilo, Samar, Central Mindanao, Muslim Mindanao Region and South Cotabato.

Soon after the defeat of the petition for People's Initiative, Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs and Secretary-General of the Lakas Christian Muslim Democrats warned that, “ the administration will have the advantage of a nationwide political machinery eager for vindication or revenge”. He said that in the May elections, the local officials and the signatories to the People's Initiative would not hesitate to show “their displeasure at those who mocked their honest intent to bring about stability and development through constitutional reforms”. (PDI, 11/02/06)

A warning coming from the party operator of Malacanang's ruling coalition should not be taken lightly by the opposition. The opposition has a thin political machinery and limited resources. On the other hand, the low-satisfaction rating of GMA and the non-entry of administration personalities in the top 15 senatorial survey of the poll survey agencies shows that the broad anti-administration sentiments remain and likely influence voter behavior during election campaigns.

But anti-administration sentiments do no automatically translate into votes for the opposition. The opposition has established itself publicly as an unwavering anti-GMA force but lacking in credibility and alternative. The opposition force is consistent in its expose and oppose stance against the Arroyo administration but in limited spaces such as the streets and the halls of Congress. The coming elections provides an unlimited space for the opposition not only to expose and oppose but importantly to present an alternative to the ills in government, to the downtrodden situation of the people and to the lost of dignity of the nation.

With the opposition's thin political machinery and the requirements for reform agenda in the electoral campaign, the opposition have to use the electoral field into a mass movement arena both for electoral and reform campaign. To offset its limited political machinery, opposition forces can build broad alliances at the local level that can be mobilized around a reform agenda and a reform-minded politician. The congressional contest, especially in districts where there is a strong presence of link between opposition senatorial and congressional bets, would be the focal point for complementing reform agenda at the national and local level. It would also complement vote-gathering efforts for candidates in the senatorial and congressional level.

Organizing electoral coalitions cum citizens movements may also open doors for localize initiatives that are prominently national like coalitions for peaceful elections, coalitions against fraud, coalitions for people's agenda, coalitions for voter education, among others. Such formations may later transform into poll watching energies come voting and counting days. These are non-partisan initiatives, but in one way or another, provide breadth to the limited political machinery of the opposition in the protection of votes and guarding the counting/canvassing process.

The wise passiveness of the public to the political fusion that has bereft the country the past two years is due to the absence of alternative the opposition could offer. Another is the lack of credibility of the of anyone spectrum of the opposition because of their obtrusiveness that does not differentiate them from the administration. Because elections is the direct milieu of citizens for democracy, even in instrumental way, election still serves as the direct arena for people's discourse. The opposition could avail of the arena to introduce the discourse for reform. The platform for reform could effectively serve the electoral campaign of the opposition if they could effectively adapt to the language of reform of the voters.####

No comments: