Friday, July 20, 2007

Political Parties in the 2007 Elections

Written by Joel Rocamora / IPD
Monday, 16 July 2007

We cannot exactly say that political parties were not relevant in the 2007 elections, but clearly not in the way they are supposed to be. Neither can we say that political parties have not changed, say between 2004 and 2007. The struggle between two administration parties, Lakas and Kampi, played a significant role in the conduct and outcome of the 2007 elections. This was not a factor in 2004. From a reform perspective, there were two developments, one directly and the other indirectly related to political parties. A combination of Malacanang sponsored parties, parties based on religious groups, and clan based parties have all but exhausted the reform potential of the party list system. Citizens movements prevented the elections from being overwhelmed by fraud and the incompetence of the Comelec, and in supporting reform candidates, whether successful or not, inspired and generated hope for the future.

The Senate race and its results provides the best example of the irrelevance of political parties. The protagonists, the Team Unity (TU) and Genuine Opposition (GO), were only marginally connected to parties. Who remembers what party candidates Pichay and Singson belonged to, much less Sultan Kiram whose sultanate Pres. Arroyo could not remember? The competing “teams” were not even consistently connected to the main political issues animating politics in the preceding two years, credible accusations of fraud in the 2004 elections and the survival tactics of the accused which encroached on civil and political rights. The administration's claims to a party connection, the much vaunted machinery of Kampi, Lakas and NPC and its local government officials, proved in the end to be only so much propaganda hot air.

The results, seven winning GO candidates, two independents, and only two TU candidates was a resounding repudiation of the administration. The two independents, Pangilinan and Honasan were active participants in the anti-GMA struggles in the two years preceding the elections. The two TU winners, older veterans Arroyo and Angara, are not even expected to be fully supportive of the administration. The twelfth slot remains unfilled a month and half after the elections. These results are a stunning reversal of the 2001 and 2004 senate races. Eight candidates of the pro-administration People Power Coalition and only five from the pro-Estrada Partido ng Masa won in the 2001 senate race. In 2004, seven K-4 and five opposition KNP candidates won.

Candidates treated the Senate race as an “air war” - generating name recognition and converting name recall to votes through radio and TV ads. As it turned out broadcast media ads were not a sufficient factor in victory. The biggest spenders, led by candidate Pichay, did not win. TU candidates outspent GO candidates twice over. Already well known, actors Cesar Montano and Richard Gomez, performed badly. In the end, the GO candidates won because as a group and individually, they gave expression to widespread anti-GMA sentiment. In contrast, local races constituted “trench warfare” where machinery, and the traditional “guns, goons, and gold” were the main determinants. It was also in local races where party affiliation counted.

Political clans remained the main unit of organization for local contests. But political parties were useful for building coalitions beyond the clans, and for generating money from national party sources. In some provinces including Bohol and Cavite, where there were no dominant political clans or the intensity of inter-clan competition was not so intense, “unity slates” that cut across party affiliation were organized. The majority of major local players chose to affiliate with the parties of the administration. Sources of public money, contracts and other patronage resources were the main determinants of local party affiliation. The administration cannot claim victory in local contests to make up for its defeat in the Senate race.

As Manolo Quezon put it in a recent article, “...House elections have always resulted in an overwhelming administration victory. Without any exceptions. Even if the president running for reelection lost, his party would still win the House; and in cases where presidents were elected from the opposition, they would swiftly ensure that by the next poll, their minority would be an overwhelming House majority. In a sense, the House is so adaptable, so pliable, so dependent on the presidency’s patronage powers that it ends up supporting whoever occupies the Palace — until, that is, the presidency passes on to someone else.”1 Exactly the same could be said about local government unit elections.

The tendency for winning local candidates to identify themselves with the administration is especially pronounced in midterm elections, a rare occurrence that has happened only three times since 1941. Thus, on the surface it looked like an overwhelming administration victory in House races: 94 Lakas, 46 Kampi, 26 NPC. Together with assorted other “partylets”, the administration has more than two thirds of the 236 seats. Fifty eight congressional races had Kampi squaring off against Lakas. Lakas won 33 seats to Kampi's 14, remaining seats went to other parties. The same pattern applied to gubernatorial races, 46 Lakas to 23 for Kampi. The Comelec, ever late, does not yet have a full list of winners of mayoral candidates.

On the face of it, Lakas won its fight with Kampi easily. Coffee shop scuttlebutt say this may have had to do with the medical problems of Kampi's main patron and resource person, reportedly the First Gentleman. The early, on-the-surface intense fight for the speakership between Lakas' Speaker De Venecia and Kampi's Pablo Garcia is likely to end up as “fighting for the speakership to get choice committee chairmanships”. But it is a fluid struggle. Already close to Palace sources of patronage, Kampi congressmen say they resent the way Lakas has cornered choice positions in the House. As ever peripatetic practical politicians, congress members and other local government officials will gravitate to stronger presidential candidates in the coming years.

The “party list system” if we can call it that, is supposed to promote the growth of real political parties. Instead it has produced the worst of parties and party dynamics. This last election is a perfect illustration. If you look at the top six parties, three (Buhay, Cibac, Alagad) are religious parties, two (Bayan Muna, Gabriela) are linked to the armed underground. Both sets of parties should be disqualified if the law is strictly applied. Parties of sectoral groups for women, labor, indigenous people, differently abled, urban poor, including ones who won in the past, have lost. The only ones who won seats are either linked to the underground (Anak Pawis, Gabriela) or made deals with local politicians (ARC, Coop-Nattco, Apec). Religious parties, those linked with the underground, those formed by Malacanang operatives, and to local political clans sucked up probably as much as eighty percent of the vote, leaving other parties with few remaining votes.

Its impossible, at this point, to say how party alignments will go in the coming years. Jockeying for presidential candidacy advantage has already affected dynamics in the Senate. Despite its huge numerical advantage, opposition senators may yet end up as a minority. In an attempt to remove the advantage to Manny Villar, other presidential contenders have maneuvered to give the Senate presidency to a non-contender, Nene Pimentel. In the process, Villar has reportedly gotten the support of pro-administration senators. Unless the administration comes up with a strong candidate for the presidency, it will find itself playing a “spoiler” role as is happening in the Senate. Even if party leaders such as De Venecia manage to bring most of their party to the side of a candidate, individual politicians will maneuver in a shifting rigodon which will change the configuration of strong and weak parties.

The continuing weakness of political parties lies at the core of the problems of the Philippine political system. Philippine political parties, strangely enough, are often defined by what they are not. Following the conventional Western definition, the Philippine Omnibus Election Code of 1985 says “A political party is an organized group of persons pursuing the same ideology, political ideas or platforms of government.” But nobody would accuse Philippine political parties of being such an animal. Philippine political scientists cannot even agree whether the Philippines has a multi-party system, a two-party system or even, as some have seriously suggested, a one-and-a-half party system. Philippine political parties are unabashed ‘old boys clubs’. There are non-elite individuals, mostly men, who identify with one or another party, but all of them are followers (“retainers” might be a better word) of elite individuals.

These individuals are linked together in shifting coalitions from barangays (the lowest government unit) all the way to the national government in Manila. At the core of this system are wealthy families in the town centers united downwards with dominant barrio (village) families and upward with similar families in other towns. Some of these families are wealthy enough on their own to unite municipal political organizations and finance provincial electoral battles, or battles for congressional seats at the district level. These families constitute the provincial elite. The national elite differ from the provincial only in degree. Most importantly, the national elite are those families whose economic base is strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of national political struggles.

It is not as if Philippine political parties have remained inert, have not adjusted over the years. While change has been slow, parties have moved from the clan-based, informal elite circles in the first half of the century to still clan-based local party machines in the 1950s and 1960s. The long period of the Marcos dictatorship eroded the social base of the dominant Nacionalista and Liberal parties. With the erosion of the two-party system, what people call a multi-party system took its place. With election campaign expenses rising steeply in the post-Marcos period, an opportunity for building stronger parties based on nationally sourced financial resources opened up. Instead, the continuing dominance of political clans and the loss of the degree of stability built into the two-party system led to electoral free-for-alls with many parties joining the fray.

If the clan and faction-based Philippine political party system has managed to remain impervious to class-based politics, it may be unable to resist pressure to change based on the functional requirements of the economy. Philippine political parties developed within a political system crafted during the period of American colonialism when the economy was mainly agricultural. Today the economy is much more complex. Its demand for a predictable regulatory framework, for economic services and for development planning is much greater than can be provided by the government. One of the functional requirements of the current economic situation are political parties capable of aggregating interests and translating them into policy. Because Philippine political parties are loosely structured and faction-based, they have been unable to fulfill this function in the past.

The most important challenge to political parties may come from ongoing efforts to amend the constitution and shift from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government. Such a shift, if it happens, will force political parties to radically alter themselves. Unifying the executive and legislative branches through a ruling party will force political parties to take on a stronger role, and develop greater capability in policy-making. If a shift to a parliamentary system is accompanied by an electoral system based on proportional representation, changes in electoral behavior will bring about even bigger changes in political parties. The problem is that the efforts of De Venecia, supported by the Arroyo administration, to ram through self-serving constitutional changes have soured public sentiment to constitutional reform. The challenge to reformers, then, may be how to recapture leadership of the constitutional reform movement and restore public trust in reform.
1 Manuel L. Quezon, “Elections 2007: An Abnormal Return to Normality”, p.4

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