Akbayan – A New Left Party in the Philippines
By: Joel Rocamora/ IPD
August 5, 2007
I am not exactly a disinterested observer of Akbayan. I am currently its chairman. I have been part of the Akbayan national leadership from the time of its founding. Without being defensive, I insist that analysis for political action can be at least as reliable, as ‘objective’ as academic analysis. The success or failure of political action can be as harsh a judge of analysis as academic tenure committees. But analysis for action is different. In the Institute for Popular Democracy, we call it analysis ‘between honesty and hope’.
Four years ago when I wrote about Akbayan, I entitled the piece “Impossible is Not So Easy”. It still feels impossible, but we now know more about why it is not so easy. In many ways the biggest obstacle is ourselves. Moving from older ways of being “Left” is proving to be much more complex, more difficult than we imagined. Its not as if this is a recent realization. The Political Report to the 2003 Akbayan Congress said “The limits to our development as a party are more internal than external. We remain imprisoned in old ways of understanding what being Left means. We have not yet mastered the art of accumulating power within a political system dominated by the Right while remaining true to our being a Left party.” We have remained a Left party, but we have not accumulated much political power.
A recent setback has forced the party to rethink many things. After doubling our national vote in every election (1998, 2001, 2004) we participated in, we suffered a 47 percent decline in our vote in the May 2007 party list election. After detailed, careful, highly participatory analysis of this debacle, everyone united around the conclusion that the party list system had been successfully subverted by old political clans, what was supposed to be a national contest had been broken up into so many local contests. Ironically our party list vote declined because we had devoted too much attention to the “national” party list (PL) campaign and not enough to local electoral contests. PL elections also determined our organizational strategy, the widespread, nationwide but shallow character of our party structures. Reaching these conclusions was relatively easy. What this had to do with being Left required more analysis.
The party list election is a special election started in 1998 for 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. It is not only an experiment in voting for parties in a highly personalistic political system, it is also supposed to be “affirmative action” for marginalized groups in society. These two goals have worked at cross purposes. To prevent the PL system from being dominated by the larger parties and give more space to “marginalized groups”, a three seat limit limit per party was imposed. This went against the system's PR (proportional representation) goal. Combined with the 2 percent threshold for getting a seat, plus the Commission on Elections accrediting pretty nearly anyone (164 parties in one election), the 52 available seats have never been filled. In the most recent election, less than half have been allocated. In the first three PL elections, parties of “sectoral” groups and Left parties gained a toehold in the system. By 2007, what was supposed to be a national constituency had been colonized by local political clans.
Despite this common understanding of its inherent limits, our participation in the party list system has, in fact, taken up most of our energies in the past nine years. In the last three elections, we talked about devoting more energy and resources to local electoral work, but party list elections always ended up monopolizing our energy and resources. Because our PL vote doubled every election, we did not seriously discuss the implications of having made the PL system our main party building activity. Our victories enabled us to gain a national political profile. Our excellent party representatives gave political content to our election victories. With only three representatives we were able to become the focal point of many civil society advocacies. But these major achievements masked several key weaknesses, the kind that one only seriously confronts after a defeat.
Party list elections have enable Akbayan to carve out a national profile and to unify a large segment of the Left around party building as a political project. But the opening for the Left in the party list system was shut in the 2007 elections. These elections were dominated by religious groups, local political clans, and front parties of the underground Maoists. Akbayan was drawn to the party list elections because it had a national constituency and the Philippine Left like old style Leftists elsewhere focus on national political projects. But the 2007 elections showed that the generation of votes for the system was mainly a local affair. The six parties that got more votes than Akbayan won because they had superior local organization.
If you look at the organizational spread of Akbayan, 64 out of 80 provinces, it looks impressive. When the party list election ended up becoming a battle of local bailiwicks in this year's election, we discovered how weak this structure is. The gaps in our party structure, the weak and shallow character of those that exist, are the result not of inadequate effort on our part, but of the logic of the organizational dynamic generated by our focus on PL elections. The push to create new local party units has come from the need for campaign structures for party list elections. We had been treating PL campaigns as if they were Left mass campaigns for which the main consideration is spread. But if you want to compete in local vote generation, you need organizational depth. Accumulating power through the PL system is accumulating power at the national level. It is no accident that the PL “constituency” is the same as that of the Senate, it is national. But the similarity ends there. PL representatives are 'located' in the House which is the 'territory' of the district, of local political clans.
Another perennial problem, one that we hear about in many places, is that Akbayan only relates to communities when there are incoming elections. It is difficult to field these complaints because there's an underlying accusation of opportunism, and using people, not unlike what traditional politicians do. The fact is that even if the opportunism is not true, in addition to the areas where party units are moribund, the level of in-between-election activity of our party units is generally limited. Party activity has mostly been around preparations for party congresses, the occasional national campaign, and PL election campaigns. Unless our party units are grounded on local political issues, and local political projects, we will not generate enough activity for our local party units. We have to accumulate power first at the municipal level. We understood this many years ago, talked about it, wrote about it. The reason it took us so long to seriously implement it is that it forms part of changing a whole way of being political.
Akbayan (Citizens Action Party)
Akbayan is often called a “social movement” party because most of its original members come from unions, peasant movements, urban poor, women and other social movements. We have also called ourselves a “participatory local governance” party because NGOs closely related to the party pioneered the decade long struggle to maximize the participatory and ‘good governance’ potential of decentralization. It is only at this time, after the 2007 election debacle that the party itself has began to come to terms with the fact that we never seriously practiced what we talked about in many party meetings and local governance conferences.
Although formally founded at a congress in January 1998, the very process of conceiving Akbayan already marked it as a very different political formation. Discussions among several pre-party political formations, called ‘political blocs’ in the Philippines, began in the first half of 1996. The very fact that these blocs came together, not as a coalition, but to work together to begin the process of building a new political party was unprecedented in the history of the Philippine Left. The resulting concept paper was then discussed first in a national meeting in July 1996, then in innumerable small and large meetings throughout the country. By the time of the founding congress a year and a half later, the party already had more than 3,000 ‘stakeholders’ who attended these meetings.
Only a few months after its founding congress, in May 1998, Akbayan won one seat in the party list election of the House of Representatives. Ten municipal mayors who won in these elections subsequently joined the party. After the next election, in 2001, Akbayan had two members in the House of Representatives. Nineteen municipal mayors and some 200 councilors and other local government officials were elected at the same time. Akbayan is nowhere near being a major national party. But it has grown steadily. By 2004 we had achieved the maximum three seats allowed in the PL system. But we should have noted the fact that of the 36 party members contesting mayoral seats in the May 2004 elections, only 20 won, one more than the number we had in the preceding election. Even fewer Akbayan mayors won in the 2007 election.
Akbayan was consciously set off from traditional Philippine political parties. These parties are unabashed elite ‘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. Already weak in the period before martial law in 1972, traditional parties have not recovered from Marcos’ deliberate destruction of all but his own party. In the post 1986 period, parties have been so weak that in national elections, coalitions of parties are the relevant campaign mechanisms.1
In contrast, Akbayan has a mass membership of some eighty thousand mostly lower class people. This is the source of its self-identification as a “progressive” party. Akbayan’s base in labor unions and organized farmers is now firmly established. Three of the largest peasant federations in the country are affiliated with Akbayan. There is an ongoing drive to organize among middle class professionals and business people. There is a practical as well as a political reason for this. We cannot win elections only with the support of organized workers and peasants. Middle class people have networks and personal resources necessary in election campaigns. They also have technical skills needed in governance. Besides when Akbayan members get elected to office, they do not become mayors or congressmen only of the poor. They are public officials of all citizens.
To prevent disputes over membership numbers, there are no member organizations, only individuals. But members of the same organization organized into party units can form caucuses within the party. Loosely affiliated mass organizations are linked through sectoral party committees of peasants, labor, youth and others. Party structures and processes are taken seriously. In practice, deeply embedded anti-democratic tendencies from both traditional and Left political practice continue to rear its ugly head. But inner party democracy is fiercely defended and fought over. Autonomy of local party units is an established principle.
Akbayan also sets itself off from the dominant party building traditions of the Philippine Left. Unlike other progressive political parties, Akbayan is not a party with one ideology. Many progressive groups and political tendencies work together within Akbayan, national democrats, socialists, democratic socialists, popular democrats, people who do not give themselves labels. We are not linked with an underground party. We believe that you cannot have inner party democracy if you have another party dictating who your leaders and what your policies are. We are not engaged in armed struggle. We take the open, legal struggle seriously, not merely as a tactical arena as other Left groups do.
Unlike other Left parties who take a ‘smash the state’ perspective, Akbayan is a vehicle for accumulating political power for political reform. From the time of its founding congress in January 1998, Akbayan has steadily drawn reformers from all walks of life into its ranks. It supports reform in Congress, in the parliament of the streets, and in the local governments led by elected Akbayan members. Having town executives provides opportunities to show that party members can promote participatory democracy and good government at the same time. It might even be said that the very formation of Akbayan is a political reform. By forming a new type of political party, Akbayan is contributing directly to transforming our political party system.
Democracy is at the core of Akbayan principles. Our idea of "state" is one that imposes distinct limits on the state's powers over society. We are against a totalitarian state which insinuates itself into all the spaces of society including private spaces. We operate within a conscious, explicit "state and civil society" framework. We will defend and promote the integrity and autonomy of civil society organizations as one of the central tasks of Akbayan. We will actively work to remove obstacles to political participation, especially restrictions on the self-organization of the poor such as those on labor unions.
At its founding, four “political blocs” were part of Akbayan: Padayon, an organization of former NDs; Pandayan, democratic socialists; the Popdems who faded away as a political bloc soon after Akbayan's founding, and Bisig, an “independent socialist” group which brought together activists from several different political tendencies. Because the four blocs insisted they had separate, and differing ideologies, they united on a “political project” - building a progressive political party, and not on a common ideology. This was OK as long as most Akbayan members were also members of these blocs. Four years after its founding, however, non-bloc progressives already outnumbered bloc members. They began to complain that if Akbayan had no ideology and they could not “avail” of the blocs' ideology, then they had no ideology.
We confronted the problem at a National Council meeting. We asked the blocs to lay out their ideology, and in what way they differed from each other. As it turned out, the blocs' ideology were closer to each other than we had thought. What kept them apart were personal differences among some leaders, and the momentum of old inter-group dynamics, based as much on social location as on ideological differences. We then challenged them to engage each other and non-bloc members in a process of shaping Akbayan's own ideology. Two revealing elements characterized this process. First we refused to call it “ideology formation” preferring “narrative building” instead. Second, we consciously made Akbayan practice in the preceding four years, the positions it took on many issues, the main building blocs of the Akbayan “narrative”.
We don't have the space in this paper to go through what eventually was agreed upon as Akbayan ideology. Partly, its not extensively elaborated. Akbayan members do not feel the need to have a full blown ideology the way that Marxist Leninists do. At the 2003 party congress, the main outlines of a party ideology was approved under the rubric of “Participatory Democracy” and “Participatory Socialism”. In the 2006 congress, “socialist feminism” was added. There are two things we need to elaborate here, one what we mean by “participatory socialism” and the other the party strategy. To be brutally frank we don't know exactly what we mean by “participatory socialism”. We know there are many aspects of Philippine capitalism we do not like. But there are as many aspects of “actually (not anymore) existing socialism” we don't like either. Where we stand is probably closest to something Manuel Antonio Garreton, a Chilean intellectual and Socialist leader said.
“Given that there is no 'seizure of power', given that there is a permanent struggle, within the democratic system, in all areas where there is power and domination... the socialist project now defines itself much more as a process than as a society. This means that socialism cannot be defined as a model for society that is established once and for all... in this view there is no “socialist society” as such, because socialism is a principle of social transformation, of the elimination of various kinds of alienation, oppression and exploitation. It is based on the ideas of social emancipation and popular empowerment, with the workers and the dominated as chief protagonists, but socialism is not a mechanistic order, a predetermined social system. In this sense the concept of the “transition to socialism” loses all meaning. There is no transition from one society or another, but rather a permanent transformation. There is no socialist model, only a socialist process; the latter is reversible and malleable, unlike models for a society.” (Quoted in Carmel Veloso Abao (Akbayan Executive Committee Member), “Deepening Akbayan-Social Movement Relations - Towards Deepening Philippine Democracy”, Discussion Paper for the Akbayan National Political Council, April 2005, p.15)
Issues related to strategy are much more contentious because the dominant Left strategy for two decades was armed struggle. Groups who split from the CPP in the early 1990s except for Padayon have tried to elaborate an “insurrectionary strategy”. Akbayan has slowly evolved what it calls a “radical democracy” strategy. Working closely with social movements and other civil society organizations, in the legislature and in the ‘parliament of the street’, Akbayan is in the forefront of struggles for political and economic reform. Our two representatives in Congress have effectively championed electoral reform, migrant rights, fought against the pro-monopoly privatization of water utilities and the energy sector and a variety of other issues. In the ‘parliament of the streets’, Akbayan and its affiliated organizations and NGOs work actively on a range of issues from agrarian reform, to anti-corruption campaigns, to women’s issues and gay rights.
In our “Ideological Unities” document, we say that “...Akbayan aims to establish building blocks of radical reforms. Akbayan employs mass pressure and ideological campaigns while taking seriously the field of engagement with government and/or the private sector to achieve concrete gains for the people and weakening elite rule. This is what distinguishes Akbayan from the traditional Left concept of extreme opposition, always in an offensive oppositional stance, fixated on a unilinear track to total victory, unmindful of partial gains and victories and their beneficial results for consolidating the people’s strength, weakening elite rule and advancing the people’s welfare.” (Participatory Democracy, Participatory Socialism: The Akbayan Narrative (July 31, 2003) 3-4) While there is agreement on these formulations, getting there has not been easy.
Ideology or 'Way of Being (Left)'?
For the Maoist Left, ideology is an all encompassing intellectual framework that provides answers to every conceivable political question. In fact, the way Philippine Maoists talk about ideology, one would think they've also exhausted all possible questions as well. There are many Left groups outside of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) who don't agree with each other on ideological issues. But having all reacted against the sectarianism and ideological rigidity of the CPP, they conduct ideological work under different conditions. For Akbayan this has meant a marked hesitation to undertake ideological work at all, to focus on more proximate 'political' questions and not on their 'ideological' roots. Because there are, in fact, ideological questions that any party which says it is a Left party has to deal with, taking a long time to resolve them has affected the party's development, among other things, slowing it down.
Partly its a matter of crafting new theory. In July 2003, I wrote: “The second major area of development we need to organize is raising our disagreements on political issues to the level of theory. It is only in this way that we ‘benefit’ from the disagreements... What we are trying to do is without historical precedent, no Left group in the Philippines has ever tried to accumulate political power openly, without resort to violence, most importantly, taking democracy seriously as a national goal and to guide relations within the party. What this means is that we have no theory to guide us.” Another reason is that before crafting new theory, we have to struggle against the old, not just against those who continue to uphold the old, but also against our own deep Left instincts.
Akbayan is only a few months short of being ten years old. We have accumulated rich and varied experience as a political party. But this experience has not been theorized. The problem is not intellectual capacity. The party counts many sophisticated intellectuals in its ranks. The problem is the depth of the Maoist Left's ideological hegemony and its continuing impact on Left groups who have split from the Maoist party, and on other groups on the Left. There's a pervasive sense of ideological intimidation which has made groups such as Akbayan uncertain of its ideological bearings.
The problem is particularly acute for Akbayan which brings together at least three Left ideological tendencies, the Maoist national democratic (ND) tendency, the democratic socialist tendency, and an ideologically unformed, but nonetheless powerful 'independent Left' tendency deriving from civil society discourse. If you then add the pervasive, dominant discourse of Philippine political culture, developing Akbayan's own distinct ideology has to be “cooked” with three major, often contradictory discursive traditions. No wonder we're having great difficulty.
Building a Left party in a country where there is an active Maoist insurgency, where there are varieties of ex-NDs still following Marxist-Leninist tenets to varying degrees, makes defining Left and Right extremely difficult. Old definitions of 'Left' continue to be asserted, they remain stuck deep in the consciousness of old and would-be NDs. Defining Left and Right should be a matter of assessing tactics based on an agreed upon strategic frame. As long as there is no clear, and established frame within Akbayan, the strategies of other Left groups will always intrude into our internal judgments. You cannot 'out-Left' the Maoists who have determined what Left means for most of the last three decades. One way of thinking of our theoretical task is how to tease out the meanings of abandoning armed struggle as a strategy at a time when the success or failure of the CPP still hangs in the balance.
One key word in this arsenal of ideological intimidation is “revolutionary”. The old line is that all leftists have to aspire to be revolutionary. If you are into electoral politics, you can only be revolutionary if elections are only a limited “tactical arena”. Open political parties who engage in electoral politics must be guided by an underground revolutionary party. At an Akbayan National Council meeting in 2004, six years after the party's founding, I was stunned to hear two national level party leaders say that Akbayan is “only a tactical formation”. Another key word is “rupture” that “ 'grand moment' of cataclysmic revolution”, the orgasmic dream of many Leftists. Although “rupture” has been associated with armed seizure of power through most of the past century, even Left groups who have forsworn armed struggle still hold on to the idea of a sharp break with the past.
As Ric Reyes, former Akbayan Chairman put it: “To prepare for “the moment” remains a socialist responsibility. It still is an essential ingredient of the socialist elan.” The formulation in Draft 4 of the 'Ideological Unities' paper which Reyes helped to draft offers more detail. “A key issue in political tactics is Akbayan's proactive response to the propensity of Philippine political society to crises, convulsions, conjunctures or decisive ruptures - the First Quarter Storm of the early 70s, the EDSA I uprising, the EDSA II and the subsequent EDSA III events. These volatile situations directly challenge the legitimacy of state power and shove political society into flux, compelling the wide array of political forces – Leftists, Liberals, and Rightists alike – to make a bid for state power. These situations offer political opportunities for Akbayan. The tendency for the polarization of political forces during these moments demands dual tactics. Political resoluteness becomes necessary, revolutionary forms are legitimized; revolutionary change becomes possible.“ (“A New Left Project: A Proposal” in Alternatives, No.23, 1998, quoted in Nathan Quimpo, “Ruptures” email communication to Akbayan Execom, June 09, 2003)
Bending Comrade Ric's words a bit, we might say that 'rupture' remains an “essential ingredient of the [Akbayan] elan”. It embodies our hopes for our people, our disgust with the prevailing social and political system, our suspicion that it might not be possible to reform this system. But our discourse seems to have veered away from 'rupture' as historical junctures when “revolutionary forms are legitimized; revolutionary change becomes possible”. Our official 'narrative' calls it “a qualitative leap in the struggle”. Such leaps, moreover, “may mean a big electoral victory or even capturing the majority in parliament, a mass upsurge leading to a change in government, or bold radical advances in agrarian reform and other social struggles.”
If 'rupture' cannot anymore be the “ 'grand moment' of cataclysmic revolutions” it cannot be a strategy. Several different 'leaps' in the struggle may be valid from another strategic vantage point, but it undercuts the meaning of 'rupture'. The conventional meaning of 'rupture' is decisive, defining change; for socialists, a decisive defeat of capitalism and the onset of socialism. What remains in our 'official' discourse is that we need “to prepare for 'the moment' ” but haven't defined “the moment” more precisely. I have focused on “Rupture/insurrection” in this essay because like 'armed struggle' it is a strategy for 'smashing the state'. If you do not use either strategy, you have to come to terms with what working within an existing state means. It means working within the structures of the state even as you try to reform them. It means respecting the institutions of elite democracy even as you struggle to build new forms of power through participatory democracy. It means working with traditional politicians even as you abhor them.
Without a strategic frame, we cannot develop ideas on the stages of our development as a party. As a result, many of the questions we face have a strange disembodied character to them. Our failure to confront this “rupture/Left” issue directly has prevented us from dealing with the longer term problem of exactly how we gain power nationally. My problem with the 'rupture' frame is that it is not a strategy, as such it does not generate tactics. It does not reflect what we are actually doing which is accumulating power through mass movement work and through elections and local administration. Instead it obstructs our ability to advance this work. Do we really believe we can achieve power through the electoral system? The 'rupture' frame says we can't or at least doubts that we can, thus undermining our electoral work.
One significant advance in Akbayan discourse is that, some four years ago, party positions on political issues stopped being first discussed in terms of how other Left groups would react. We have moved ahead on key debates which are important to our “Left-Right” discourse. In the past we were hesitant to criticize the CPP and other Left groups. We have now established that part of the task of setting ourselves up as a 'democratic Left' alternative is to openly criticize the 'undemocratic Left'. We tended to judge our positions on political issues by how it would 'play' with these groups. While we remain open to working with those Left groups who are willing to work with us, we have accepted the fact that our different strategic orientation will often mean different political judgments.
It is not just the Left which 'defines' us. When Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Esperon says Akbayan is OK because it is not armed, he also implicitly says Akbayan is OK because it is not as “Left” as the CPP. It is not just the AFP that thinks about Akbayan this way. Many business and other upper and middle class people think of Akbayan as a kind of “Left Lite”, Left but not as much of a threat as the Maoists. The problem here is an old, stereotyped meaning of “Left”. ND hegemony on the Left throughout the Marcos period, continuing if in weaker form to this day, means that NDs define what “Left” means. Because the discursive terrain is being set by protagonists at opposite ends of the ideological continuum, when we respond to both sides we end up in the “middle”.
We are not equidistant to both the AFP and the CPP. The target of our political work is the government and its armed forces, and the political and economic system that they preside over and defend. The CPP is not our enemy. We cannot make the destruction of the CPP a political goal the way the government does. Our relations with the CPP lies in the sphere of ideological struggle in the ranks of the progressive movement, and political struggle for the allegiance of the people. What makes it difficult to work within this frame is that the CPP treats us as enemy. They refuse to engage us and other groups in the non-CPP Left in ideological and political struggle. They only mention us in derisive ways, using propaganda trickery and outright lies.
Breaking out of the box that recent AFP-CPP exchanges threaten to put us in requires that our starting point is who we are, not how other political forces define us. Those who like us contribute towards who we are. The problem is that its been the military and the CPP's depiction of us which has of late been most influential. We have to regain our capacity to be the main shapers of who we are. We do that not just through what we say but also what we do. Sometimes what we say does not fully portray what we do. Most of our 'open campaign' activities are demonstrations, which is fine. But when we portray ourselves in print and image and sound we always privilege demonstrations, giving a distorted picture because we exclude a wide range of other things that we do.
By choice we define ourselves as Left. What Left means is a sphere of struggle, in our case, a sphere that has been dominated by the Maoists for a long time. How to serve the interests of the poor and underprivileged is the main struggle. The Maoists say this can be done best through armed struggle led by a Communist Party. We say that this can be done best through participation in the democratic process, not just through elections but through the totality of our efforts, deepening democracy. Because we are products not just of our own but also the Left's history, sometimes we forget the distinction. We get tempted by the simplicity of the Maoists manichean frame, by its authoritarian practices, by the short run efficacy of the use of violence.
Left discourse in the Philippines has tended to focus on issues of strategy and organizational frame, not on the socialist alternative. ND avoidance of 'socialism' and exactly what it means is only partly because it has focused on the intermediate “national democratic” stage. The deeper and certainly not explicit reason is that the further the “socialist millennium” is, the more room there is for opportunism, the old “means and ends” conundrum. Akbayan strives to remove the distance between millennial goals and the present, the better to remove justifications for opportunism. The Akbayan goal is to devise organizational forms and strategic initiatives that will enable us to build alternatives now, in the course of the struggle itself.
We have to sharpen our critique of the CPP. It is a critique that is not just theoretical. It is based on the intolerable costs of armed struggle and the Leninist organizational frame. The cost is countable in the victims of past purges, in downed cel sites which deprive people of the means of communicating with each other. It is, in the end, 'provable' in the extraordinary length of close to forty years of protracted'ness. The superiority of our strategy is not that we can achieve a socialist millennium in less time. It lies in our ability to create a 'socialist' present in smaller spaces, in the way we relate to our people, the way we relate to each other; socialism in one village. Deepening democracy does not mean we have achieved it when we reach a certain depth in our digging. We succeed when we have returned a sense of political effectiveness, of efficacy to people, one by one, community by community, town by town.
Ideological or Sociological Divide?
There is a divide within Akbayan. I do not know whether to call it an 'ideological' divide. Nathan Quimpo (“Pragmatists vs.Mavericks, Akbayan Forum, 26 Dec 2003) provides a good description of this divide “...between those who mainly take the mass movement/pressure politics/contentious politics (MPC) perspective and those who take the development work/peoples participation in governance/actual governance or government work (DPG) view.” Since Quimpo provides the only political/sociological explanation of this divide, I will take the liberty of quoting extensively from him.
“Those of the MPC perspective put the stress on the “parliament of the streets”, mass actions and campaigns, mass protest and advocacy...mass movements tend to be urban centered. The stress in MPC tends to be to constantly “expose and oppose” the government, elite democracy, globalization. In the MPC constant attention has to be given to the ebb and flow of the mass movement, correct tactics, correct tactical political line, sharp propaganda, etc...Coming from the “mass movement” tradition, Akbayan is well versed as far as “pressure” or “contentious politics” is concerned. But then Akbayan is not just into the “parliament of the streets”. It has gone into development work, peoples participation in governance and actual governance/government work – new arenas where it is still learning the ropes.”
“Many Akbayan activists and members, especially in the urban areas, tend to see their party as being mainly in the "mass movement" mode, a party whose political activities revolve around mass actions and campaigns, especially of the protest or advocacy type. This self-perception, it turns out, is not too accurate. In the course of studying Akbayan's engagement of civil society at the local level, I noticed that Akbayan cadres and activists in many areas actually did not devote much time and effort on pressure or contentious politics (except some plantation areas and agrarian reform "hotspots"), and were in fact much more involved in such other concerns as development work, peoples participation in governance and preparing for elections.”
“Urban activists were often called upon, and felt compelled, to articulate and project the party's positions on national, sectoral and local issues and developments. While being centers of the mass movement, urban centers nonetheless also played a significant role in non-contentious aspect of Akbayan's politics: as national or regional hubs in the development efforts of the party and allied NGOs...I noted, however, that many Akbayan cadres and activists were not too conscious about, and sensitive to, the difference in urban and rural priorities. Moreover, I observed that the time and energy of Akbayan national leaders often tended to be drawn to, and caught up in, the exciting, fast-paced contentious politics in the major urban centers, sometimes at the expense of the mundane, slow-paced, not-too-contentious concerns in the rural areas.” (p.5-6) Quimpo's “sociology” of Akbayan and political/ideological divisions within it should go some distance in explaining issues we raised at the beginning, preoccupation with the PL elections and neglect of local work despite repeated lip service to it.
One result of the urban/rural ideological divide within the party is that middle class recruits to the party tend to enter mainly in rural towns. Candidates for local office and allies in local governance projects within government have an easier time joining Akbayan. In urban areas, the political persona of the party is too closely identified with demonstrations and other mass actions, with “ideologized” policy debates. Other than NGO staff, Akbayan does not have too many middle or upper class people who are party members in urban areas. Which is not to say the party does not have support in the urban middle and upper classes. Pre-election surveys consistently show high preference for Akbayan in PL elections in the middle and upper classes. The problem is more that people from these segments of the population have not, so far, entered the party.
Quimpo's analysis of Akbayan's urban-rural divide parallels, if in different ways, the party-social movement divide. Relations between the party and its affiliated social movements are sometimes exasperating. At the same time, if there was no tension I would worry because social movements and parties occupy different political spaces, have different organizational dynamics, and very different goals. Social movements are very important to the party. Being a party working for the interests of poor and oppressed people is an ideological stance. Working with 'popular' organizations (social movements) gives content to this commitment beyond 'motherhood' statements. It is also a way for the party to be accountable for this commitment. Accountability to social movement groups then becomes a second layer of accountability in addition to our accountability to our membership. One of our tasks is to define how this second layer of accountability will be organized.
AKBAYAN, particularly its national leadership and secretariat, periodically receives complaints from the party's allied social movements: “Akbayan is not contributing enough to mass movement struggles. Akbayan treats movements solely as sources of warm bodies for its open and electoral campaigns. Akbayan representatives in Congress do not devote enough time or attention to movement concerns, instead, they preoccupy themselves with media exposure or legislative work. Increasingly, the party leadership is giving more premium to local governance work even when this conflicts with sectoral interests. Why does the party support or align with candidates who are anti-labor or anti-agrarian reform?” Conversely, party leaders and full time operatives sometimes ask in frustration: Is Akbayan a campaign center of the sectors? Is it the party's primary role to respond to movement demands? How can the party, with its limited resources, respond to all sectors all at once? Have sectors become overly sensitive and demanding? Why can't they understand that some party decisions need to be made quickly and with political calculations other than those of specific interest groups?2
Nine years into its formation, Akbayan has yet to develop a conceptual frame for its relations with social movements. Although the party's founding documents declare “autonomy of social movements” as a guiding principle for party-movement relations, the various meanings and interpretations of such precept have not been the subject of rigorous theorizing or consensus-building. This principle is no longer sufficient especially as a guide for resolving conflicts between the party and social movements. In recent years, “sectoral caucuses” have been created as mechanisms for coordinating party and movement efforts and more and more positions in the party leadership at various levels are alloted to social movement representatives, but the articulation of party-movement issues has not reached the party in its entirety.
The proposed framing starts with the assertion that intermittent tensions between Akbayan and its allied social movements are not only “administrative/ efficiency/ coordination problems” or “personality conflicts”. They point to strategic questions of collective action and political coordination that should find clarity in party policy and a unified ideological orientation and political strategy.
Typifying Akbayan as the progeny of Left-influenced social movement activists is important because (1) it explains the social movements' dual sense of “ownership” and “otherness” vis-a-vis Akbayan, (2) it represents several unfinished party tasks and (3) it signifies the importance of party “actors” and the choices they make in determining party dynamics including party-movement relations.
The social movement activists who participated in Akbayan's formation were informed by their respective conceptions of the political significance of their own organizations and the relevance of creating another political organization. Clearly, Akbayan was envisioned as another vital instrument for social change. Founders who came from the labor movement for instance had a pre-existing mission of developing a “labor vote” and joining Akbayan – a multi-sectoral party -- was a way to implement rather than abandon this mission. While labor groups supported Akbayan as an alternative political party where various sectors and movements converge, they had their own notions of the party's mission vis-a-vis their own. They joined the party and now lend continued support with certain ideas on what the party should do for them, how they should influence the party and toward what direction.
I think the most important ideological task here (meaning in the sphere of party-mass movement relations) is that of 'teasing out' the varieties of meaning of an 'autonomous' but 'interdependent' relationship. One problem is that at times social movement leaders argue as if the party 'owes it to them' to do whatever it is they feel we are not doing enough of. Even as the different 'vantage points' we are coming from (social movements and party) is a reality, a welcome and necessary reality, we are jointly responsible for this party. When there is disagreement, we negotiate from positions of equality. We are, as it were, 'equidistant' to the party and its tasks. The party does not 'owe' social movements, we are 'co-guarantors' both 'owing' energy and resources to building this party and the social movements.
The functional roles of political parties -- policy making, leadership change, and regime legitimization (or challenge) – all relate to the question of distribution of power within a society and hence are also the concerns of social movements. These movements aim to “raise voice” and challenge representative institutions so that power is distributed broadly and democratically. Because electoral victory or formal power is not their primary aim, social movements do not start from the imperatives of accumulation of power but from the imperatives of collective action. Through various forms of collective action particularly protest and claim making, these movements define their identities and create a structural space for the articulation of various modes of domination.
Politically the crucial challenge is how to assure that the party remains 'a party of the poor and oppressed' and therefore to assure that the perspectives of the poor and oppressed determine party decisions without class determinism and class quotas in leadership. Because Akbayan is a 'party of struggle' – it wants to achieve power through mass struggles, electoral work, and national and local governance so that it can change the overall distribution of power (political, economic, formal, informal) in society – it performs this function in specific ways: it privileges inclusive participation and dialogue, but it also understands that 'changing the overall distribution of power' is not an English tea party. Fighting for this change is a 'joint project' of Akbayan and its affiliated social movements”, but they have different 'locations' in this struggle.
Party – social movement relations is mediated by political blocs. Created in the aftermath of the downfall of Marcos in 1986 and the beginning of the CPP decline, political blocs are or at least aspire to be disciplined, ideological groups who build NGOs to “service” mass organizations they organize. They provided the manpower and the motive power for building the party. But they also created problems for the party because they are alternative centers of loyalty and political influence to the party. Intense competition between the blocs and sometimes within a bloc spilled over into the party many times. Compared to the first few years of the party, bloc dynamics have markedly decreased. There are suggestions that the blocs should fold up and 'fold into' the party. This will take some time because is not yet in a position to perform one of the functions of the blocs, to impose standards of discipline and militancy. This capacity if difficult to develop within the party because it is made up of different blocs and independent leftists some of whom are capable of working within these standards and others who are not.
How Do We Go Ahead and Do What is to be Done
We have known for years what we need to do. Its not that anybody within or outside the party prevented us from doing it. What we've had to do is align our “guts” our Left aligned instincts with what we knew we have to do. It helped that we got shocked to recognition by our setback in the 2007 party list election. There's nothing like defeat to force focus. It also helps that we have greater confidence in being Left. The more uncertain you are, the greater the tendency towards Left posturing, towards what I've called “symbolic politics”. We will be ten years old in a few months. We have experimented with different ways of accumulating power unrecognizable from old Left perspectives. And we are still a Left organization. The public thinks we are a Left party; more importantly, we think we are a Left party.
The whole party is now formally oriented around a new organizing frame focused on local organizing. Focusing on local organizing means a major reorientation of our organizational methods. It means that all of our local units must be oriented around winning elections at the barangay, the lowest level of government, and at the municipality. This can only be done if these units: (1) relate actively with local political issues, (2) have a local governance project, (3) carefully develop candidates, (4) build a local election campaign machinery several years before an election. Except in one or two places, it does not make sense at this point to think in terms of the district (for congressional elections), or the province.
We have the political technology for the kind of local governance work that can tie together these four areas of work. The “citizen co-financing, co-production” method pioneered by IPD and adopted by Batman, combined with IPG's participatory barangay, and municipal development planning is a resource that neither trapos nor the Maoists have. The reorientation of community organizing methods around planning and co-financing and co-production will facilitate party organizing. For an Akbayan mayor, or a recruitable ally, this technology will provide achievements, service delivery projects beyond the standard infrastructure. It can also provide him/her with a ready made election campaign machinery. Many new things have to be learned to master this new organizational frame.
One of the lessons is very simple. Where it was sufficient to organize a few barangay in one municipality for PL elections, to win local seats, most importantly the mayorship, you have to organize in all the barangay, or at least in enough barangay to assure a safe majority of votes in the municipality. Most Akbayan mayors won not because of Akbayan organizing but because of their own. The party then is dependent on the local chief executive. In such a situation you can't make the mayor accountable. Organized in all barangays, the party can then become the machinery of party candidates. This enables the party candidate to save on campaign expenses, a strike against money politics. The party organization at the barangay level can also become the base for participatory governance initiatives.
The local party organizing, participatory planning, and community co-financing and co-production of services follows a deepening democracy logic. Organizing the party to start with, giving mass members a real role in the politics of the municipality, is already a clearcut contrast to politics limited to elite circles. The IPG's participatory barangay development planning technology runs the village community through an analysis of economic conditions in the community, a long term term development plan, then concrete, achievable projects. Barangay planning technology has been scaled up to municipal development planning. The new social technology, community co-financing and co-production of services undercuts two key elements in the patronage circuit. In a patronage system only the local executive decides on projects. He also keeps project implementation limited to a small circle of people, and away from public scrutiny.
When you work within an existing political system, try to change it from within you have no choice but to operate with the existing 'currencies' of power, for example, money, but you also work to develop new kinds of power. At the local level, this means purposively fielding Akbayan candidates with local party and movement strength as leverage. Apart from deriving power from our mass base, the successful implementation of the local governance program described above will develop new kinds of power through new forms of participation, of direct democracy in local government. The party will be the thread that will tie together local initiatives in direct democracy, raise it to higher levels of local government. At the national level, this means having a significant number of seats in the House of Representatives (and hopefully the Senate) -- enough to make Akbayan's legislative votes count in the passage or the blocking of bills (by itself or in alliance with other legislative blocs).
Through most of the last two years, Akbayan has been in the forefront of the opposition to the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Revelations of cheating during the 2004 presidential elections and large scale corruption have removed President Arroyo's legitimacy. In Congress and on the street, Akbayan was in the leadership of the movement to impeach Arroyo. We were also active in defeating two attempts by Arroyo and the Speaker of the House Jose De Venecia, to ram through the kinds of constitutional amendments which would have strengthened old style politics instead of reforming it.
What then should be the elements of such a reform framework? It should respond, most importantly, to widespread disgust with our politics. It should set achievable goals which can restore a sense of hope. Without a gut feel that significant change is possible, we cannot get people to abandon their cynicism and contribute to achieving that change. The key word is achievable. People, especially young people, do not respond anymore to “pie in the sky” idealism.
Akbayan is well placed to play a role in this process because alone among national political parties it has worked hard at crafting a platform for reform. Because the process involved settling old issues of the Left, it has been a long and hard process. Leveling off on the issues also took lots of time.
Taking democracy right into the heart of the discursive process has meant discouraging the rigid, highly theoretical discourse of the old Left. In the end what may be required is not that discourse settles into a single, stable order but that more people accept that unstable, shifting, negotiated formulations and relationships are more productive of the participatory radical democracy we are fighting for. #