by Randy David

 

photo_randy.jpgTaos-pusong pagbati sa ating lahat sa ika-sampung anibersaryo ng Akbayan. Sa mga panahong tulad ng kasalukuyan, maituturing nang isang malaking tagumpay para sa isang party-list group na manatiling tapat sa kaniyang mga simulain, at makapagdiwang ng isang dekada ng pag-iral. Hindi biro ang mga pagsubok na dinaanan ng Akbayan. At di na marahil kailangan pang sabihin na lalong hindi biro ang mga hamong haharapin nito sa mga susunod pang sampung taon. Ang pananatili ng isang bagong partidong ideyolohikal na tulad ng Akbayan ay isang imposibilidad na maaari lamang isagawa bilang bahagi ng isang malakas at kolektibong pagkukusa – “a collective act of will.” Nais kong paksain ang bagay na ito ngayong umaga.

 

The paradox of new politics is that, in theory, it is perhaps the only type of politics that can offer us any hope of survival in the modern world. And yet, at the same time, in a transitional society like ours, its practice seems to offer little promise or meaning unless it compromises with traditional politics, or plays second fiddle to revolutionary politics.

 

To make this point clearer, let us go into some preliminary definitions.

 

We can distinguish the various forms of politics by their goals and methods.

Traditional politics aims to preserve the existing order of society — its inherited hierarchies, and inviolable norms — as signified by the unexamined fixation with the rule of law. Its methods are well-known – the fostering of dependence and patronage through the exploitation of customary norms like utang na loob or debt of gratitude, elitist paternalistic rule that combines benevolence with calibrated intimidation, obsession with consensus and disdain for free debate, the unaccountable disposition of public wealth, and the unchecked exercise of public power.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, revolutionary politics dreams of completely overhauling the existing social order through the imposition of a new political-legal order that seeks to regulate nearly every aspect of social life. The emphasis, almost invariably, is the creation of a strong State as an overarching mechanism of utopian societal engineering, of economic growth, and of social redistribution. Its accompanying methods are equally well-known: armed struggle and/or the capture or enlistment of the armed forces of the existing State, revolutionary upheaval, full deployment of the State’s security forces to crush dissent at least in the immediate period following the seizure of power, and the excessive reliance on the regulatory powers of the State to maintain societal stability.

 

In contrast to these two poles, new politics aims to reform institutions and revise existing routines and procedures in accordance with the demands and pressures for change that are already manifest in society, careful not to embark on comprehensive programs of transformation that cannot be sustained by the existing objective conditions. Its thrust is thus more evolutionary than revolutionary, more to strengthen the foundations on which to build the new, than to invent something new from nothing. Its immediate objective is to end mass poverty and public ignorance as a condition for the progressive democratization and modernization of society. Its favored instruments are: non-violent resistance through the creation of autonomous social movements and people’s organizations, the formation of self-sustaining electoral parties with clear ideologies and programs, debates and open fora in mass media, social critique, mass mobilizations centering on clear-minded advocacies, and community organizing for popular empowerment at all levels of society.

 

In all transitional situations, the problem has always been how to build something different from what already exists, while avoiding assimilation by conservative forces. Herein lies the paradox of new politics. The temptation to make peace with the old order is very strong because of the perks and resources being offered by the latter. Similarly, the temptation to adopt the romantic promise of revolutionary politics remains potent because of the moral and ideological purity it seems to represent.

I am aware of the danger of extrapolating new norms of practice from ideal-type definitions like these. Reality is extremely complex and dynamic. Changes in social conditions accumulate faster than our ability to grasp or describe them in ways that allow us to move forward. The dilemmas to which I refer here can be seen in the practical day-to-day problems faced by individuals who have taken upon themselves the role of new politicians and have actually won public positions. Much can be learned from the situations they have had to deal with once they assumed power.

 

As a case in point, I wish to share with you my preliminary analysis of the situation that the priest-turned-politician, Gov. Ed Panlilio of Pampanga, has had to contend with from day one of his term. I believe that Among Ed’s predicament gives us a fairly good idea of the fate that awaits new politics in a transitional society like ours.

Let me start by saying that every political system in its current state has its own code of morality, its own mode of legitimation, its own acceptable procedures for settling disputes and using power, its own routines and standard communications – all of which are rooted in the structural principles of the society in which it is embedded. Traditional politics, as I have characterized it here, thrives in highly stratified societies based on unequal distribution of life chances. Here, political roles tend to be integrated into networks and layers of of patron-client relationships.

 

Societies undergoing the wrenching transition to modernity are witnessing the gradual collapse of these hierarchies. But the collapse does not automatically lead to democratization; in many instances, it only paves the way for the entry of new forces based on different value systems. For example, the exit of landed families from the political stage has not paved the way for the entry of professional politicians from modern political parties. It has only created space for moneyed individuals like jueteng lords created by a gambling economy, or celebrities projected by the modern mass media. In some societies, the demise of military rule did not spell the end of authoritarianism; it only paved the way for the entry of new authoritarian leaders riding on the crest of religious fundamentalism. Clearly, the transition to political modernity can be intercepted by new forms of authoritarian rule. This is what can happen in situations where the remnants of a beleaguered traditional order attempt to salvage their rule by establishing a national security State that is justified by the war on terrorism – a scenario that is slowly emerging in our country.

 

Among Ed Panlilio was thrust into the position of governor in a province that had already made the transition from rule by the landed elite to rule by the new moneyed elite – the gambling lords and the movie celebrities. This transition was shallow however. It did not change the rules and methods of traditional politics; it only recruited new players. It was to this political reality that the educated middle classes of Pampanga were reacting when they launched a campaign to oppose the candidacies of both Lilia Pineda, wife of the reputed jueteng lord Bong Pineda, and Mark Lapid, the movie-actor son of the movie celebrity and now senator Lito Lapid. In their despair, they searched for a moral figure who could symbolize the quest for good governance, on the premise that the corruption in the governance of the province was due in large measure to the moral weakness of previous governors. Both Lapid and Pineda were known to be staunch allies of President Arroyo, and it would have been logical to find somebody who was not just anti-Pineda and anti-Lapid but also anti-Arroyo. But Pampanga’s middle classes chose to be blind in their assessment of the presidency of their cabalen, Mrs. Arroyo. It became politically convenient, as a result, to find an apolitical alternative. Among Ed fitted that important criterion very well. As a parish priest, he was a moral shepherd, active in the social projects of the province but inactive, or at least perceived to be neutral, insofar as national politics was concerned. This made him a viable third candidate, a dark horse in a desperate political landscape.

The quixotic nature of his entry into Pampanga’s politics – running without a party and without a slate – made Among Ed, the parish priest, a natural magnet for those who could only think of a moral solution to the province’s manifold problems. It was an uphill and lopsided battle but the dark horse won by the slimmest margin over the wife of Bong Pineda. The votes were split three-ways, a phenomenon that ultimately worked for Among Ed.

 

Given the extraordinary circumstances that attended Among Ed’s heroic victory, it is easy to overestimate the value of moral ascendancy in politics and to overlook the dynamics of the existing political culture. Among Ed’s religious identity proved to be a successful vehicle in the quest for the highest post in the provincial government, but it has failed to work the same miracle in governance itself. Indeed, one can even say that he and his team became captives of the moral rhetoric that allowed them to launch an effective campaign. He is governor but he is unable to govern. He has to contend the other elected officials of the province – the barangay captains, the town councilors and mayors, and the members of the provincial board. He has to find a way to work with these public officials – who were on the “wrong” side of the moral-political divide in the last election.

The political realities of the province have quickly caught up with the new governor. His being a priest has given him an edge in dealing with his fellow public officials, but it has not elicited for him the same deference it commands when dealing with a parish. The provincial board, acting as a provincial legislative body, has refused to confirm the appointments he has made. They have failed to pass the budget of the province. He could not get projects done at the level of the municipalities because of the non-cooperation or outright hostility of the mayors. About the only ally he seems to be able to count on is the mayor of the capital town San Fernando, Oscar Rodriguez. The groups that spontaneously got together, worked, and spent for his campaign are not part of an organized political force, nor have they been formed into one. Indeed some of them have begun to express disenchantment at the slow pace of the reform process and the confusion that seems to attend the affairs of the governor’s office. One can imagine how much this depresses Among Ed, and he has been in office for only six months.

Here then is a new politician with a vision, who, against all expectations, has won a position. If he wishes to govern and make limited use of the prerogatives of his office in order to serve the people of Pampanga, notably the poor, he must get the support, no matter how grudging, of the other public officials – who, not surprisingly, were all elected according to the same old norms of political patronage. They want to get their hands on the resources of patronage on which their political roles feed. Among Ed has refused to release any public money to their persons because of his firm commitment to institutional and accountable governance. As a result, all their recent moves have been focused on removing from the governor’s office the powers of disbursement.

 

Two choices are immediately open to Among Ed. First, he can adopt a flexible approach and try very hard to work within the existing political realities. He can remind himself of the original definition of politics – i.e. the art of compromise. He can give in to the demands of the trapos, in exchange for support on the programs that matter to him – without any illusion that he can reform their ways. I call this political realism.

 

Or, he can wage a war of attrition against the old political culture and the individuals that defend it at every turn, risking a permanent political stalemate till the end of his 3-year term. In this, he can surely count on the support of the national media, like the Inquirer which has championed his heroic cause. If he chooses this path, he will surely be crucified by his antagonists in Pampanga, but in so doing he may succeed in catalyzing the formation of a nationwide citizen’s movement to end the reign of traditional politics. I would call this political idealism.

 

Whether Among Ed chooses the first or the second path, a clear-minded political activist might remind him at once about the necessity of organizing a stable political constituency that can push forward through the electoral process the cause of enduring social reform. The moral shepherd has to become a modern professional politician. This is not going to be easy in a culture that has fostered a great dependence on politicians yet at the same time has ironically cultivated a deep cynicism for politics. Our perpetual search for messiahs and charismatic leaders betrays a misunderstanding of the requirements of modern politics. Stuck in the vague generalities of moral language, we do not understand what it means to make use of the ways of politics to reform society.

 

I want to be clear about what I mean by this. To politically organize our people does not mean just being able to herd them for mass actions and street mobilizations. It means rather tapping and strengthening their will to participate in governance by providing them with the skills necessary for modern politics – i.e., to be able to manage town hall meetings at every level of the polity, to be able to speak intelligently about issues and policies, to be able to make decisions, and draw systematic plans and programs. In short, everything that has to do with the formation of political leaders suitable to a modern democracy. Max Weber’s advice to his fellow Germans at the turn of the 20th century is appropriate to our own time: “Only the orderly guidance of the masses by responsible politicians can break the irregular rule of the street and the leadership of demagogues of the moment.” (p. 395, From Max Weber, 1970)

 

Just as I cannot presume to tell Among Ed which path he should take, I will not presume to tell Akbayan how it should conduct itself in the next ten years. But one thing is important – no matter which direction we choose, we must be clear about our goals. We must be clear about the measure of our success. We must continue attracting and organizing others around our goals, and we must ask ourselves constantly whether we are making any progress on these goals – without ever forgetting that the first objective of an electoral party is to get elected. Finally, let me say in closing it would do us no harm if we learned to pause every now and then, if only to ask how this whole experience is changing us and what else we need to do in order to become what we set out to be – truly a party of hope.



* Read at the 10th Anniversary Forum of AKBAYAN Citizens Action Party, Club Filipino, Jan. 25, 2008