Formal Democracy and its Alternatives in the Philippines:

26 Julio 2005
Joel Rocamora

Formal Democracy and its Alternatives in the Philippines:
Parties, Elections and Social Movements
Joel Rocamora
Paper presented at the conference Democracy and Civil Society In Asia: The Emerging Opportunities and Challenges
Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 19-21 August 2000

The Philippines has the most persistently undemocratic democracy in Asia. Except for the period of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos between 1972 and 1986, the Philippines has had a functioning democracy since independence from the United States in 1946. At the same time, a small group of powerful families has dominated politics and kept the economic benefits of power to themselves. Many analysts use the modifier "elite" when referring to Philippine democracy. (Bello and Gershman,1990)

Effective participation by citizens outside of elections is limited. Unlike Malaysia and Singapore (much more obviously unlike the military dictatorship in Burma) with their Internal Security Acts, the Philippine state does not impose too many formal limits to the self-organization of disadvantaged groups. But a combination of bureaucratic rules and informal means including violence continues to make organizing difficult. Without effective popular pressure, government is generally not accountable.

While labor and peasant organizations remain weak, other civil society organizations, NGOs and new social movements groups including women and environmental groups are strong and continue to build significant political capability. Initiatives to build new kinds of political parties come from this section of Philippine society. They also constitute a strong base of support for initiatives to reform Philippine politics, to transform a weak, incompetent government dominated by rent-seeking elites.

Democratization and International Capital

We need to locate the process of democratization in the Philippines in the context of contemporary democratization discourse. The main source of "democratization" discourse in the 1990s are multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the OECD and Western governments led by the United States. Of the multilateral banks, the Asian Development Bank is a late comer. Given these sources, GD discourse cannot be understood outside of the interests and international agendas of international capitalism and the national and multi-national public institutions which support them.

Although "democracy" has always been part of the ideological arsenal of international capital, "democratization" discourse in the 1990s has been strongly influenced by post Cold War conditions. The removal of socialism as an alternative has led to all manner of Western triumphalism, the grossest being Fukuyama's "end of history" conceit. Western style liberal democracy, Fukuyama asserts, is the final goal of political evolution. History, therefore, has ended.

Another source of Western pressure on governments of the South to "democratize" is the acceleration of Western penetration of the economies of the South usually labeled "globalization". To facilitate this thrust, specific elements in the Western conception of liberal democracy have been pushed, most importantly, its anti-state bias and the equation of "democracy" with "market". Trade and other forms of liberalization have been packaged as "democratization". Since governments are corrupt and inefficient, the argument goes, democracy can be advanced only if many of the economic functions of government are "privatized" - turned over to the "market".

"Today's renewed focus on the state's role has been inspired by the dramatic events in the global economy which have fundamentally changed the environment in which states operate. The global integration of economies and the spread of democracy have narrowed the scope for arbitrary and capricious behavior. Taxes, investment rules and economic policies must be ever responsive to the parameters of a globalized world economy. Technological change has opened new opportunities for unbundling services and allowing a larger role for markets. These changes have meant new and different roles for government - no longer a sole provider but as facilitator and regulator". (World Bank, 1997:1)

The most important reason for problematizing "governance and democratization" discourse is that it is being pushed by international capitalism, by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the governments of advanced capitalist countries led by the United States. After supporting authoritarian regimes throughout the world from Somoza to Marcos to Mobutu for decades, why has international capitalism shifted to support for democracy? Why is democratization in countries of the South in the interest of international capitalism?

The attempt to equate democracy with capitalism by neo-liberal ideologues is only one part of the problem. Surely, history will 'end' much later than Francis Fukuyama. Arguing against the proposition that markets lead to democracy should not be too difficult given the many examples of markets prospering under various forms of authoritarianism in the past and today. The opposite direction of the argument, that 'democracy requires markets' demands more attention because it leads to the issue of state building under conditions of accelerating globalization under the aegis of capitalism.

The question might be posed in the following manner. If globalization is the current stage of the expansion of capitalist relations into countries of the South, what is it about the particulars of this expansion that makes "democratization" the preferred political strategy of international capitalism? Is it part of the anti-state aspect of neo-liberalism? Does movement away from authoritarian states in the South mean weaker governments? Or is international capitalism mainly interested in moving against protectionist, nationalist ruling class fractions to enable "modernizing elites" to come to power and make way for the expansion of capitalist relations into new areas of the economies of the South?

We might begin to answer these extremely complex questions with some initial clarifications. To start with, the kind of democracy that is being pushed by the North is very specific. It is formal, constitutional, Western-style democracy. It is a form of democracy that separates politics from the structures of power in the economy. Ideologically, it is very much part of the "anti-state aspect of neo-liberalism". Harking back to Lockian arguments, but with a more modern Thatcherite patina, democracy here is understood in the simplest of ways as "less government".

In its academic garb, the argument is that "political democracy per se is a goal worthy of achievement, even at the expense of foregoing alternative paths that would seem to promise more immediate returns in terms of socialisation [social reform]" (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986: 13-14). In more direct, political terms the same argument might be restated as "OK, you can have democracy but only if you leave the economy alone". For a foreign investor, a crucial condition to assure relatively free entry and exit and the least possible intervention in profit making while in-country.

It is no accident that the intensification of Western demands for "democrati-zation" go hand-in-hand with demands for trade liberalization, privatization and financial and other forms of deregulation. The latter can more easily be ''read'' as part of the process of opening up the South for Northern investment and trade. What is less often pointed out is that an anti-state interpretation of "democracy" comes down to (roughly) the same thing. If you're going to demand changes in economic policy with distinct, often upper class "losers", does it not make sense to garb your demands in the glittering raiment of democracy?

Here it is important to make a distinction between "democratization" in former socialist states and in countries in the non-socialist Third World. In the latter, especially in the relatively newly independent countries of Africa, ruling elites tend to be economically weak. In the face of more powerful economic competitors, whether those from former colonial masters or those brought in as part of colonization such as Chinese and/or Indian business groups, control over the government is seen as one way for ruling elites to make up for economic weakness.

The process of state formation in many countries in the South, whether those decolonized in the nineteenth century in Latin America or only in the 1960s in Africa, created a situation where ruling elites tended to come out of the civilian and military bureaucracies created by colonial governments. Economically weak, bureaucracy-based elites working in the unsettled political conditions of post-colonial countries often easily availed of authoritarian means. This authoritarian tendency was buttressed by external players, often American, anxious to prevent Marxist liberation movements from winning.

In the 1990s, democratization in the South might best be seen in relation to the convergence of the collapse of the socialist bloc, the renewed thrust towards trade liberalization under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, and the 'emerging markets' phenomenon. With the collapse of the USSR and the socialist bloc, one of the major reasons for Western support for authoritarian regimes in the South also disappeared. To make way for accelerated entry of goods and services, most importantly financial services, protectionist and authoritarian regimes have had to be removed or forced to democratize.

We might now ask a question made earlier: does movement away from authoritarian governments in the South mean weaker government? From the vantage point of the West, why then is the anti-authoritarian thrust of Western pressure accompanied by "governance" programs meant seemingly paradoxically to strengthen government capacity?

The seeming paradox exists if we look only at the ideology of Western-style democratization. If we look at the process from the vantage point of the requirements of international capitalism, there is no contradiction. Authoritarian governments in the South have, in fact, tended to be controlled by elite groups based in agro-exports or in manufacturing built up during the heyday of import-substitution industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s. The "modernizing" elites in these countries are in the financial sector or in import-dependent non-traditional exports. These "democratizing" elites, not surprisingly are also the class fractions most needed by international capital as local partners in the ongoing acceleration of globalization.

Governments in the South, whether authoritarian or not, also tended to have limited governmental capacity, in the current political science jargon, to be "weak states". For foreign business, this creates problems in both the political and economic realm. Weak governments also have weak capacity to assure political stability, a major requirement of investors. At a minimum, governments have to have a monopoly over the legitimate uses of violence to assure peace and order and end armed challenges to the government.

"Transparency", one of the most important elements of the GD thrust might best be understood from the vantage point of the explosive expansion of international capital flows, a key element in globalization. The velocity of these financial flows is such that fund managers require up-to-the-minute data on monetary and fiscal accounts. Authoritarian governments, - usually accompanied by "crony capitalism", by cozy relationships between government officials and their business clients - require hiding or often doctoring this kind of data.

While demanding less intervention in the economy in "strong states", in many countries of the South, the demand is to strengthen the government's capacity to intervene. As one American scholar said of the Philippines: "...the Philippine state is incapable of providing even the basic legal and administrative underpinnings necessary for the laissez-faire model that the IMF, World Bank and the former colonial power have been trying to peddle on the country. The historical development of laissez-faire, explains Polanyi, required "an enormous increase in the administrative functions of the state". Overwhelmed by the myriad particularistic demands of powerful oligarchic interests, the Philippine state is unable to provide anything approximating the "political and procedural predictability" necessary for the development of more advanced forms of capitalism". (Hutchcroft,1993: 580-581)

Two current concerns of Northern governance programs in the South, decentralization and anti-corruption, can also be understood best from the vantage point of foreign investors. Decentralization programs need not be seen as necessarily weakening central governments if they strengthen the capacity of local government units to implement central government programs. This is particularly true for government economic services such as infrastructure. In the same vein, corruption is seen as an added "cost" for investors that distort local factor markets.

For our purposes, there are three major intellectual biases in Western discourse on democracy that affect the way we look at politics in countries of the South. First, that formal democracy, not popular (participatory) democracy is the goal. The second, related point is the equation of democracy with capitalism, and the restriction of the government's role in the economy. Lastly, that external factors do not play a significant causal role in politics in the South.

In a world increasingly dominated by the international capitalist system, national politics in the South - or in any other part of the world for that matter - cannot be properly understood in national isolation. External factors, ranging from IMF-World Bank conditionalities, to foreign military assistance, to more direct forms of foreign military, political and economic intervention are often decisive in determining the outcome of sociopolitical conflicts in countries of the South.

The Roots of Philippine Politics

From the time of the municipal governments formed by the Americans at the turn of the century through various constitutional and extra-constitutional changes to the present, Philippine politics has operated within institutional parameters limiting and shaping interaction to factions of the elite within a presidential form of government. The most important aspect of the Philippine political system is elite domination. It is crucial to point this out first because it relates directly to two characteristics of the political system, its ineffectiveness, what analysts call a "weak state", and the low level of effective political participation.

The dominant 'patron-client' framework of analysis of Philippine politics masks elite dominance. "In particular, much of Western writing often describes Philippine politics in terms of patron-client ties, a pattern of reciprocal exchange between superiors and inferiors that maintains society in a state of equilibrium. Defined by Lynch, refined by Lande, and modified by Machado, this analysis excludes considerations of coercion and exploitation in favor of an imagined symbiosis between landlords and tenants or between mill owners and laborers". (McCoy, 1991: 106)

More recent studies, however, especially by historians and anthropologists who have an easier time escaping the theoretical limits of mainstream political science, paint a different picture. "Instead of a mythic past of village amity, social relations in La Carlota were marked, ab initio, by systematic violence and conflict. Although some planters may have cleared unoccupied lands, several expropriated vast tracts from peasant pioneers through a combination of fraud, corruption, and violence". (McCoy,1991: 109)

It is not unique to the Philippines that power groups work to influence government. That's what politics is all about anywhere in the world. What has kept the Philippine state weak is that no one class has been strong enough to bend the state to its will. Instead, our upper classes are divided into class fractions dependent on government. Their competing demands on government have made it impossible to formulate and implement a coherent economic development policy or to develop political institutions capable of providing a reliable regulatory framework for the economy.

The underdeveloped and dependent character of the economy, especially at the time our political institutions were given its characteristic shape in the 1930s provides some of the explanations. Subsistence agriculture and share tenancy do not provide adequate structures of capital accumulation. Commerce and trade were in the hands of Chinese. Because the central government controlled access to export agriculture, and could generate financial resources, it became the main target of local elites.

McCoy's description of the Lopez family "...illustrates the symbiosis between the weak Philippine state and the strength of the country's dominant political families. A contradictory pairing of the state's broad economic powers with the executive's role as a political patron has made rent seeking an imperative for major Filipino families. Through their reliance upon rents, these families can exploit the state's financial resources and regulatory powers to create optimum conditions for the growth of their corporations...

Even if they are not so inclined, elite families are forced to cultivate alliances with the state, particularly its executive branch, if only to defend their established interests from unfair competition by ambitious courtiers. On the other side of this symbiosis, successive Philippine presidents have used their discretionary authority over the state resources to punish enemies and reward allies. By denying established elites access to rents, an administration can quickly reduce the wealth of a family. Similarly, a president can create vast wealth for a favored few by granting a de facto monopoly or approving low-interest loans". (McCoy,1995: 517)

Indonesia and Thailand have similarly fragmented upper classes, but they have powerful state institutions which have successfully controlled business interests and harnessed them to developmental goals. The presidential form of government (including Marcos' fake parliamentary government) which we have had since 1935 perpetuates the weakness of the state and exacerbates divisions in our upper classes. Without stable political parties, presidential candidates have to piece together coalitions of provincial politicians to win elections. Without programmatic coherence, political parties cannot facilitate the formulation of long term economic policy. They merely act as brokers for deals with the bureaucracy.

The other side of the coin of elite dominance is low level of effective political participation. It is important to emphasize the modifier "effective" because the high turnout in elections might mislead observers into believing that political participation levels are high. It's not just that popular participation in policy decision-making is low, Philippine elections cannot really be seen as models of political participation despite high voter turnouts. People participate in Philippine elections for the same reason they go to cockfights, it is highly entertaining as spectator sports. The apparatus of exclusion of popular groups from the formal political system extends to legal and extra-legal limits on their ability to organize themselves. These instruments were sharpened during the long years of martial rule under Marcos and justified as counterinsurgency.

Another aspect of Philippine politics is the prevalence of violence. Political violence is a function of the central state's failure to secure a monopoly over the legitimate uses of violence. "Unlike the Manila elites who operate within a culture of metropolitan civility, provincial families are forced to engage in systemic political violence either as agents or opponents. With its competition over public lands, precincts, and transportation routes, provincial politics involves a zero-sum struggle for hegemony over an electoral or commercial territory that encourages organized violence". (McCoy,1995: 21)

John Sidel characterizes Philippine politics as "bossism" as a "sophisticated form of brigandage". He points out that "an examination of the complex processes through which inequality, indebtedness, landlessness, and poverty are created has highlighted how so-called patrons have - through predatory and heavily coercive forms of primitive accumulation and monopoly rent-capitalism - expropriated the natural and human resources of the archipelago from the broad mass of the population, thereby generating and sustaining the scarcity, insecurity, and dependency which underpins their rule as bosses". (Sidel, 1995: 509)

The weakness of the Philippine state is also manifested in the contradictory character of local-central government relations. The Philippines' unitary and presidential form of government is, by most measures, a centralized government. But because the central government has not had a dominant ruling class behind it and has been either formally or informally dominated by foreign powers, the central government has, historically, been a weak body. Among other things, the ability of the central government to impose its writ on local governments has been, in practice limited.

"It is necessary to keep in mind", Brian Fegan insists, "that the Philippine state has never had a centralized, disciplined civil service reaching down to the village level. The Spanish colonial legacy of a highly centralized state is in large part an illusion. The state's civil apparatus penetrates little beyond Manila, and where it does it is a poor instrument since its directives are subverted by its officials' alliances with local power holders who work for their own particular interests. Until martial law, there were remarkably few central government officials in the rural townships apart from the school teachers... Moreover, when elements of the transplanted US model of local government were adapted to Philippine political culture, local elites were able to manipulate them to continue and reinforce the long history of "everyday resistance" by local elites against an alien state power and its colonial law. They used autonomy of municipal government, municipal police, and the courts to maintain local customary law and their prerogatives as a rural oligarchy. Elite aims could best be achieved by keeping the central-state officials out, weak, or controlled, thereby preventing the state from converting their clients and dependents into its citizens". (Fegan,1995: 93)

Most local politics in this century can be characterized as competition among local elites for who would be first in line for central government largesse. Tax collection is centralized and customs levies, the other main source of government revenue are collected by the central government. Until recently, local government units had minimal taxing powers. The structure of the bureaucracy has been highly centralized. But because of the weakness of political parties, the President and other national government officials are dependent on local politicians to organize votes during national elections. The national legislature, especially the powerful Lower House, is dominated by local politicians.

This pattern of contradictory local-central government relations can be traced back to the colonial period. "The tension between centralism and localism has historical roots. Although the Spanish colonial administration established a central government in Manila, the small size of the colonial bureaucracy prevented the central government from having an effective presence in the hinterlands of the colony, leaving the exercise of authority to the local indigenous principalia (the native aristocracy) and the friars". (Doronila,1992: 90)

Americans also played a major role in developing the institutional setting for central-local government relations. Where the Spanish had violently resisted the attempts of a nascent Filipino elite to be integrated into national colonial structures of power, the Americans carefully orchestrated this integration. Because few Filipinos held economic power that stretched beyond the local, it made sense that the Americans began the process with municipal elections. Provincial elections became occasions for coalitions of municipal elites. By the time a national legislative body was formed, the coalitional pyramid which became the characteristic structure of Philippine politics had been set.

The centralizing role of the American governor general was replicated in the powerful presidency tailored to the requirements of Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon. It is easy to understand why the form of government developed under American colonial tutelage was presidential. "...the institution of the presidency in the new presidential democracy inaugurated in 1935...was, in many respects, an institutional replica of the office of the governor general with its wide ranging executive powers. These vast executive powers were almost literally transferred, with little contest, to the Philippine presidency by the drafters of the 1935 constitution". (Bolongaita,1995: 85)

The political system established by the Americans reached its definitive form in the Commonwealth government of 1935. Although several changes were made in the course of the next decades, this is the form of government and the political party system that has survived to this day. There was a short interregnum during the years of the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), but the pre-1972 political system was reestablished with the approval of the 1987 constitution. The various elements of this system include the presidential form of government, the contradictory character of local-central government relations, and for our purposes, a party system anchored on coalitions of local elites and shifting membership.

Elections and Political Parties

In many ways, elections constitute the central political act for both the elite and the people. "There is already much in the literature on Philippine politics that points to its restrictive aspects: an undeveloped party system, elite dominance and the ideological sameness of candidates, exclusion of those who fail to muster the considerable resources needed to mount a campaign, the subordination of issues to particularistic concerns, elaborate forms of terrorism and fraud, and the cultural baggage of traditional values of power and dependence. Much less attention has been paid to the hegemonic functions of the electoral process itself and to the cultural meaning this process has for Filipinos". (Mojares, 1995: 319-320)

"In Philippine elections we have a case in which the elite or dominant class usually constructs political reality for citizens. This process may be seen in the centrality accorded to the election itself as field of action and a channel for effecting political change. Formal education in "civics", the force of custom and law, rhetoric that invests the event with the charter of the "traditional" and the "sacral", and other factors imbue elections with symbolic power. In elections, obeisance is rendered to the "state" and the people are constituted or reconstituted as its "subjects". In effect, the periodic holding of elections nourishes and renews the system. In the process, it also tends to reify the existing system and de-emphasize other areas of political work such as mass organizing, interest-group lobbying, and "armed struggle". (Mojares, 1995: 319-320)

The electoral system is anchored on a presidential form of government, single member district constituencies for the national legislature, and 'first past the post' system for all elective positions. The "zero sum" character of electoral contests in this system raises the highly personal stakes of election contests. Without effective political parties, families and clans have become the effective political units in local politics. Since victory and defeat in elections determines the economic fate and "honor" of the clan, the use of all available means to gain victory including violence and fraud is understandable.

Since people know from experience that elections are mainly occasions for choosing between one member of the elite and another, there is pronounced cynicism towards the process. Why not make a little bit of money by selling your vote when election results do not directly affect you. Since politicians do not have programs that they follow, voting on the basis of establishing personal, clientelistic connections become the other major criteria for choice. "This negative appraisal helps to explain why people may treat elections in instrumental ways - selling their votes, participating in a nominal way to please a relative or friend who is campaigning or in other ways "working the system..". (Kerkvliet and Mojares, 1991: 11)

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". (Leones, Moraleda, 1996:2) 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. (Tancangco, 1988:87-89)

Because Philippine political parties are so organizationally indeterminate, it is difficult to analyze them on the basis of their internal development. More than parties in the West, it is more fruitful to analyze the development of Philippine political parties in relation to other institutions. Philippine political parties cannot be understood outside of their development in relation to the Philippines' presidential form of government, the nature of local - central government relations and elections. Most importantly, they are best understood in relation to political factions and political clans.

Carl Lande, perhaps the most influential student of Philippine politics in the last four decades, defines Philippine political parties in terms of "Members of the (Philippine political) elite, ranging themselves under the banners of two national parties, compete with each other for elective offices. Each is supported by his kinsmen, both rich and poor, by his non-kinsmen clients, and by whoever else among the 'little people' of his community can be induced, by offers of material or other rewards, to vote for him. The two rival parties in each province, in short, are held together by dyadic patron-client relationships extending from great and wealthy political leaders in each province down to lesser gentry politicians in the towns, down further to petty leaders in each village, and down finally to the clients of the latter: the common tao". (Lande, 1969:156)

Filipino sociologist Randolph David's definition goes further than Lande's politically neutral anthropological definition. "Political parties in the Philippines", David says "are therefore nothing more than the tools used by the elites in a personalistic system of political contests. The elites themselves do not form stable or exclusive blocs or factions. Their boundaries are provisional and porous at any point in time. They revolve around political stars rather than around ideologies. They nurture networks of followers and supporters who are dependent on them for money, jobs, favors and political access, not party members loyal to party principles and alert to any perceived betrayal of party causes". (David, 1994: 24-25)

Lande's and David's descriptions, it should be noted, are separated by some three decades, three constitutions, and by at least fourteen years of Marcos' dictatorial regime in the 1970s and 1980s. The period before Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 was marked by the dominance of two major parties, the period after 1986, by what might be characterized as a multi-party system. But the parties remain apparently the same.

The most important characteristic of Philippine political parties is that they are parties of the elite. In some senses, parties anywhere in the world are elite formations whether one defines elite in functional terms as those who lead or in sociological terms as those who hold economic and political power. But many parties at least attempt to organize regularized support from a broader segment of the population or to institutionalize discourse justifying mal-distribution of economic and political power. These efforts result in more or less stable membership, regularized patterns of interaction within and between parties, and characteristic forms of ideological or political self-definition.

In contrast, 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. "Philippine political parties are two vast national coalitions of local political organizations, bound together by the vertical hierarchy of public offices and their rewards and the social hierarchy of wealth". (Shantz, 1972: 113)

This electoral system, and the actual practice of elections have been one of the most important factors shaping political parties. The intensely personalized character of parties derive partly from the fact that individual candidates are elected in a "first past the post" system. "During elections, it is not so much the political parties that are the real mobilizing organizations but the candidate's electoral machinery and network of relatives, friends, political associates and allies". (David, 1994:1) Because at the base of the electoral system, the municipality, the power and status of families are at stake, all means are availed of including cheating and violence to achieve victory.

Although elections were held during the Spanish colonial period and during the short period of revolutionary government at the turn of the nineteenth century, the experience of elections most relevant to the current situation trace back to the American period starting in 1900. The elections in 1900 for municipal officials was limited to those towns already pacified by the occupation army. Elections were by viva voce. Although broader than elections during the Spanish period which were limited to former officials, the right to suffrage was, at this time, confined to a very small, elite segment of the population.

Over the course of the next decades, the electorate expanded. Property requirements were lifted; the age limit was lowered first to 21 in 1935, then in the 1970s to 18; reading and writing English or Spanish was replaced with simple literacy liberally interpreted to mean ability to write one's name and that of candidates; then in 1937, women were given the right to suffrage. The number of registered voters rose steadily from 123,294 in 1905, to 1.6 million in 1935 to 32 million in 1992.

These changes in the character of elections provide a useful way to conceptualize changes in the nature of Philippine political parties. The increase in the size of the electorate, combined with urbanization and extensive radio and TV use has changed the way election campaigns are organized and therefore also the character of political parties. Elections during the Spanish period provide a kind of "pre-history" of Philippine political parties. There was no need to organize parties because elections were no more than discussions among officials, incumbents and former officials.

Elections in the early American period did not significantly expand the electorate in quantitative terms. But while the expansion may not seem like much from a contemporary vantage point, by expanding elections outside of the circle of officials, the Americans brought other sections of the elite into the circle of governance and began the process of shaping the elite into an instrument of local rule. Political parties were formed at this time, but electoral campaigning was mainly a matter of organizing elite factions.

Where elections during the Spanish and early American colonial periods were limited to the elite, once the electorate broke elite boundaries, elites now had to convince non-elites to vote for them. At first, patron-client ties and deeply embedded traditions of social deference were sufficient. The organizational requirements of electoral campaigning remained simple. This allowed elites to concentrate on the task of building factional coalitions in ascending order of complexity as elections moved from municipal, to provincial, to the national level.

This process was facilitated by the fact that differentiation in the elite at this time was not very complex. Most of the elite were landowners so differentiation focused on geographic representation and whether they were exporters of agricultural products or not. Combined with Quezon's organizational skills, this was a major reason for the dominance of the Nacionalista Party. This sociological situation changed radically after the second World War.

The Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 weakened the Philippine elite by disrupting the colonial economy. Landlord control over their tenants and farm workers was attenuated because landlords moved out of the countryside and their collaboration with the Japanese occupation army impaired their moral hold on the peasantry . New elite factions, especially guerrilla leaders, moved into this power vacuum. Although the returning Americans facilitated the political exoneration of prewar elites, many guerrilla leaders were able to consolidate their positions through electoral politics.

The more complex differentiation in the elite after World War II complicated the organizational task of political parties. Where factional dynamics could be accommodated within the Nacionalista Party before, a two party system came into place during the first postwar elections in 1946. Nacionalista Party leader Manuel Roxas bolted the party and formed the Liberal Party. Prewar leader Sergio Osmena allied the Nacionalista Party with guerrilla leaders in the Democratic Alliance.

The next stage in the development of political parties was set by the candidacy of guerrilla leader Ramon Magsaysay in the presidential elections of 1953. Where campaigning for national positions in the past had been mostly a matter of negotiations among provincial elites, Magsaysay went directly to the people during his campaign. With the help of the American CIA, Magsaysay formed the Magsaysay for President Movement and traveled extensively throughout the country. In the process, he undercut patron-client ties already weakened during the Japanese occupation.

The Magsaysay campaign in 1953 generated significant changes in political parties. Where municipal party organizations were relatively simple in prewar years, at this time, elite families began constructing municipal political machines. "The new faction was a machine, an organization devoted primarily to the political support of its leader and the maintenance of its members through the distribution of immediate, concrete, and individual rewards to them. Closely related to these changes was an increase in the importance of provincial and national considerations and a decline in the importance of local considerations in shaping the faction's character and its actions in all arenas". (Machado,1974: 525)

The continuing rapid growth of the electorate, combined with the expansion of mass media in the 1960s amplified the impact of changes brought about by the Magsaysay campaign. National campaigns now had to be organized on the basis of the segmentation of the vote into what can be called the "controlled vote" mobilized by local party leaders and the "market vote" which required increasingly elaborate campaigns adding media strategies to Magsaysay-style barnstorming.

"It is the imagery of the urban-based national media which fuels a national campaign. Rural leaders frequently try to anticipate the direction of change in order to be associated with leaders who have strong images as national candidates...Many national politicians pay vast sums of money to representatives of the mass media for a good image, not to win votes but to bandwagon sub-elites concerned about their future successes. Once the tide begins to flow, the national politician assumes judicious urban financiers will follow". (Shantz,1972: 97)

These developments led to significant change in political parties. The vastly increased financial requirements of national campaigns strengthened the national leadership vis-a-vis local party leaders because the amounts required could only be raised from sources at the center, especially in Manila. Since campaign costs for local contests also increased, local candidates became more dependent on national party leaders for their own campaigns.

Marcos accelerated this process even more. There was a geometric jump in campaign expenses during the 1969 election campaign due mainly to Marcos. In addition, "... the Marcos administration sought to broaden the flow of resources and executive contacts beneath the congressmen and into the municipalities, minimizing its dependence upon the political brokers in the legislative branch who have historically proven to be such a disappointment to incumbent presidents seeking reelection". (Shantz,1972:148) The centralizing effect of these moves culminated in Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 when he cut out Congress altogether.

Because no elections were held for many years, combined with Marcos' monopoly of political power, the pre-martial law political parties were severely weakened. Even after Marcos' downfall in 1986, both the Nacionalista Party and the Liberal Party never recovered their power and dynamism. Marcos built his own political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement), creating a virtual one-party state. It was not until the last years of the Marcos period that other political parties such as UNIDO arose to challenge KBL in elections.

The downfall of Marcos and the Presidency of Corazon Aquino generated a lot of hope for a more democratic political process. "The increasing recognition of the limits of elite-oriented politics and the emergence of mass-based popular democracy is reflected in the realignment of the various electoral parties and the opening up of a broader democratic sphere under the Aquino government. With the ouster of Marcos, the dynamics of the pre-revolution political terrain have been fundamentally altered". (Tancangco, 1988:110) Instead, Aquino presided over the same elite-dominated, undemocratic politics of the pre-martial law period.

President Corazon Aquino had an opportunity to transform the party system. She failed because she refused to become a member of any party, but allowed her brother to sabotage the reform process by recruiting KBL and other unsavory trapo (traditional politician) types into what became the de facto ruling party, the PDP-LABAN (Pilipino Democratic Party-Struggle). She had so much personal authority that if she had chosen to do so, she could have led in the formation of a political party that incorporated the reform thrust of the EDSA revolution which toppled Marcos. In particular, she could have worked with then Minister of Local Government Aquilino Pimentel to use the appointment of local government unit OIC's (Officer in Charge) in 1986 as a way of either building a new party or strengthening the more reform oriented PDP part of PDP Laban.

The system of constitutional democracy put in place by Pres. Aquino created a contradictory situation for the development of political parties. The presidential form of government put in place by the 1987 constitution restored the conditions for a two party system. But the two dominant parties of the pre-martial law period were, apparently irretrievably, weakened. Other parts of the constitution including the party list system pushed in the other direction, towards a multi-party system. Indeed, in the ten year period since 1987, the Philippines has had what appears to be a multi-party system, but with rather weak parties. (Interview with Aquilino Pimentel, February 19,1998)

Pres. Ramos' rise to power provides a perfect example of the weakness of political parties relative to government, and political clans. Laban nang Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) had been the ruling party since the 1987 elections when it won an overwhelming majority of contested seats in both national and local elections. Because Pres. Aquino, however, refused to support LDP's candidate, instead supported Ramos, campaigning for him and using the resources of the government, LDP's candidate, Mitra lost badly. LDP won the majority in both the House and the Senate, but a few months after the House convened, LDP lost most of its members to Ramos' party.

The same thing happened in the 1998 election when the presidential candidate of Ramos' party, Lakas, lost badly to Joseph Estrada and his ragtag coalition party, LAMMP. Estrada secured control over the Congress when a large group of Lakas members in the Lower House joined LAMMP. They were led by Manuel Villar who went on to become Speaker. Two years after the 1998 election, the ruling party LAMMP does not have a party constitution, officers or a headquarters. It was only in June 2000 that early organizing efforts were made in anticipation of the May 2001 local and Senate elections.

Three aspects of Philippine party behavior derive from this dynamic. One is that the incumbent president and the opposition presidential candidate, the "presidentiable" in Filipino pidgin English, are dominant in their parties. Many "parties" in fact are no more than vehicles for presidential ambitions. Second, is that "turncoatism", movement from one party to another, is the rule rather than the exception. Some politicians become members of four or more parties, sometimes moving out then later back into a party, in the course of their political careers. Two provisions in the Revised Election Code of 1985 have aggravated turncoatism. Section 70-71, Art. IX provides that a political party may nominate and/or support non-member candidates. An elected official may change his party in subsequent elections provided he changes one year prior to that election. (Leones, Moraleda, 1996: 21)

Third, party behavior tends to be mainly determined by whether they are in power or in the opposition. Because Philippine parties are indistinguishable from each other ideologically or in terms of programs, the only real parties, in effect, are the parties of the defensive "ins" and the raucous "outs". (Milne, 1969:156) "The party in power tends to emphasize the customary, family-based alliances of local political organizations because it has economic resources and no equally useful criteria for their distribution capable of maintaining popular support...The party in opposition tends to emphasize the legalistic and constitutional aspects of party organization since it has few resources for distribution, apart from those of its prominent members, with which to bargain for public support and only a legislative forum in which to present itself". (Shantz,1972:98)

Shantz' description of the organizational characteristics of political parties in the pre-martial law period remains valid thirty years later. "...the organization of the two parties is tantalizingly vague in practice, exceedingly explicit in written form. They are reflections of the social system, hierarchical coalitions of all who wield influence from every social level, sharing public resources commensurate with their social position and aligned at every level of the social hierarchy against their peers - who seek through similar hierarchical coalitions to deprive them of their resources". (Shantz, 1972:98)

Another analyst, University of the Philippines professor, Randy David says Philippine political parties "...are chronically unable to maintain an organisational continuity and a level of professional existence that one expects parties to possess in mature democracies. As a result, their activities are confined to elections, their potential for political education completely lost underneath the frenzy of personal political contests". (David,1994:26)

Parties and Political Reform

Philippine political parties are not very popular in the Philippines. The media and academics are almost uniformly critical. Public opinion is not any less unkind. (Miranda,1994) The popular term used to refer to politicians is trapo (from traditional politician), which literally means "dirty dishrag". As unpopular as political parties are, they continue to be the main political instruments for social mobility. "If the parties are accoutrements of the status quo, and they are, that is not to say that they are unresponsive. The status quo in Philippine politics happens to be very fluid, related more to the familiar than the changeless. If rapid social change does not occur it is because most people, however favorably disposed toward change in their lives, prefer to seek it through the certainty of the familiar practice with minor modifications...The clamor for change is individual rather than systemic. Filipinos have one of the highest rates of participation of any democracy. Politics comprises a vital element of hope in their future". (Shantz,1972:295-296)

While Shantz' observation is undoubtedly true, mobility occurs within a society that over time has become more and more unequal. While allowing ambitious young, mostly men, from the provinces to move up in the world, such movement is worked out within political parties which remain instruments of a narrow upper class. Attempts to set up political parties representing the interests of the poor majority of workers and peasants have been suppressed or more often, have been unable to survive in a political system biased against such attempts. In the end, it is not that Philippine political parties are not ideological, but rather that because they are all or mostly instruments of the same upper classes, their members share the same conservative ideology. Their political parties, therefore are not distinguishable from each other on the basis of ideology.

"There are several reasons for the dim prospects for a peasant-labor third party in the near future. The most important reason is that the traditional socio-political structure has tended to persist in spite of its transformation and disintegration in some parts of the country and that, even where the traditional structure has disintegrated, a new structure that is conducive to class-based politics has not yet developed sufficiently. This is reflected in the fact that only a relatively small portion of the peasants and workers are organized and the unorganized peasants and workers are not generally sympathetic to peasant and labor candidates. Even those who are organized are not necessarily solidly behind those candidates. Also, poverty-stricken peasants and workers are vulnerable to short-run material inducements such as offers of money, jobs, various kind of donations and instant assistance, etc., which most peasant and labor candidates cannot afford and to provide. Furthermore, the organized peasants and workers are seriously fragmented under their divided leadership. In addition, the electoral system under the new constitutional adopted a single-member district system for the lower house, which makes it extremely difficult for minor parties to translate their votes into congressional seats". (Kimura, 1990: 59-60)

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. (Rocamora,1997: 90-133)

Accelerating economic growth naturally steps up the pressure on rent-seeking. "The Philippine political system was not based so much on the extraction of 'surplus' from the production of new wealth but on a redistribution of existing resources and the artificial creation of rents-in effect, rewarding favored families by manipulating regulations to effect a reallocation of existing wealth". If it can be shown that recent economic growth is generating newly created wealth, "profit-makers" should understandably be less and less tolerant of "rent-seekers". (Rocamora, 1997:124)

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. 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 elite circles at the turn of the century to local party machines in the 1950s and 1960s to the more centrally controlled post-1986 parties. These changes have occurred less because of conscious efforts by party leaders than as often unconscious responses to developments occurring outside of parties.

Changes in local politics have proceeded even faster than in national politics. Until recently, there has been no real local politics in the Philippines. Local political contests were not struggles over the allocation of local financial and other resources, which was virtually non-existent, but over who would control the flow of central government resources to the locality. These resources included funds for the budget of the local government, the local offices of line agencies, and congressional pork barrel funds. More often than not, the only strictly local sources of funds were from illegal activities such as gambling, illegal logging and smuggling, often controlled by local politicians.

Local politics has been changing at an accelerating pace. Commercialization of agriculture, urbanization, the incorporation of by now the majority of the population into the circuits of national and international capitalism have changed the socio-economic ground upon which politics is played. Although it is not yet clear in what way, the experience of millions of overseas contract workers abroad cannot but have affected the way they look at and participate in politics. If nothing else, living in countries where governments actually work is likely to lower tolerance for a government that does not.

The acceleration of economic activity in many localities has increased the potential surplus that can be appropriated by local governments. The balance between illegal and legal economic activity is shifting with the corresponding increase in influence and political assertiveness of business groups. With more resources available locally, local politicians are demanding more control over revenue generated locally and appropriated by the central government. Correspondingly, they are becoming less and less dependent on central government largesse.

The Local Government Code which began to be implemented in 1992 is both the cause and effect of these trends. Financial resources available to local government units have been significantly increased through the automatic appropriation of 40 percent of internal revenue collections, greater taxing power, authority to incur debt, and to solicit officila development assistance. The Code's implementation is uneven, but given the incemtive, one can only expect that local officials will learn quickly.

With greater financial resources available to local government units, local politics is going to move away from its preoccupation with securing central governments funds. Combined with the acceleration of local economic activity and the changing social composition of local economic elites, decentralization as mandated by the Local Government Code is generating profound changes in local politics. The process is certainly uneven, but the direction of change is clear.

Other forces are also pushing more accelerated change. Movements for electoral and political reform such as the Consortium for Electoral Reform (CER), and the NAMFREL (National Citizens Movement for Free Elections) (National Democratic Institute, 1996: 56-59) are campaigning for electoral reforms that cannot be resisted forever by trapos in Congress. By limiting opportunities for cheating, electoral reforms such as continuous registration, tamper-proof voters' identification cards, and counting machines will significantly change electoral behavior and, of necessity, political parties.

Other political reforms mandated by the 1987 constitution such as those providing for recall and referenda, for sectoral representation in the Lower House of Congress, and for party list elections in the 1998 synchronized elections will also add pressure on political parties to change. The party list law provides for the election of 20 percent of the members of the Lower House by proportional representation. (Mastura, 1995: 18-33) While the implementing law (RA 7941) has many infirmities which will weaken the impact of the concept, providing for an alternative to the single member district constituencies of the Lower House will encourage the formation of new types of political parties which may, over time, acquire enough strength to challenge the old parties.

The party list election in 1998 was a mess. (Velasco, Rodriguez,1999; Wurfel, 1999) The Commission on Elections hardly did any public education. As a result, less than a third of the electorate voted, and because election officials often knew less than the public, votes cast were often not or miscounted. Only 14 out of a possible 52 seats were allocated. Parties who managed to make the 2 percent minimum percentage of votes were either repackaged trapo parties, special interest groups or parties with narrow sectoral constituencies. To understand the potential of political party reform, however, we have to look at party list parties and their history in Philippine social movements.

Governance and the Progressive Movement

The contemporary Philippine progressive movement traces back to the "re-founding" of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968, and the dynamic student movement that preceded it. The CPP has not been the only progressive force around. But throughout most of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, the CPP was a hegemonic force on the Left. By the early 1980s the CPP had become so strong that it forced all other progressive groups including anti-communist groups to relate their ideological and organizational life to the CPP, to measure themselves by the standards set by the CPP.

Born at the height of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in China in the second half of the 1960s, the CPP's analysis of Philippine society, its program for a "national democratic revolution" and its strategy and tactics were classic Maoist. Debates on CPP founding chairman Jose Ma. Sison's framework for analyzing Philippine society continue to this day. In party history, the most important debates, however, were over the CPP's strategy and tactics. It was the party leadership's failure to adjust its strategy and tactics that led to its decline and split in the 1990s.

CPP strategy emphasized rural over urban, armed over unarmed, clandestine over open organizing. It was this strategy that enabled the party to, not just survive, but actually benefit from the conditions of martial law and dictatorship from 1972 onwards. It was so successful that even areas of work that it de-emphasized developed forcefully. Open, unarmed, urban mass movements under the leadership of party cadre rapidly built up in the first half of the 1980s. During this time, key party leaders pushed for a reevaluation of party strategy to take advantage of the decline in the dictatorship's repressive capabilities, the explosion of mass movements especially after the murder of opposition leader 'Ninoy' Aquino in 1983, and the restoration of constitutional democracy after the fall of Marcos.

Instead, the party leadership chose to boycott the February 1986 'snap election' for president which became the pivotal struggle which led directly to the downfall of Marcos. In the famous 'EDSA revolution' which followed the election, the CPP and its followers were on the sidelines. An internal CPP critique said it best: "...when the aroused and militant masses moved spontaneously but resolutely to oust the hated regime last February 22-25, the Party and its forces were not there to lead them. In large measure, the Party and its forces were on the sidelines, unable to lead or influence the hundreds of thousands of people who moved with amazing speed and decisiveness to overthrow the regime". (Rocamora:1994, p.69)

As it turned out, this 'tactical error' led to a strategic decline of the CPP. In 1986, it provoked a veritable avalanche of polemics within the party and outside that examined many different aspects of party life. What did not get carefully enough examined are the ramifications of being "unable to lead or influence" the people. The problem is not just what happened at EDSA in February but the way the party abandoned hundreds of thousands of people it "aroused, mobilized and organized" into political action because it later decided that their particular political action did not after all fit the party's strategic framework.

The CPP reached its highest point of development in 1986 and 1987, precisely at the transition from dictatorship to elite democracy. It declined slowly thereafter then went into a steep dive starting in 1990 and culminating in the split of 1993 and 1994. In 1986, the party had 35,000 members and some 25,000 guerrillas. Today, the mainstream CPP faction is estimated to have 7,000 to 8,000 guerrillas. Smaller breakaway groups may have a total of 1,000 combatants. There are certainly other factors that explain the decline of the party starting in the second half of the 1980s.

From Development to Governance

The decline of the CPP in the latter half of the 1980s was also marked by the rapid growth of the NGO movement. The tens of thousands of young people politicized during the last few years of the Marcos dictatorship could not be incorporated into the national democratic movement (ND). The CPP, at this time, was in the throes of profound disorientation. With the support of the Cory Aquino government which took over from Marcos, many new NGOs were established, soaking up all this youthful energy. NGOs also provided a way for party members who left the CPP to continue to do progressive work. Non-party political formations, what we call "political blocs", provided more comprehensive ideological frameworks.

At this time, these NGOs mainly engaged in development work. The preferred framework, emphasizing "people empowerment", was distinctly political. Forming people's organizations, as cooperatives or sectoral organizations (peasant, labor, urban poor, indigenous people, women) would invariably be the first step. In the Philippines, we never refer to NGOs on their own, always as "PO-NGO". The range of experience with development work is enormous, from simple subsistence projects, to commercial production, to micro credit, to export trade. Peoples lives have certainly been improved. But the enormity of problems of poverty in the country and the difficulty of sustaining development projects in the face of government indifference and often obstruction, generated a lot of frustration.

The PO-NGO movement naturally moved into governance and democratization work. This process was facilitated by a number of developments. The most important was the passage of the Local Government Code in 1991. The transfer of power and significant fiscal capacity to local governments fed into PO-NGO preference for grassroots work. It helped that the LGC provided specifically for PO-NGO representation in local special bodies including powerful bids and contracts committees. International agencies such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) also moved into governance work at this time, providing funds and new ideas for PO-NGO work.

From active involvement with local governments to electoral work was a short step. PO-NGO staff easily saw who among local government officials were corrupt or inept and who were innovative and reform oriented, and who therefore they should support in the next election. The next steps were more difficult. Starting in 1987, PO-NGO electoral initiatives coordinated at the national level were abject failures. One of the lessons drawn from these experiences is that it does not make sense for PO-NGO initiatives to only support established national politicians. They have to build their own political parties and establish electoral bases at the local level. This is where Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) comes in.

Akbayan started out at a series of meetings of leaders of four political blocs (non-party political formations) in April 1996. Building on the success of progressive participation in the May 1995 local elections, the group formulated a concept paper which was discussed widely in a series of consultations throughout the country. Organizers invested the resources necessary for these extensive consultations because they wanted to break a standard pattern of the Philippine Left where parties and other organizations are started by a small group of intellectuals in Manila. With the consultations, they not only benefited from a wide range of ideas and experiences, they also started the party with a lot of stakeholders throughout the country.

The most important elements of the Akbayan concept include:

  1. Akbayan's goal is the mobilization of people around a program of radical democracy. As a progressive organization, Akbayan's program is anchored on the economic and political empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised majority through redistributive and entitlement programs. Akbayan also believes that democracy - constitutional government, a Bill of Rights limiting the power of the state, the rule of law - is essential to the well being of modern societies.
  2. Akbayan participates in elections to win. This may seem self-evident. From past experience in the Philippines, this point is in fact crucial because progressive participation in elections tended to be mainly for propaganda purposes. Since the CPP strategy for achieving state power was armed struggle and the CPP saw elections as "meaningless ruling class exercises", they mainly used election campaigns to popularize certain issues. This then is a crucial point of departure for Akbayan, that elections would be Akbayan's main strategy for accumulating state power.
  3. Akbayan emphasizes participation in local elections, again in contrast to past Left experience which focused intervention at the national level. This is both a matter of principle and practical politics. Akbayan participates in elections initially at the local government level where they have the resources to win and only slowly build up to the national level. Given people's alienation from a political system dominated by upper class groups, restoring a sense of effective participation - the essence of radical democracy - can be best done at local government levels.
  4. Unity is built around a progressive political project, not a specific ideology. Groups and individuals following different ideologies are welcome in Akbayan. There are practical reasons for this choice. At a time of rapid change and ideological crisis, of splits and bitter ideological struggle in the Left worldwide, organizers did not want to bring these tensions into the party. In addition, because Left groups in the Philippines remained small, electoral impact required working together. The Akbayan political project is a "work in progress". Organizers see it as being constantly in a process of shaping based on conditions outside and the democratic process within the party.
  5. Akbayan can remain a progressive political party only if it continues to be accountable to a dynamic and assertive mass movement. While asserting a leadership role on matters of government policy, Akbayan will defend and promote the autonomy of organizations in civil society. Akbayan leadership will be a matter of political persuasion, not organizational fiat.

Since its founding Congress in January 1998, Akbayan has taken small but solid steps towards its long term sustainability. As Akbayan leader Melay Abao put it "We are not in a hurry. Life is hard enough as it is without having to run at a forced pace. Our target is to win a few more seats in every election we participate in. In 1998, we won one seat and got cheated out of another. It is not much given that the Lower House alone has 250 seats. If we can win three seats in the next election, we will be happy. More importantly, we need to at least triple the 10 town mayorships we won in 1998".

One could argue that the 1935 fulfilled enough of the requisites of formal democracy.
I should point out that I am in the leadership of Akbayan.


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