Political parties should grow up, or else…

Ma. Elissa J. Lao, Carmel V. Abao

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Voters must realize that there is a need to seek out viable alternatives that fill the void that parties have left behind, or demand that political parties grow up and start playing the key role that they should play in political life

MANILA, Philipipnes – There’s a lesson or two that the recent realignment of erstwhile warring political parties for the 2013 elections teaches us—how to win party nominations, and how to render political parties irrelevant.

The coalitions reinforce the commonly held notion that electoral competition in the country is based on personalities and factions rather than party platforms. In 2013, voters will again be made to choose the “best” men and women regardless of party affiliation—in effect, the “best” political clique or faction.  

Next year’s competition will not be any different from past electoral contests. There will be no offering of real competing ideas or principles because there will be no real competing parties.  Evidently, electoral or party reform is not high on the agenda of either the incumbent administration or the so-called opposition.

Both camps do not seem to see anything wrong with parties or politicians that have nothing or very little in common unifying primarily, if not solely, around electoral objectives. The message of both camps is the same: in Philippine elections, political parties do not really matter.

Top-down, catch-all

The ruling LP-Akbayan-NPC-NP-NUP and opposition PDP-PMP under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) coalitions circumvent a very fundamental characteristic of political parties—that is, that parties are organizations whose agenda, decisions, and actions are not subordinate to the interests of a few politicians or leaders.

Both mergers employed top-down selection processes. In both cases, selection of candidates did not entail internal processes of the coalition or parties involved. Decision-making has been limited to a few political actors.  

Clearly, the LP-led slate was PNoy’s choice.

PNoy himself revealed as much when he declared during the proclamation of the senatorial slate that the list was indeed “his,” that it was drawn from among those who have “advanced the administration’s agenda.” While it can be argued that an administration agenda is often a product of negotiation among stakeholders in that administration, it is ultimately the President’s preferences that shape governmental agenda.

This alliance is thus not an alliance of political parties that have aligned around some policy or platform convergence but simply a gathering of the President’s preferred men and women. This alliance, in fact, undermines real party competition.   

The same holds true for the UNA alliance. Its senatorial slate clearly reflects Binay’s and Erap’s choices, and not a result of internal party processes.

While both the PNoy and the Binay-Estrada camps have signed “agreements” with their respective coalition partners, the contents of these agreements have not have been highlighted in any of their launching activities. These agreements would have been key in providing voters with a clearer idea of what ideological or programmatic beliefs link the seemingly disparate group of candidates. This would lessen the voters’ confusion over the idea of former foes and ideologically incompatible coalition mates (not to mention the “guest” candidates who can stray either way) now coming together.

Building cross-party alliances is not new or unusual in electoral democracies.

Even in countries where party politics is institutionalized, political parties also make alliances—but they often do so after elections, in instances where policy compromises have to be made. During elections, however, party policies are often discernible. Voters go to the polls knowing how they will be governed and not just simply who will govern them.

In the Philippine case, voters know mainly who will likely govern them but not necessarily how they will be governed.   

Political parties are supposed to be representative institutions. They are supposed to represent cleavages in society and thereby structure voting behavior. According to Lipset and Rokkan, there are 4 main cleavages that differentiate parties in institutionalized party systems:  religion, class, core vs periphery, and urban versus rural.

In the Philippine setting, recent alignments show that political parties are not differentiated around social cleavages but around concerns of political exigency, such as electoral victory. Ideas and principles are thus deemed less important during electoral campaigns.

Philippine parties have become what Mainwaring calls “catch-all parties” that seek to generate support from all possible sections of society. According to Blondel, this situation stems from the fact that all parties are faced with the “problem of support” and thus tend to imitate or resemble each other; they also tend to “oversimplify problems and even ideologies” to ensure vote generation.

Blame not solely on party leaders

At this juncture, it would be ridiculous to believe that party reforms such as campaign finance that warrants government funding for parties will work, if and when such measures are passed in Congress. With coalition upon coalition obscuring political cause and party ideology, and with no clear political organization in sight, what (or who) ends up getting funded?

Let us not lay blame on just political parties and their leaderships.

For example, Montinola has observed that senatorial elections in the Philippines are particularly precarious when it comes to the cause of strengthening political parties because the current electoral system encourages intra party competition. All senatorial candidates —whether from the same political party, coalition, or family—are forced to fight for the same 12 seats, further diluting party loyalties.

A party system does not exist and therefore cannot be strengthened in a vacuum. For the party system in the Philippines to be consolidated, other institutions have to be radically reformed. The powers of the presidency, for instance, may have to be clipped and the form of government may have to be changed so as to break the system of personalistic politics and party switching.

Election rules and administration may also have to be reformed to prevent election fraud and campaign overspending. Otherwise, the electoral system and thereby the party system will always remain a terrain inaccessible to the broader population.

Local-national relations that encourage patronage-based politics may also have to be transformed. Likewise, state relations with civil society groups may have to be reviewed to allow for more space for these groups to influence the state, particularly in exacting accountability from politicians and political parties, before, during, and in between elections.

If coalitions and compromise are the key features of party politics, as evidenced by election upon election of the same dynamic, is it feasible at this point to give up on the notion that the Philippines can ever be led by strong, programmatic political parties?

This is the point where voters should take a long, hard look at what types of political organizations tend to thrive and produce results as well as encourage civic engagement and political participation, beyond the traditional political party or dynasty.

In the end, voters must realize that there is a need to seek out viable alternatives that fill the organizational void that parties have left behind, or demand that political parties grow up and start playing the key role that they should play in political life.

The death of political parties need not spell the death of democracy. – Rappler.com

(Ms. Abao and Ms. Lao are with the political science faculty of the Ateneo de Manila University.)


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