Against all odds: Voting for ‘progressives’
This election, I am rooting for seemingly unwinnable but "progressive" candidates.
I am aware that the term "progressive" is highly contested and can be defined in several ways. My own definition is sort of a minimalist one and considers the current context as the most important consideration. I define "progressive" based on my own understanding of what is "conversative" in the here and now, and, what a departure from that conservatism entails.
I do not employ the broader "left versus right" or "socialist versus liberal" discourse because majority of Filipino voters do not view elections in these terms. While political education of the ideological kind is necessary, at this point, an ideological discussion may be futile because the terms of reference for such a discussion are likely to be too divergent.
I do not go into the debate of "who is more progressive than whom" because I think that such is a counterproductive and pointless debate. Rather, I attempt to identify progressive candidates as against conservative ones.
Progressive candidates: The five-way test
Progressive candidates are those who can rival traditional, elite candidates and challenge the dominance of money-dynasty politics in the country. My "five-way test" requires that a candidate:
- must not belong to a political dynasty and/or is not of celebrity status
- must not have any record of corruption
- must have shown the ability to radicalize public discourse
- must have the backing of a social movement or a mass-based constituency for reform
- must have categorically condemned the Marcos dictatorship and the restoration of authoritarianism
Requirements 1 and 2 go together. The progressive candidate does not belong to a political dynasty and/or is not of celebrity status, and, has no record of corruption. These requirements are important because dynastic succession, personality-based elections and corruption have become endemic problems of our political system. Putting more of the same people into public office will merely exacerbate these problems. Putting non-traditional people in will send the message that we, voters, recognize the gravity of these problems.
Requirements 3 and 4 also go together. The progressive candidate's ability to "radicalize" public discourse stems primarily from his or her allegiance to pre-existing demands of some movement or constituency. The backing of such movements or constituencies is crucial because this serves as a layer of accountability. These movements not only remind the candidate that he/she is primarily a representative of a collective purpose, they also serve as a check-and-balance mechanism once the candidate gets elected.
Our elections, in fact, is personality-and-patronage-based because political dynasties, rather than social movements and political parties, are the most dominant of institutions during elections. Traditional politicians are able to "personalize" political discourse and "privatize" public funds because they do not have social movements or mass-based constituencies that hold them accountable – before, during and after elections. Challenging the dominance of this kind of politics/politicians through mass-based politics is progressive.
"Radicalization of discourse" refers to the introduction of non-traditional political agendas (e.g LGBT rights) or the infusion of new framing regarding old issues (e.g asset reform not just dole out programs; creation of decent jobs not just any type of jobs; urban planning not just infrastructure building). Unlike traditional, conservative politicians, progressives will not only talk of "improving people's lives" but will argue for measures that redistribute power and wealth (e.g social inclusion and citizen participation, alleviation of poverty, asset reform, development planning, reduction of income inequality, decent work, security of tenure, increased social spending, progressive taxation).
The fifth and final requirement is context-specific. It has been thirty years after the 1986 EDSA people power uprising. A candidate who wants to go back to a Martial law-type of regime of the pre-EDSA era cannot be considered progressive. A candidate's respect for human rights should be a bottomline.
Thus, a vote for progressives in May 2016 is a vote against the status quo. This vote does not focus on winnability, rather, on making a necessary political stance.
The odds against progressives
Progressives do not usually win elections because the odds against them are formidable.
Firstly, Philippine elections are very expensive. It is not easy for progressive candidates to acquire the resources needed to compete in such exercises: money, machinery and access to (big, mainstream) media.
Today, a 30-seconder political advertisement costs half a million pesos. An effective campaign would probably require a candidate to have his or her political ad shown at least two or three times a day (i.e the more a voter "sees" a candidate, the better). That would mean spending at least one million pesos per day. Each national candidate has 90 days to campaign, from February 9 to May 7. A candidate, thus, needs at least P90 million to sustain the release of political advertisements all throughout the campaign period. A candidate needs that much money (and that is just for political advertisements; there are also provincial sorties that need to be organized).
Progressive candidates are not rich candidates. The social movements that back them are often movements of the poor, and, therefore cannot be relied on for financial support. This explains why some progressives opt to align with more established parties who have a ready network of fund sources. Such alignment solves the problem of campaign funding but also creates another problem: how to keep one's autonomy from campaign funders (often from big business and political dynasties) once elected. Needless to say, the progressive candidates who opt to reject such tied campaign funding have to contend with not having enough campaign funds.
There are, of course, non-traditional less-expensive ways to campaign and progressives do employ such ways. Progressives, for example, often rely on volunteers but volunteerism, too, has its limits.
Because progressives do not have the money, they are not publicly visible. This lack of public visibility is one the biggest obstacles that progressive candidates have to hurdle. The level of public awareness of progressives (i.e of who they are and that they are running) is often very low.
Secondly, majority of the electorate – the masses – still vote based on affinity and name recall. The masses are predisposed to choosing the popular, "likeable" candidates, not the lesser-known, progressive candidates. This is not out of stupidity (as others would contend). The predisposition of the masses to vote for the popular candidates is a product of certain conditions that direct their voting behavior toward such direction.
Concretely, the political education of the masses is driven largely by politicians or by media institutions that are heavily influenced by politicians – rather than by social institutions like schools/ universities or political parties or progressive social movements – and often takes place only during election periods. Thus, it is not surprising that the masses base their political calculations on what they have learned from such type of education.
There really are no "bobotantes" or stupid voters among us. We just use different rationalities or hold different bottomlines. These rationalities or bottomlines are based, to a large extent, on our underpinning social conditions. In other words, we vote based on what we have learned, what we have seen and experienced and what we hold to be beneficial. Our votes differ because our knowledge, experiences and values differ.
Moreover, the propaganda that "all progressives are communists" has penetrated the general public's psyche. This propaganda is a legacy of the red-scare tactics of the Marcos regime and our anti-communist American colonizers and unfortunately, it has stayed on even if the real communists of this country have become a marginalized minority. Especially during elections, progressives end up "softening" their progressive calls or "dumbing down" public discourse – just to appeal to a wider audience.
At times, progressive candidates also do not get the support even of their fellow progressives. This is often due to factional, organizational reasons (i.e if the progressive doesn't come from one's ranks, then that progressive isn't really progressive). At other times, it is because of pragmatic reasons (i.e hindi naman mananalo, sayang lang ang boto).
There are indeed many odds against progressives running for public office. The odds themselves justify the necessity to support progressive candidates. A vote for progressives is an expression and act of protest: through this vote, we reject an electoral system that accommodates only the rich, the popular, and the conservative.
Voters have to be convinced that it is this electoral system that we are voting against when we reject traditional politicians. Voters also have to be convinced that it is not "useless" or "scary" to vote for progressives.
Walden Bello: Mover, shaker, not just a rabblerouser
Number 1 on my list of progressive candidates is Walden Bello who is running for senator.
Bello has elicited the ire of many politicians including the incumbent president. For President PNoy and his ilk, Bello is probably just a rabblerouser – one who is overly critical of the administration (despite his party being a member of the ruling coalition) and is terribly annoying as he keeps on calling for the resignation of Cabinet Secretaries and keeps on insisting that PNoy take command responsibility for the Mamapasano incident. For his party Akbayan, which he openly defied in the course of his Malacanang-directed rabble rousing, Bello is probably a real pain in the ass.
Truth to tell, I like rabblerousers. I like people who can pick a fight when necessary. I like people who can ruffle the feathers of those who defend the status quo. The status quo, after all, is so entrenched that any such rabble rousing causes only a scratch, if not a small dent, on the establishment. A "too-polite" style of discursive engagement serves only to strengthen the status quo and, therefore, showing some "irreverence" every now and then is not only commonsensical, it is, in fact, a necessary ingredient in transformative politics. (Another disclosure: I know Bello personally and have been campaigning for him but I am not part of his campaign team and no one from his team – not even Bello – asked me to write this piece).
Walden Bello is more than just a rabblerouser. He is a rabblerouser that even opponents and enemies can respect. He has a solid understanding of what ails this country and has shown the ability to articulate out-of-the-box but feasible and strategic solutions. And there is no one on the list of Senatorial candidates (not even the list of Presidential candidates) who can match his knowledge and understanding of the international political economy. While Bello's "de-globalization" narrative is not too popular here at the homefront, it is very well received abroad especially among public intellectuals and activists in Asia and in Europe.
No doubt, Bello is brainy but it is his passion for public policy that truly impresses. One can love or hate Bello but one cannot question his fitness to legislate. His track record in crafting and debating policy cannot be questioned. While in the House of Representatives from February 2009 to March 2015, Bello was the principal author of the following: Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms Act or Carper (RA 9700), Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RA 10354), and, the Comprehensive Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act (RA 10368).
For five years, Bello was the head of the Congressional Committee on Overseas Workers' Affairs and pursued issues like human trafficking and the abuse of OFWs by Philippine Embassy officials. Bello also introduced the Amendment to the Absentee Voters' Act that removed the provision that required overseas voters to pledge to return to the Philippines after three years.
Bello was one of the authors of the Security of Tenure Bill that sought to regulate further the practice of labor contractualization. He also took the workers' side in many controversies such as the Kentex fire, the Mary Jane Veloso case and the sex-for-flight scandal and was relentless in holding authorities – both of government and pertinent corporations –accountable.
Bello is a mover and shaker. He has initiative. He does not need to be prodded to make a stance or take action. He does not easily bow to hierarchies and impositions, and therefore, cannot be easily dismissed, not even by his ideological or political enemies.
Bello doesn't mind being a David to the Goliaths. Moreover, none of those Goliaths can beat his record, in the academe and in international/national civil society. He completed his undergraduate studies at Ateneo de Manila University and his masteral and doctoral degrees at Princeton University. He was a Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman since the late 1990s until 2009 when he was elected as the Party list Representative of Akbayan in the House of Representatives. Almost a decade before that, in 1998, Bello served as the Founding Chairperson of Akbayan.
Bello has also been a teaching fellow of various institutions such as the State University of New York at Binghamton and the University of Wisconsin. He was also the co-founder and former Executive Director of the Focus on the Global South, an international NGO that focuses on globalization issues, and, the former President of the Philippine-based coalition Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC)
Bello was active in the anti-Marcos/ pro-democracy movement during the '70s and '80s. He also authored/co-authored several books including "The Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines", published in 1982, which inspired many activists of my generation.
If such track record and steadfastness do not a progressive make, then, I don't know what will. A person who is steadfast in his ideological stance despite the risk of political defeat and exclusion deserves respect and support.
Bello resigned from Congress – gave up a position of power – out of principle. That is progressive. Bello had the option to return to a quieter, more comfortable life as an academic but instead he responded to the call of social movements composed of trade unions, peasant organizations, urban poor groups, women's groups, LGBT groups, migrant advocacy groups and youth groups to challenge traditional politics in the May 2016 elections. That is progressive. Bello is running as an independent candidate and refuses to ally with traditional powerbrokers in his bid for the Senate. That is progressive.
The Philippine Senate has been ideologically bankrupt for too long. If elected, Bello will push the traditional politicians in the Senate to veer away from personalizing public conversations (and from plagiarizing articulations) and justify better their conservative positioning. Bello could very well be the shock therapy that our dull, uninspiring Senate needs.
As per recent survey results, Bello is nowhere near the winning "Magic 12" circle but this does not discourage me. After all, I am well aware of the odds that a progressive candidate like Bello has to confront. The odds, in fact, bolster rather than diminish my resolve to support him. The odds remind me of why I am supporting him: he stands for the kind of politics that I believe in.
Needed: A progressive bloc in the Senate
Bello is number one on my list but I am also aware that the ideal vote, at least for the Senate, is the vote not just for one progressive but for a progressive bloc.
A "bloc" is an alliance of like-minded individuals that act in concert. These individuals need not come from the same group but must share some common ground that enables them to act jointly. In the context of the Philippine Senate, a "bloc" is a group of legislators that converge on certain issues and vote on these issues in like manner.
Bloc voting by a majority is, in fact, the way legislation is passed. In this set-up, a "minority" bloc is significant because it puts pressure on the majority to defend and rationalize its preferences. By tradition, the majority and minority blocs in the Senate are organized simply around the choice of Senate President.
The bloc that I am proposing in this piece is a "progressive" one whose basis of unity will either be a common legislative agenda or common positions on particular legislative issues (e.g a common vote against any resolution allowing former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani).
Aside from Bello, I identify the other potential members of this bloc based on the five-way test I presented above. Two candidates easily come to mind. One is Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan, best known for her advocacy for the reproductive health law and continuing call for reforms in public health service delivery. Another is Neri Colmenares of Makabayan who is best known for his opposition to the current administration – from the pork barrel/DAP controversy to the more recent SSS pension increase issue.
Whatever the common reservations are of Hontiveros (too yellow) and of Colmenares (too red), the fact of the matter is, they too will radicalize discourse in the Senate. They have already shown their capacity for this in their previous stints in the House of Representatives.
As per recent survey results, Hontiveros has the best chance to land a seat in the Senate. This is her third time to run and I, too, can see that her perseverance speaks a lot of what she can do if elected Senator.
Moreover, the organizations that Hontiveros and Colmenares belong to are not fly-by-night organizations and have discernible constituencies that need to be represented in our Senate. These groups deserve a seat at the table because they represent marginalized sections of society and marginalized schools of political thought. For too long, the Senate has been the venue for contestation of warring factions of the same class (the elite), the same gender (male; heterosexual) and the same political thinking (liberal democratic and/or authoritarian populist). It is high time that we turn that constitutionally mandated concept of "representation" into reality.
Yes, Akbayan is allied with the ruling coalition that is dominated by traditional politicians but it is allied as well with social movements like trade unions, peasant organizations and women and LGBT groups and this latter alliance signals some struggle with the more traditional, dominant powers in the ruling coalition.
Yes, Makabayan is also allied with traditional politicians (albeit of the opposition), and yes, Makabayan is "extreme left". So what? Even the extreme left needs to be represented in the Senate if indeed representation in our legislature is to be genuine. Better a Makabayan representative than another entertaining-not-so-intelligent-rich guy – those guys are already overrepresented in the Senate.
In other words, we do not need to "like" Akbayan or Makabayan. We just need to concede that their constituencies are underrepresented in the Senate and therefore, it makes good political sense to get their representatives elected into the Senate.
In the same manner, progressives need not "like" each other. They just need to go beyond their tribal instincts and concede that the progressive agenda cannot be advanced if progressives do not cooperate with each other.
I have yet to study in detail the full list of Senatorial candidates but at first glance, there are some other candidates that could be members of this progressive bloc. They do not come from political dynasties, are not wealthy, and, they stand for particular causes or represent certain sections: Allan Montano for workers and labor unions, Nariman Ambolodto for the Muslims, Cris Paez for the cooperative movement, and, Susan "Toots" Ople for the OFWs. There is also that fiery, independent-minded candidate to consider: Leila de Lima.
I have yet to vet these candidates. Concretely, I have to research on which groups or constituencies are backing them and what their stances are on the Marcos dictatorship and other pressing issues. Until I have done such further examination, I will view them as potential members of a possible progressive bloc – for consideration.
I know there is a big possibility that progressives might not win in a contest where money, name recall and gate-keeping machineries are the most decisive factors but if they can take the risk, then, so can I. In my book, they're already winners.
A vote for progressives is a vote against conservative, elitist politics. That can never be a "wasted" vote. On the contrary, a vote for progressives is a valuable vote. – Rappler.com
The author teaches political science at Ateneo de Manila University.