Local mass-based parties: The way to beat dynasties

Carmel V. Abao
Local mass-based parties: The way to beat dynasties
My message to reformers thus is this: forget running in 2016

All political dynasties are local. While dynasties expand to influence national level politics, they always derive their strength from their “homebases” or “bailiwicks:” the city/municipality, district or province where their families have built roots.

Thus, the weakening of political dynasties must begin and perhaps can only be done at the local level. To illustrate: one cannot hope to beat a Binay senatorial or presidential run if one cannot even beat the Binays in Makati.  

My colleagues Patricio Abinales and Leloy Claudio are (partially) right in appealing to reformers:  forget the national and run for local office. They may have missed a very important point though. 

Local political structures are often harder to beat because the machinery of dynasties runs deep at this level. Without their own machineries, reform-oriented, non-dynastic politicians have no chance at winning local elections. They can, of course, “start from the bottom” (e.g run for local councilor), but without a party to back them, they will have to also align with dynasties (e.g with the mayor who will likely come from a dynasty) and thereby reinforce rather than break “the system.”

In the case of political dynasties, the strategy of “working in the belly of the beast” simply does not work because it only makes the beast stronger.

My message to reformers thus is this: forget running in 2016. Instead, build a local mass-based party that will enable reformers to win on the basis of party strength rather than on the strength of the party’s or candidate’s alliance with political dynasties. This appeal, however, will make sense only if the aim is to end the dominance of political dynasties in the medium-long run, rather than to gain a handful of elective and/or appointive posts in the immediate term. 

There are, in fact, very few solutions to the dynasty problem.  

One, legislate an anti-dynasty policy. This is not doable, at least not while dynasties dominate the Philippine legislature. It is unlikely that representatives of dynasties will vote for policy that is inimical to their own interests.  

Two, dynastic succession could stop if the future generation says “no.” This means that sons and daughters of dynasties will have to go against the grain. This, too, may not be doable, because these sons and daughters are often brought up to “continue the family legacy” of “serving the country.” Dynastic succession is often part of their DNA.

There is thus one more option left and that is to build local, mass-based parties that can match the resources and capabilities of political dynasties. The dynasty is an organization and only a counter-organization can beat it.   

Local parties: Doable

Building local parties is doable because at the level of the local, issues are easier to understand and local contexts can be more compelling. Those in rural provinces, for example, will not be able to appreciate the call to vote for candidates who will solve the traffic problem. But they will welcome agricultural development or agrarian reform as electoral platforms. There are, of course, certain issues that cut across locals –  such as raising incomes and better social service delivery – but even these have to consider contexts.  

In other words, it is possible to mobilize citizens (and thereby, voters) at the local level because at this level, grievances are clear. People initially join political action not to change the world, rather, to change their own lives and to address felt-grievances. Dynasties, in fact, are able to gain access to the “masses” because they are able to capture their imagination by way of promises of “better lives.” And they are able to prove that transformation is possible, albeit through acts of patronage (e.g  “ganito kami sa Makati“).  

To make a positive difference, local mass-based parties will have to prove to the masses that transformation can be done without patronage.

This is where local civil society and local social and political movements can come into the picture. Civil society is very vibrant in this country and there are many practices that prove that self-help or mutual aid or collective action can address grievances. Local political parties can build on these practices to show that the ‘dynasty-way’ is not the only way to solve local problems. Besides, it is at the level of the local where one can come to the aid of the other, where one can help a neighbor. “Solving problems together” is a powerful way to initiate collective action.  

Selection process

To be a solution to the dynasty problem, local mass-based parties must not be dominated or led by politicians. For succession to be “not dynastic,” it has to involve a selection process that is led by “non-politicians” –  those not bogged down by electoral ambitions. 

The question of “who’s next” must be a matter of facilitation and not of fact.  It is thus imperative that party leaders and party candidates are not one and the same. The party must be able to train and produce leaders that it can choose from. And only non-politicians can best facilitate the selection process for party candidates.

This is not to say that reformers have no place in these envisioned local parties. They can be the candidates of these local parties but they have first to earn the vote of party members before they can even hope to earn the vote of a larger public. They will have to prove to the party that they are worthy of public office. 

Moreover, local parties can be less expensive than national parties. To get to voters, for example, you may only need to ride the tricycle or the jeepney or the bangka. No need for fancy cars or airplane tickets. (And when in the city, one can take Uber).  

Some local parties do exist but often they are instruments of local dynasties. If local mass-based parties are the way to go and they are doable, why have they not been built? The answer could lie in both our political system and in our political history.    

We are a unitary and not a federal system. In this system, the local is regarded as an appendage to the “national” rather than a “state” of its own. Even progressive groups,  when they talk of a “state agenda,” refer to the national government and not the local governments. The LGUs, while empowered to some extent by the Local Government Code of 1991, have been greatly undermined by patronage-based national-local relations that favor national (Manila-based) politics.  

In the more remote past, we were made a state before we were ready.  We were just barangays before the Spaniards took over and decided we couldn’t evolve and had to be built as a colony.  To this day, we look to Imperial Manila for solutions (even as many of us hate Imperial Manila). Even local politicians set their sights on the capital because of the belief that it is the only place where they  “can get things done.” To these politicians, local posts are but stepping stones to national posts.  

The proposal to build local, mass-based parties is anchored on the assumption that the local state, not just the national state, must be built.  And that, in fact, the nation can only be strong if its local communities are strong.   

To change our politics, we need to change our minds about where politics “happens.” So, forget Malacañang. We need to reclaim our barangays, our municipalities and towns, our cities and provinces. This way, we, citizens, can build solid political roots in our own communities. Perhaps, this will weaken the hold of political dynasties that have robbed us of so much, for so long.

It is time to tell those Spaniards in Malacañang (and in Makati): we will take back our villages! – Rappler.com


The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.









Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.