[Conclusion] Pluralism, populism and their perversions: Congress in the time of Duterte

Carmel V. Abao
[Conclusion] Pluralism, populism and their perversions: Congress in the time of Duterte
We need a president who will reform Congress and a Congress that will reform the presidency. We need a citizenry that will insist on having both.

(Read Part 1 here.)

Perverted populism: the President as ‘the people’

Elsewhere I have written that both pluralism and populism have positive values especially when viewed as “expressions of the people’s will.” In pluralism, the people’s will is expressed through duly-elected representatives and this will is articulated through laws. In populism, the people’s will is expressed through a “popular” leader – a leader who supposedly knows what the people need and want.

The downside of both systems is often revealed when power dynamics are not questioned. In pluralism, power dynamics are undervalued so much so that channels for pluralism, such as Congress, are deemed inclusive of all sections of society, when, in fact, the channels are dominated by only one section/the elite. In populism, power dynamics are overvalued and often lodged in a strong man instead of strong institutions. The latter explains the rise and continued popularity of President Duterte. It has been argued, in fact, that President Duterte is the answer to the problems brought about by a perverted pluralism/elitism – hence, the anti-dilawan discourse of the DDS camp.

In this section, I examine the ways by which the perverted pluralism of Congress has combined with the perverted populism of the Duterte presidency. While populist leaders often undermine or altogether disregard pluralist institutions like legislative bodies, the populist Duterte has simply captured the Philippine Congress.

Shifting allegiances

The populism of President Duterte has been evidently bolstered by a subservient Congress. While Congresses in previous regimes have always aligned with incumbent presidents and party switching is endemic, in the current Congress, this practice has been reinforced by way of the “supermajority.”

In the House of Representatives, there are now only 7 “real” opposition representatives, or representatives who have fundamental differences with the ruling coalition. Considered the “independent minority bloc” and sometimes labeled as the “Magnificent 7,” these representatives are Edcel Lagman (Albay), Emmanuel Billones (Capiz), Raul Daza (Northern Samar), Edgar Erice (Caloocan City), Gary Alejano (Magdalo) and Tom Villarin (Akbayan).

The other, more official minority is the Suarez minority led by Danilo Suarez (Quezon) and composed of at least 16 representatives mostly coming from party-list organizations – such as Anna Villaraza-Suarez (Alona), Lito Atienza (Buhay), Harry Roque (Kabayan), and Alfredo Garbin Jr (Ako Bicol).

The opposition character of this “official” minority is suspect because of the background of its leader, Suarez, who is a close ally of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (now a close ally of President Duterte), and, its track record in not opposing bills filed by the ruling coalition. Twelve (12) of these minority members, for example, voted for the House bill on the restoration of the death penalty that was authored by no less than House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Only 4 voted against the bill.

Even with the “independent minority” and the “Suarez minority” combined, the ruling party would still be a supermajority with 270 members/allies and 23 non-allies. To transact business, the quorum of a simple majority – or 147 representatives – must be met. A bill is passed on third reading if a simple majority of those present vote yet. So, technically, given a full quorum of 147, Congress needs only 74 votes to pass bills.

In the House of Representatives, of the 293 sitting representatives, 108 are now said to be members of PDP-Laban. It needs to be in coalition with other groups to create a quorum but by itself, it can deliver the yes votes.

Of the 108 PDP-Laban Reps, only 3 were originally PDP-Laban and the rest are “transferees.” The bulk of these transferees – 71 in total – came from LP, the previous ruling party. The rest came from the following parties who now form part of the supermajority: NPC, NUP, NP, Lakas, UNA, LDP, and a party-list bloc.

In the Senate, PDP-Laban members are only 5 but of the sitting 23 senators, 17 form the majority bloc and only 6 constitute the minority bloc or the opposition.

Serving the President’s agenda

While the President is allowed to influence Congress by way, for example, of the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) where he or she lays out his or her legislative agenda, Congress is expected to also act as the fiscalizer of the President and the executive branch. As a co-equal branch, Congress is supposed to have its own agenda.

In the past year, it has been very clear that the agenda of Congress has not been any different from the agenda of the President. House Bills No. 1 and No. 2, for example, on the restoration of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal liability – authored by no less than the Speaker of the House – were clearly in sync with the President’s war on drugs.

All in all, 4 bills were signed into law in the first year of the 17th Congress. These laws include RA 10923 on the postponement of the 2016 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections – an agenda which President Duterte has mentioned in several speeches. The barangays, according to Duterte, are part of the narcopolitics. The President, in fact, just wants to appoint barangay captains instead of holding barangay elections because “40% of barangay captains are into drugs.”

While it can be argued that there is nothing wrong with a president generating majority legislative support, there is something wrong with a Congress that does not exercise its oversight function over presidential prerogatives, especially the prerogative to declare martial law. Given our history of Martial Law under former president Ferdinand Marcos, the imposition of martial law should be discussed by Congress. The 17th Congress, instead, discussed only the request of President Duterte to extend martial law in Mindanao until December 2017. The yes votes for this extension was 261 while only 18 voted no.

Very recently, the subservience of the supermajority was again on full display as the House of Representatives voted 119-32 to allocate a budget of only P1,000 or $20 for the Commission on Human Rights. President Duterte himself has repeatedly declared in public how the CHR is an obstacle to his war on drugs and that the agency – with its human rights discourse – is detestable and should be abolished. By defunding the CHR, the House practically demobilized the agency which is mandated by the 1987 Constitution to check on government’s compliance with state obligation to protect and promote human rights. This was clearly an overreach of legislative powers as the CHR is a constitutional commission that cannot be abolished or demobilized by legislative fiat. It was also clearly a statement of support for the President: Congress effectively removed an obstacle that Duterte wanted removed.

Fighting the President’s opponents

Serving the President also means fighting the President’s opponents. This role played by Congress, especially the House, is another example of overreach because the enemies of the President should not necessarily be the enemies of Congress. Congress, however, has become the venue for President Duterte to win highly personalistic political battles, starting with Senator Leila de Lima, the President’s archenemy since his days as Davao City mayor when the senator was then chairperson of the CHR.

The recent controversy over Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II’s alleged text message about “expediting cases” against Senator Risa Hontiveros also reveals that Congress is privy to the Executive’s plans to demolish opponents. As of this writing, the House justice committee has also just declared the impeachment case filed by lawyer Larry Gadon against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as “sufficient in form and substance.” Thirty members of the committee voted to accept the case as sufficient while only Bayan Muna Representative Zarate, Akbayan Representative Villarin, and Albay1st District Representative Lagman opposed the move “because it was based on newspaper clippings.”

It also needs to be noted that Congress does not only seem to be fighting the President’s political adversaries, it also seems to be protecting the President’s allies. The President’s son who was called to the Senate inquiry on alleged corruption in the Bureau of Customs clearly did not meet the same fate as Senator De Lima who had to face even slut-shaming during legislative hearings on her alleged links to the drug trade.

Aside from the legislative process, the President’s hand can also be seen in the Commission on Appointments’ recent decisions to reject leftist Cabinet members – after Duterte publicly announced that he was “formally ending” peace talks with the Left.

The fear factors: old and new

Legislators past and present have a common, perennial fear: the fear of not getting reelected. To a very large extent, and because of the absence of real political parties that hold legislators accountable, calculations of these legislators are influenced primarily by the goals of political survival and political longevity. This preoccupation explains why party switching is practically endemic in Congress. To stay in power, one must be allied with the incumbent powers, especially the incumbent president. Loyalty is not to a party or a platform but to whoever is president at the moment.

Said loyalty can also be bought or at least incentivized. In the past, receipt of pork barrel was dependent on one’s choice of alliances: legislators in the “opposition” were likely not to receive any pork. The power of the pork barrel, after all, comes not only with the power to provide pork, but also with the power to withhold it. Today, pork barrel is still present in the sense that the “signature” of the “congressman” remains important in identifying and getting resources for “development projects.” The only difference is that the funds must now be earmarked as budget items before the passage of the budget into the GAA and not after.

Pledging allegiance to the new president for political survival is thus an old norm and the fear of political exclusion is not new. What is new is the emerging practice of pledging allegiance to the President at all costs – without regard for rationality or public interest. We have seen this in the examples mentioned above: what the President wants, the President gets – without benefit of thorough examination, deliberation or vetting. While discussions are still being held in Congress, there is no real competition of ideas – which is what a genuinely pluralistic Congress should have. Voices of dissent are few and far between. And thus far, the competition has always been about people (i.e. dilawan vs DDS) and not about ideas. To illustrate: in the recent controversy over the CHR budget, no less than the House Speaker declared that the only thing that could save the CHR was the resignation of its chairperson, Chito Gascon. The Speaker did not articulate any reform needed in the CHR and just insisted on this one conditionality – a move that will obviously please and benefit the President because once Gascon resigns, the President can then appoint a more friendly (read: less independent) CHR chairperson.

The traditional Congress is now also more subservient because the President is more authoritarian. Challenging the President can cost lives, not just congressional seats. For the first time, we have a president who publicly “names and shames.” As early as August 2016, the President has already been naming names of legislators who, according to him, are corrupt and/or linked to the drug trade. It is not difficult to imagine that legislators will give Duterte what he wants, lest they end up in the President’s list of drug lords or protectors. Public shaming is a very powerful tool especially when used by the most powerful official of the country.

Moreover, Congress is now led by leaders who seem to have no qualms in displaying full, unquestioning support for the President’s agenda. During the deliberation of the death penalty bill, for example, the Speaker of the House went to the extent of removing representatives who voted “no” from their leadership positions in congressional committees. Wheeling and dealing has always been the norm in Congress but it has never been this open or this brazen.

So, where are the people?

If only the elite and the President are “the people,” where, in fact, are “the people”? The easy, oversimplistic answer to this question is that “the people” – given the 16 million votes – are behind the elite and the President.

The more appropriate answer, I think, is that there is no such thing as a singular “people.” Invoking “the people” makes sense when speaking of “the people” vis-a-vis a tyrant or vis-a-vis an external aggressor. In governance matters, however, invoking “the people” is not only erroneous given societal diversity (and social inequalities), it is also misleading. Unfortunately, “the people” has become a catch-all phrase that politicians use for their purposes. For Duterte’s purpose, “the people” serves as the justification for his war on drugs. For Duterte, “the people” are those who will be saved by his obsessive war – never mind that there are unsolved killings among “the people” as well.

During elections, it is understandable to compete for “the people’s vote.” In governance, however, what works is not just up to “the people” so it is wrong to invoke “the people” when governing. To illustrate: just look at the demand of jeepney drivers to raise fares. What is good for these jeepney drivers will clearly be bad for commuters. In this case, who should be “the people”: the drivers or the commuters? Another illustration would be the case of labor disputes such as the PALEA conflict. In that case, who should be “the people”: the displaced workers or Lucio Tan?

“The people” is a myth especially when there are no mechanisms to link the people to government. If “the people” are all those sections of Philippine society that need to sit at the negotiating table, then “the people” are absent in our Congress – given the data presented above. If “the people” are all those sections that need to partake in the country’s development, then the 16 million voters of President Duterte cannot constitute the people – given that there are more than 100 million Filipinos and roughly 75% are considered “lower class” and “poor.”

Which roads to build, how to solve crime, how to generate jobs, what political system to adopt, how to negotiate for peace, how to solve traffic problems – these are problems that need a combination of political will (leadership) and pencil pushing (bureaucracy) and people’s participation (given diverging interests). We will never solve our societal problems if we rely only on one man and disregard political and social institutions.

Instead of combining the perversions of pluralism and populism, we should harness the virtues in these two systems: social inclusion to reduce marginalization, real mechanisms and channels for people to express their diverse wills, rule of law to guide political institutions tasked with managing societal conflicts and addressing social ills, and, leadership that is unifying and inspiring.

At this point, what we desperately need is a president who will work with different stakeholders to transform our political system into a more inclusive, less elitist system, and, a critical mass of legislators in Congress that will insist on consultative, rational, and evidence-informed law making. We need a president who will reform Congress and a Congress that will reform the presidency. We need a citizenry that will insist on having both. – Rappler.com

The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University. She would like to thank Michael Bueza of Rappler and Beatriz Beato of Ateneo’s Political Science Department for their assistance in gathering data for this article.

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