A Part or Apart? Political Parties and the Ordinary Filipinos

by Asst. Prof. Nelson Cainghog

Every election people are exposed to an alphabetic soup of political parties like the LP (Liberal Party), NP (Nacionalista Party), PDP-Laban (Partido ng Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan), NUP (National Unity Party), and PMP (Partido ng Masang Pilipino), among others. Compounding this bewildering array is their tendency to reinvent themselves by combining into alliances like the LAMP (Lapian ng Masang Pilipino) of Erap Estrada in 1998, the KNP (Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino) of the late Fernando Poe, Jr. and the 4Ks (Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan para sa Kaunlaran) of Gloria Arroyo in 2004 and the UNA (United Nationalist Alliance) of Erap, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jejomar Binay. There is nothing harmful with having many political parties, what is dangerous to democracy is when amidst this carnival of parties, people forget the proper function that these institutions are supposed to serve in a functioning democracy.

Most political parties in the Philippines, especially the mainstream non-marginalized ones, are practically politicians’ clubs. Former officials, incumbents and aspirants group themselves into alliances that shift as they promote their strategic interests. They shift party affiliations whenever expedient or even tread between two political parties as common candidates. They even set-up new political parties as their need demands. Parties, for them, are simply labels to alliances of personalities making its elite core group the virtual party convention. If the COMELEC’s record on candidates’ election expenditures is to be believed, parties’ candidates source their funds from donation of prominent friends. Their due paying party membership and donors do not include ordinary folks like tricycle drivers or vendors, which constitutes the majority of the voting population.

As a consequence, parties serve as vehicles of politicians and their donors’ interests. The Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) and Lakas were Danding Cojuanco and Fidel Ramos’ vehicles in their respective bids for the presidency in 1992. Gloria Arroyo’s Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (Kampi) served the same purpose in 1998 when she ran for vice president. Parties resemble corporations selling their candidates like products to customer-voters thus making elections an exchange between candidates who can dispense patronage and voters who are thrilled with their special value during elections.

But political parties can serve a better purpose for ordinary folks. Parties, in its barest sense, are a group of people competing for the reins of power and having roughly similar views on how to run the country. It can serve as an aggregator and representative of the peoples’ interests. Political parties are supposed represent concrete policy platforms that promote the welfare of its membership. In other countries, they receive donations from ordinary people to fund membership drives and election campaigns to promote their preferred policies. While elite and corporate donors still give money, their contributions are capped to make donations from small donors play a crucial part in campaign financing.  In the Philippines, in contrast, it is the political parties that give funds to voters during elections to make them vote for a particular politician; politicians that are usually not meaningfully different from one another in terms of policy platforms. These monies usually come mainly from rich people, as shown in the campaign contributions report of the candidates in COMELEC. Elected officials become beholden to these interests thereby jeopardizing the interest of the ordinary people. The people’s interests are more likely to be left out after the elections.

The notion of a mainstream political party representing the interest of its membership composed of ordinary Filipinos is often hard to imagine since most legal political parties prefer to be safely ambiguous on contested issues. To illustrate my point, think of the interest of farmers or agricultural hands in the Philippines. In 2012, there were roughly 10 million workers in the agriculture sector, according to the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics. Considering that this figure includes fifteen to seventeen year-olds, it is safe to assume that half of these workers are voters. Five million is larger than the total voting base of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) or the whole voting population in the Bicol region. If farmers in the country organize and unite into one political party to press for their interest, their voice will be heard in the halls of power and their endorsement will have more potency as that of the INC. With these numbers, they can certainly bargain directly with the president. The coco levy dispute would have been a thing of the past, resolved favourably years ago. But that is not the case in the Philippines because farmers are not organized as a political party.

While there is a palpable absence of mainstream political parties that genuinely present specific policies responding to people’s needs, silver linings are emerging in the party-list system where some parties organize the marginalized sector as part of their membership base. The problem, however, is that these parties only comprise at most one fifth of the lower House of Congress, hardly sufficient in number to drive reform policies into approval. And they are not represented in the Senate. This opening also is being hijacked by moneyed people who want to be in Congress through the party list system resulting to ridiculous situations where even the unborn are said to be seeking representation.

The dearth in meaningful political parties that represent the ordinary folks could be traced partly to the system of government that we have. Under the presidential system of government, the incentives to have political parties organised along social cleavage is minimal considering the dispersion of power among the three branches of government. Even discounting the Supreme Court’s power to review policies involved in actual controversies, bills before getting past Congress need the approval of the majority of the Senate, elected at large and the House of Representatives, elected by district. Add to that the presidential discretion to approve or veto bills and the number of key players involved before any meaningful change could be achieved is increased. Given the numerous policy choke points, parties with a simple majority in the legislature are less likely to implement their programs thereby frustrating their membership base. Unlike in the Westminster (parliamentary) system where the approval of a majority of parliament would mean the enactment of the law, in the presidential system parliament’s assent is just the beginning of a tedious process that could drag for years even going up to the Supreme Court.

But the Philippines is not hopelessly beyond repair. Institutions, while entrenched and difficult to reform, are also dynamic and subject to change over time. The United Kingdom, one of the earlier democracies in the world used to be an absolute monarchy. It took years of painful struggles and assertion of the commons’ interest before the privileged royalists gave way to reforms. But from mortals like us who thinks in terms of lifetimes, these changes seem to be a long shot and are far from getting realised. But the push should never stop for these changes will eventually determine whether the people will integrally be a part of political parties or will be far apart from it.

Nelson Cainghog is an Assistant Professor of Political Science from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. He recently finished his master’s degree at the Australian National University and was a recipient of the Australian Government’s prestigious 2011 Endeavour Postgraduate Awards.