In defense of politics
BECAUSE ONLY a thin line separates them, politics and governance tend to be confused with one another. Worse, politics is often seen as the ugly twin of governance, the one that corrupts the best intentions of government. In truth, the two are equally indispensable, and are neither intrinsically good nor bad.
It would be useful to treat politics and governance not as opposites, but as distinct components of a political system, operating on the basis of their respective criteria of rationality. Modern society puts a premium on the operational autonomy of governance, consciously keeping its criteria separate from those of politics. Traditional society, in contrast, tends to fuse them under a political system sometimes known as patronage politics.
Some definitions might help clarify this point. Politics is about people making choices regarding the basic decision premises (or visions) of government. It begins with the process of choosing the right persons or parties to whom they entrust the power to make collectively binding decisions. Governance (or administration), on the other hand, concerns the use of this power to legislate policy, formulate and implement programs, enforce norms, and coordinate the functions of government.
We judge the success of politics, in the first instance, by the degree to which it produces legitimate leaders—i.e., individuals whose selection is acceptable to the people. Credible, orderly and honest elections are essential to this goal.
In turn, we judge the success of governance by the degree to which it is able to solve society’s persistent problems, and prepare the ground for continued progress. Professional competence, equal access to government services, efficiency, transparency, and accountability are among the key criteria for assessing an administration.
The relationship between politics and governance is complex and is inescapably marked by conflict. Politicians in power naturally wish to use their time in government to ensure their continued hold on power. That is the code of politics. On the other hand, the bureaucracy that forms the backbone of governance operates by a different code. Its goals go beyond the tenure of any party or politician. Its success depends on its capacity to preserve its autonomy and remain nonpartisan in its operations.
To illustrate this sensitive linkage between politics and governance, let us consider the government’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program, better known as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps. I know a little about this human development project, which aims to interrupt the intergenerational transfer of poverty, illiteracy and poor health among the country’s indigent households. Initially skeptical about the program, I accepted the invitation to serve, without compensation, as a member of the National Independent Advisory and Monitoring Council that regularly reviews the program at the national level.
Following its success in Brazil and Mexico, the 4Ps was introduced into the country in 2007 through a small pilot sample during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. By the end of Arroyo’s term in 2010, the program had enrolled about 800,000 household beneficiaries. When he assumed office, President Aquino could have opted to terminate it. But, setting aside the usual objection to a project associated with one’s predecessor, he decided instead to expand it. Today, it has 4.4 million enrolled families under its care.
A government cash transfer scheme of this magnitude is bound to attract the meddling of politicians, particularly at the local level. The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the key agency in charge of the program, has waged a fierce battle to keep the 4Ps from being politicized. This basically means preventing politicians from playing any role in the identification and processing of beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are methodically chosen on the basis of strict criteria of eligibility from a list furnished by a national household targeting system. Not every poor family qualifies automatically. To be eligible, a poor family needs to have a nursing mother and/or children of school age, and must be willing to meet certain conditions in exchange for receiving the monthly grant.
Keeping politics out of the 4Ps has been a delicate balancing act for the DSWD because the cooperation of local governments is also needed at some point to get the work done. Yet, it is inevitable that a program like this would become an election issue. The opposition has criticized it as a dole program that keeps the poor dependent and idle. The Aquino administration, on the other hand, wishes to be judged by its success.
By anointing Mar Roxas as his preferred successor, P-Noy has, in effect, put upon him the onus of defending his policies and programs. Of course, along with this also comes the blessing of being able to bask in the government’s successes.
It is thus perfectly reasonable that Roxas would launch his political advocacy on national media by extolling the 4Ps, a government project with an enormous impact on the poor, and promising its continuation. To be sure, he might have been more persuasive if he had focused on an achievement in which he played a direct role. But, what would really be objectionable is if political operators started promising inclusion in the list of beneficiaries in exchange for votes, or threatening people with removal if they held contrary affiliations. That would not be politics, but politicking. The advisory and monitoring council for the 4Ps would be the first to raise a furor should this happen.
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