Powerless despite being in power | Inquirer Opinion
The Long View

Powerless despite being in power

From the prewar years up to today, the fundamental organizing principle of political “aggrupations” — that wonderfully quaint Filipino-English word that seems uniquely ours — has been the coalition. Coalitions compete to form the new ruling party on the basis of election results, which serve as a vote of confidence in the leadership of the day, the verdict of which, in a strangely logical way, leads to a realignment in which most everyone rushes to fall in behind the winner of the polls.

This is why party-switching has never had a stigma associated with it, because, in the first place, the followership of particular leaders is usually nontransferable (nationally speaking), and the realignment that ensues is simply passed off as an act of obedience to the dictates of the electorate. It must have been the same in the days of the datus, after leadership questions were settled either by combat or bribery of the elders. In a similar vein, surveys generally show that after someone wins the presidency, more people claim they supported the winner than actually voted for the candidate at the time.


But, unlike the Japanese or the Indians — whose politicians and their factions, though possessing bailiwicks where their political rule reigns supreme, still conduct their factional infighting behind closed doors to maintain the outward appearance of unity and cohesion in the party — our leaders have no compunctions about breaking ranks to declare the foundation of a new party. But even in this, from the 1920s to the 1950s at least, it happened only every decade or so; in between divisions, reunifications were the desirable outcomes once the purpose of the splits — a change in leadership for the next aggrupation — was achieved.

Two things intervened to increase the occurrence of factional divisions and to make the resulting realignments extremely brittle.


The first was the systematic dismantling, in the 1950s, of rules that fostered party cohesion by providing incentives to party discipline (chief among them the abolition of bloc voting, which destroyed the influence of parties in the nationally elected Senate: It is no coincidence that after bloc voting — which had been instituted as an antidote to the even-then clearly identified risks of national candidacies being susceptible to the corrosive power of money or celebrity — was abolished, the rise of “guest candidates” and the election of celebrities began).

The second was martial law, which put a lid on the natural selection, politically speaking, of leaders. The parties withered away, and what took their place, in the few places where there was sustained and organized nonguerrilla resistance, was the rise of local parties or coalitions, specifically in Cebu, Mindanao, Batangas and the capital.

The institution of multiparty elections, but without runoff elections, after the fall of the dictatorship served as an incentive to keeping parties as disposable vehicles, unless organized along familial lines (such as the Nacionalista Party, or NP, under the Laurels or the much-reduced Kilusang Bagong Lipunan of the Marcoses), or as the political arm of business conglomerates (the NP under the Villars, the National Unity Party of Enrique Razon, the Nationalist People’s Coalition under Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. and now Ramon Ang).

To a certain extent, the Liberal Party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino, Lakas, and Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) harked back to the premartial law parties, only to become bloated when in power and suddenly anorexic when out of office. Top-heavy groupings bristling with generals, so to speak, but without any foot soldiers. The ones who had foot soldiers were the local parties.

This time around, for the 2019 midterms, something interesting has happened. Neither the administration nor the opposition, for one reason or another, has been able to, or has shown much interest in, putting forward complete senatorial slates. Nor, more importantly, does this failure seem to matter either to the professional politicians or the electorate as a whole.

It is an indictment of the leadership of both, but most clearly a demonstration of failure on the part of the President, who hasn’t been able to unite his own nominal party, PDP-Laban. The momentum and energy, meanwhile, are with Hugpong ng Pagbabago, which supports him but is unapologetically merely an aggrupation of regional parties united in carving up turf among themselves.

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TAGS: Manuel L. Quezon III, party-switching, Philippine politics, political parties, The Long View
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