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No Free Lunch

The reform we need

We look to economic reforms as critical instruments for uplifting people’s lives, only to see the efficacy of such reforms thwarted by bad politics, especially in a country like the Philippines where the only thing predictable about politicians is their unpredictability. Over the years, it has become evident that more than economic reforms — many good ones of which are now in place — it is political and electoral reform that this country direly needs. Article II, Section 26 of the Philippine Constitution clearly lays down the guiding policy on this: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

Thirty-four years since the country’s basic law came into effect, the reality in Philippine politics still flies in the face of Section 26, which remains glaringly unenforced. Congress never passed any law to ensure fulfillment of both parts of that policy statement. (In contrast, it took them only four years to pass the enabling law for Section 25 that asserts the autonomy of local governments.) “Our past leaders lacked the political will to institute reforms,” lamented Dr. Christopher Ryan Maboloc in his book “Philippine Democracy and Political Reform.” “As a result, the people have continued to suffer under bad governance and the absence of a vision to achieve justice and equality in society.”

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Guaranteeing equal access to opportunities for public service means getting away from a system where only candidates possessing large sums of money could ever stand a chance of winning political office, the stark reality in Philippine politics. The longstanding prescription to fix this has been to provide public funding of electoral campaigns, so that (1) promising but less-endowed candidates are not effectively excluded from contention, and (2) candidates do not become beholden to big business donors, hence obliged to promote their vested interests once elected.

Such public funding would best be done within a strong and principled political party system. Here lies the fundamental flaw in our party system today. Philippine political parties, as once described by former national security adviser Jose Almonte, are “catch-all” parties that target to please everyone and anyone from all sectors and social strata, and/or “paper” parties organized in an instant to support the presidential ambition of a political personality. Former poverty czar Joel Rocamora sees them as mere “temporary and unstable coalitions of upper-class fractions pieced together for elections and post-election battles for patronage.” In the image of most Filipinos, our political parties are not solid organizations grounded on principles, but loose groups mainly built around personalities.

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The ideal, of course, is for political parties to be democratic public institutions upholding a firm and distinct set of values and philosophies, based on which voters can form reasonable expectations on what their leaders would stand for once elected. There should thus be no place for political turncoats or “balimbings.” A basic reform proposed by the consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution in 2018 was to prohibit candidates from changing political parties within two years before or after an election. An elected party member must also be prohibited from changing political parties within his/her term of office. A political party involved in such violations would face revocation its registration.

As for political dynasties, I need not repeat so much that has already been said in public discussions about them. And while some have advanced arguments in their defense, it is clear that permitting them is inconsistent with the essence of Section 26 on equal access to political opportunities. Surely, there can be no shortage of good candidates for any elective office if not for the artificial narrowing of the political field forced through guns, goons, and gold.

We cannot expect these things to change by the time we choose our national leaders next year. The least we can pray for is that the leaders we elect then would make genuine political reform finally happen.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, political dynasties, political reform
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