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There’s the Rub

Tale of two cities

/ 11:42 PM October 03, 2012

It’s interesting to look at the differences in political cultures between the United States and us as seen in our elections.

The first difference is that US elections are contested by political parties, ours are not.

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The Republican and Democratic parties have been there for a long time, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Or at least, ne’er you’ll see party members bolting one for the other. I remember again from another end the reaction of a Japanese political officer when I asked him what would happen to a politician who abandoned his party to join a stronger one. He found the question incomprehensible. If a politician did that, he said after a long pause, then he’s finished. In Japan, even just leaving one’s job is a sign of disloyalty. Leaving one’s party, that is treason.

Here, you look at the Liberal Party and United Nationalist Alliance rosters, and you’ll see not just that they’re interchangeable but also that they harbor transients, some of whom have taken shelter in a host of parties whose names straddle the alphabet. Many blame the multiparty system for this: It has apparently loosened, or broken down, party loyalties. They call for a return to the 2-party system of pre-martial law days.

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Well, true enough, there were only two parties before martial law, LP and Nacionalista Party, which ironically have coalesced today, both of which with some loyal following in parts of the country. But party members freely crossed to each other’s side. There were two dramatic cases—the first when Ramon Magsaysay bolted LP to become NP standard-bearer, and the second when Ferdinand Marcos did exactly the same thing a decade later. Both were rewarded for their pains by winning the elections and becoming president.

No, we’ve never really had real political parties in this country.

The second difference is that US elections—as well as those of serious democracies—hinge on issue, ours hinge on personality.

Of course the American debate isn’t particularly deep. The rest of the world can only laugh as the Republicans try to paint Barack Obama as a socialist because of Obamacare. Europeans in particular routinely enjoy socialized medicine, education, and in some parts even housing. And of course the United States became the world’s greatest power after the War, in the wake of Bretton Woods whose animating spirit was the Keynesian principle of government intervention. Not least by the Marshall Plan which rehabilitated Europe and put it under the reign of the dollar.

If our elections, including the coming one, revolve around issue, or policy, or platform, I don’t know what it is. I remember observing the elections in Germany in 2002 and someone telling me: “You come at a bad time, the elections this year are unexciting, there are no real issues, there are just personalities.” I thought that the funniest thing in the world from our perspective. Here, we would be telling visitors the opposite.

The candidates who are doing very well in the surveys are not those who have distinguished themselves, least of all in the impeachment trial, with the exception of Juan Ponce Enrile, who means to transfer his newfound public acceptance to his son. They are the ones who are, or have been, elected officials whose names are already known to the public.

The third, and most crucial, difference of all is that elections are just one of the ways Americans take part in their governance; elections are pretty much the only way we do.

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The American public does not disappear before and after elections, it remains a vital part of political life. However you view America today, and its drift toward right-wing extremism is scary—Mitt Romney’s call for renewed American leadership of the world sounds like a threat—you have to stand in awe of the power of public opinion there. It permeates American decision-making, even with what Noam Chomsky calls “manufactured consent,” as oxygen does life.

Here, well, the zeal with which candidates woo the voters during elections is matched only by the ease with which they ignore them afterward. We like to call ourselves a democracy, yet our claim to democracy really rests only on that we have elections. That is how we see the difference between martial law and what came before and after. We had no (real) elections then, we do now. But quite apart from the quality of our elections, we have little or no say in what happens in between them.

Of late, of course, things have been full of promise of change. That’s not just because P-Noy has come to power and he has made it a point to stoke or harness public opinion to achieve certain ends, such as ousting Renato Corona. That’s also, and far more so, because a great many of this country’s citizens have turned netizens. The social media have become one of the most powerful tools, if not the most powerful one, for the  middle class at least, if not the masa, the bulk of whom does not own a PC, let alone a DSL, to weigh in on what’s happening around them. Not least the way their public officials are comporting themselves. Which is to say, not least the way we are being governed.

Over the past several years, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—certain blogs put many newspaper columns to shame—have burst into the national consciousness like a rampaging flood. Unlike the traditional media, they are far more spontaneous and unrestrained, far rawer and more visceral—which is good and bad—which is to be expected from people who have long been mute suddenly given voice.

But then, just as suddenly, you get a law that nips all this in the bud. You get a law that pushes us back to square one. You get a law that rests our democracy back on the head of the pin that is—elections.

Something to think about, this tale of two cities.

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