Ideals to possibilities | Inquirer Opinion

Ideals to possibilities

Talk of the Town, Akayan, Coalition politics

TURTLE PROTEST Akbayan members stage a rally in front of the Chinese consular office in Makati City to condemn the Chinese fishermen who were caught illegally harvesting turtles in the Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. JOAN BONDOC

(Editor’s Note: Talk of the Town is running this article in the spirit of fair play. It is a riposte to the piece, written by University of the Philippines journalism graduates Darlene Cay and Vince Nonato, which noted the flip-flopping stand of the Akbayan party-list group on key issues as a result of its alliance with President Aquino and the ruling Liberal Party. The Cay and Nonato article appeared in this section on July 13.)

Striving to be a real political party in a system where parties, for the most part, are not taken seriously requires patience. Striving to be a reform-oriented party working in a government still heavily influenced by traditional politics, on the other hand, requires determination.


Being one of the coalition partners of the Aquino administration since 2010, Akbayan has striven to translate its progressive principles into concrete actions of government. A party long accustomed to the language of protest is now learning the language of governance.

Akbayan moved beyond the parliament of the streets and took on the challenge of coalition politics and governance.


Admittedly, this expansion of Akbayan’s horizons has been an occasion for much reflection and discussion. How can the party properly nuance its unique position as it deals with its own difficult yet essential processes for internal democracy?


How can it push a progressive platform given the limitations and realities of the current ruling coalition and existing political system?

We, thus, welcome the increased interest and scrutiny from academics, political scientists and the public. Some of the questions that have been asked of us are questions we ourselves have sought to answer, particularly with respect to the challenges Akbayan has been facing as part of the administration coalition.
The main question here of course is: In coalition politics where compromise is an unavoidable component of governance, where should Akbayan draw the line so it will not surrender to the reigning traditional framework?

We take this opportunity to share a few of our insights—the reflections of a political party from the outside that partially crossed over to the inside and some of the unique battles we have fought and won in the overall campaign for change.

Party in traditional system

At the outset, it must be said that every battle fought by Akbayan has been accompanied by constant, oftentimes intense, internal deliberation and self-reflection.

Akbayan draws its strength from its base composed of various citizens’ groups and mass movement formations, including peasants, workers, fisherfolk, informal settlers, overseas Filipinos, professionals, women, LGBT, youth and reform-oriented local officials.


The party’s representatives in Congress are elected in regular party congresses. Its agenda in Congress is based on its progressive platform and the struggles and experiences of its constituency.

Christian Monsod, former Constitutional Commission member and Commission on Elections chair, has said that “the party-list groups have been instrumental in raising the quality of the debates and in giving more emphasis on social reform on the legislative agenda.

“Moreover, their presence on the floor of Congress provided a venue for the marginalized sectors to have their voices heard, as in the passage of Carper (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms). These contributions will not be reflected in the data on legislation and resolutions, but they are no less real.”

But despite these gains, the party realized early on that there are constraints to working with its limited representation in Congress and some local governments.

To more effectively work for change, it had to obtain a bigger voice in government. And at this stage of Akbayan’s growth as a party, that meant joining a broader coalition.

Principled compromise

In 2009, Akbayan, for the first time in its history, endorsed a presidential candidate and allied itself with a mainstream political party. Akbayan was conscious of the limits of this coalition, but was likewise aware of the opportunities for reform.

Akbayan’s decision was similar to the choices made by other progressive parties in democracies all over the world. Like Akbayan, these parties have gone through the grueling yet necessary process of continued engagement, compromise and reflection, all in an attempt to reach that delicate balance between the ideal and the possible.

Dr. Lisandro Claudio, professor and Akbayan member wrote: “What I appreciate about Akbayan is its sense of doubt, the humility that accompanies it and the provisional quality of its ‘correctness.’  We were once a protest party and now we are trying governance. This is new territory for us and we never pretended to have all the answers.”

DAP, Carper, Edca

There is a fine balance that has to be met as we find an acceptable compromise, always actively taking into consideration the principles we stand for. We ask: Do the compromises we make fundamentally compromise us? Or are they an unavoidable cost of moving forward?

In its coalition with the administration, Akbayan has continued to maintain different stances on certain issues. Within the coalition, we agree to disagree on some key points.

Akbayan’s position on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) illustrates its constructive engagement with the Aquino administration.

A year ago, when DAP became news, Akbayan restated its long-standing commitment to pursue legislative reforms of the budget process, including firmer restrictions on executive control over the budget.

While expressing an unflinching belief in the integrity and good intentions of President Aquino, and recognizing the need to accelerate spending and deliver crucial services to the people, Akbayan, nonetheless, called for a more forward-looking approach to budget reform, one that focused on strengthening institutions by reigning in possibilities for individual abuse.

The poor implementation of the Carper law, a landmark legislation championed by then Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros, also prompted the party to criticize the Department of Agrarian Reform. To this date, Akbayan continues to strongly push for the immediate distribution of all agricultural lands covered by Carper.

Akbayan has also been critical of some of the administration’s labor and economic policies, as well as its foreign policy.

Inclusive growth

With regard to the Philippines’ much-vaunted economic growth, Akbayan issued reminders that such growth must be inclusive and sustainable.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) were also taken to task, as Akbayan exposed the sex-for-flight schemes perpetuated by some unscrupulous DOLE and DFA officials.

Akbayan likewise took a critical stance on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) that allowed for the increased presence of US military in the Philippines as a response to Chinese intrusions in the West Philippine Sea.

The President himself has recognized some of the inherent differences between the positions taken by Akbayan and his party. What keeps the partnership strong as Mr. Aquino stated in his speech at the Akbayan’s 4th Regular Congress, is Akbayan’s honesty and reliability, “Unang-una sigurong katangian ng partido ninyo ay talagang maaasahan ang inyong salita. Hindi pag kaharap kayo eto ang sinasabi, ’pag talikod eh baliktad na ang ginagawa … Ang Akbayan may sinseridad.”

Modernizing democracy

Yet, despite difficulties and disappointments, Akbayan remains committed to the concept of coalition-building. For all the challenges inherent in coalition work, the merits and potentials remain so long as we are able to constructively engage without losing sight of our ideals.

Coalition-building recognizes the differences of the groups coming together and the subsequent openness to work through these and arrive at a consensus. This clash of ideals ideally leads to new ideas and innovative solutions.

It is an exercise that has helped us mature as a party and we hope it helps the nation mature in its appreciation and practice of politics and democracy.

Coalition-building is also characteristic of mature democracies and remains a legitimate exercise for many successful progressive parties.

Many parties in Europe and Latin America, in countries as varied as Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile, find coalition-building a necessary part of their political systems, providing a broad front that makes good governance possible.

Similarly, in our country that is divided on many issues, coalition formation may prove crucial to find unities—minimum agreements that can provide maximum outcomes even in the face of the oftentimes overwhelming divisions between different interest groups in the Philippine political milieu.

The key, however, is finding the agreements that advance, not compromise, the fundamentals of the party.

Gains of coalition politics

In the four years that Akbayan has been part of the administration coalition, it has been able to contribute to the achievement of some key objectives.

These include the processes that have sought to enforce accountability on high-ranking officials from the previous regime, including former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, former Chief Justice Renato Corona and even former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself.

The same drive toward accountability has led to the filing of plunder charges against no less than three of the country’s senators.

Second, is the enactment of the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenthood Act, or RH law.
Third, is the passage of the Marcos victims’ compensation law that provides payment to human rights victims and institutionalizes the teaching and remembrance of martial law atrocities.

Add to the list several more legislative victories: the Anti-Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances Act, Amended Anti-Trafficking Act, Kasambahay Domestic Workers Act and the Amended Overseas Voting Act.

These will hopefully soon be followed by the proposed new land use and management act, the balanced housing law and the graphic health warnings law for tobacco products.

The party is also proud to be part of a coalition that has been forwarding budget reforms, albeit still incomplete. The bottom-up budgeting, renamed  grassroots participatory budgeting, is a legacy of reformers in government who have been forwarding greater people participation in the allocation of government resources.

Reforms still to be won

At present, Akbayan is still pushing for the realization of other important reforms within the coalition. First is the passage of the freedom of information bill, a key legislation that is bound to open up the doors for more transparent and accountable governance.

Also, the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, deemed as a capstone to a historic Mindanao peace agreement, remains a priority measure that the party is pressing Congress to pass to recognize the Bangsamoro people’s right to self-determination.\

Alongside, Akbayan is also pushing for key political and electoral reforms leading to the 2016 polls. The party reform bill, amendments to the party-list law and the Sangguniang Kabataan reform bill remain crucial in deepening our political democracy as well as promoting fair and platform-based elections.

Lastly, as a response to calls to reform the country’s budget system stemming from the public’s antipork barrel and anticorruption campaign, Akbayan is pushing for the passage of several budget reform bills to regulate the executive’s fiscal powers and further democratize the budget system.

Politics of hope

In the end, coalition politics must deliver transformation, or at least the hope for transformation.

Akbayan’s brand of politics precisely aims to do this—to find openings, explore possibilities to move forward, find strategies that work, give back hope that this land is not changeless after all.

Compromise, yes. But not compromised. For as we learn to engage with other political actors, we remain steadfast that every compromise must in the end be guided by the agenda of reform.

We are reminded of what Inquirer columnist John Nery said about Akbayan’s engagement with coalition politics.

|“Difficult times lie ahead. In part, the difficulty lies in the terrain that you’ve chosen to put your stake in, toward the political center. That is, I suspect, where most Filipinos would place themselves, if asked. But standing out, cutting a profile, is easier when you’re standing on one edge, leveraging the extreme. But governing is hard work indeed.”

The challenges of coalition-building and governance are daunting. However, it is not our pragmatism that keeps us here. It is our idealism, our sense of hope in the people whom we chose to put our faith in, that they may still prove us right.

With these in mind, Akbayan remains committed to its principles as a genuine reform party, while it continues to walk the difficult but necessary path between the ideal and the possible.

(Rafaela David and Marlon Cornelio are members of Akbayan Youth.)

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