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Commentary: Dead parties, dying democracy

Politicians jumping ships has always been a common sight during election season. This practice is evident on both the local and national levels. We have even come up with an aggressive derogatory term in disgust for these hoppers—balimbings. Yet, ironically, incidents of party hopping hardly turn heads anymore, probably due to how typical it is in our country’s political scene.

Despite ending up as a normalized practice in Philippine politics, it should never be tolerated. The prevalence of this issue, alongside other factors, further proves that our political party system is dead. Our parties do not stand for nor do anything. Despite varying names and colors, they are all practically the same.

Dead system

Party loyalty is inexistent in the Philippines. Out politicians are, instead, loyal to themselves. Political parties have deteriorated into tools for the self-preservation of government officials trying to stay in power. A glaring example showcasing both the lack of loyalty and the normalization of such practice is exhibited by our president before the 2016 presidential elections.

President Rodrigo Duterte was the Liberal Party’s chairperson for Davao City. That was until 2015, when he retracted his prior denial of rumors of him gunning for the presidency and his claim that he will be retiring from politics. Well, we know how the story rolled out: he jumped to PDP-Laban and the rest is history.

It seems that these tricks were quickly learned by his daughter. Sara Duterte-Carpio, founder and chairperson of Hugpong ng Pagbabago, left the party and joined Lakas-CMD and is now a vice-presidential candidate. Lest we forget, she had been previously insisting that she’ll only run for reelection as Davao City mayor, and she had already filed her candidacy for the said position only to withdraw it later.

Another thing to point out is the irrelevance of ideology in political parties. Although that sounds comedic, this irony is worrisome and alarming. A political party’s identity should be tied to the ideology it subscribes to. But perhaps the multiparty system that was introduced post-Marcos was set up to fail, as the key to the modern parties’ and alliances’ identities revolve around personality and name recall— they were mostly formed by local elites who have already established their authority in their respective territories. This prevalence of elites gaining back power is a key factor to the lack of variance or emphasis on ideologies. Their pre-built influence and personality proved to be enough to squash the goal of the new system— the prevention of oligarchic tendencies.

In turn, with party loyalty and ideology bearing little weight, parties tend to not have inherent influence over the electorate. Their low level of societal integration prevents them from driving or influencing changes in society. The party basically rely on the charisma of candidates in order to gain a foothold in the political arena. This leads to the parties having little to no role in policymaking, further proving that they cannot perform the responsibilities they ought to do.

Lastly, there is the prevalence of clientelistic politics in the country—that is, the political elite serve as the patrons and the electorate are the clients. The relationship between the two is mutualistic, revolving around the benefits of supporting each other, rather than around shared values and vision. For example, politicians—the patrons—provide politicized goods to the voters—who play the role of clients—such as targeted jobs, promotions, and exclusive access to what is supposed to be available to the public. This is a problematic setup for it mainly serves the political elite; the “goods” they provide to their loyalists is disproportional to the impact of the people’s loyalty in prolonging their control over power. This is the complete opposite of what democratic values stand for.

The abolition of the two-party system was well-intentioned attempt at preventing power from being concentrated in the hands of a few. Unfortunately, behavior deeply rooted in our history—that is, clientelistic relations which have already existed since at least the Spanish era—effectively disregards the purpose of the multi-party system, which in turn leads to the death of its spirit.

Death of democracy

As the late Renato Velasco said, “Modern democracy is unthinkable without parties.” That is, they play vital roles in a democracy. They are both products and creators of democracy—democracy tolerates the existence of varying political beliefs, and in turn, this freedom of thought allows the formation of an organized opposition which is essential for a democracy to thrive. They also involve and educate the public politically. This particular function is important as political involvement and awareness are also key factors in making sure that a democratic state flourishes.

Scholars have provided ways in addressing the fecklessness of our party system. Some of the suggestions are the reversion back to only having two main parties, providing public financing for the parties, and electoral reforms, among others.

But all these suggestions call for radical changes. Changes of such magnitude can never be expected from officials who benefit from the status quo. And with such political impasse, who know what’s next. I hope it’s something better.

By Dave Russel Ramos

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