THOSE who want reform say, this country needs a genuine party system. Others reply that it’s useless to try to legislate a party system when the usual suspects will be manning those parties. And yet, the question must be asked: is a party system compatible with our character as a people, and our political history?
One of the biggest ironies when it comes to intellectual circles in this country, is that so many of those admired for the independence of their thought are among the most loyal believers in the American scheme of things. The Americans have always asserted that a functioning democracy is demonstrated by the system possessing clearly defined parties, which alternate in the possession of power. And by party they mean not just a coalition of the moment, but a party of clear ideology and long history, to which people belong all their lives.
Even among those skeptical of the possibility of building democracy in the Western, liberal sense, here, they yet maintain that it is possible to build genuine, idealogically-driven and not personality-based parties in our country. Yet where in Asia, except perhaps among Communist dictatorships (which betrays the true desires of those most ardently yearning for party politics), and not even truly among them if one looks closely into things, have true party politics and not personality politics, prevailed? Japan? Malaysia? Singapore? India? Nowhere. Those countries, when they do practice anything resembling democracy, have large coalitions of factions that proclaim themselves to be parties.
I would submit that the Filipino experience reflects the Asian experience; and that the Asian experience shows that democracy is possible, but is the democracy of faction and not strictly parties, in the Western sense.
Faction dominates our history: factions during the propaganda movement; factions during the revolution, and within the Malolos Republic; factions during our peaceful campaign for independence; factions among our guerrillas fighting the Japanese; factions within the two major parties after the war and up to martial law; factions within the martial law dictatorship; factions among the democratic opponents of Marcos; factions within the Communist party and Muslim rebels; factions during Edsa Dos. Factions yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Yet each faction proclaimed ideals, and, it must be said, generally the factions must be considered sincere, even among the politicians and certainly among those proclaiming themselves ideologues, particularly among the Left. Factions coalesce for a time, on the basis of issues; the coalitions then splinter and new coalitions form -again, if one looks into the past, generally on the basis of specific issues on which a division becomes necessary.
The issues may be a question of leadership style; of electoral strategy; of economic policies or moral questions. What our political history possesses as a common thread is that both leaders and followers see issues only to the extent that they are incarnated -personified- by particular leaders or groups of leaders. Is this a purely Filipino, or even Asian, way of internalizing political issues? It may be a particularly developing world way, one which the West could say it outgrew by the middle of the 20th century.
The division of the Katipunan into the Magdiwang and Magdalo factions was based on personalities, and even if the protagonists and their followers may not have viewed it as such, the division focused on philosophies of governance and an ideology of nationhood that still causes divisions today. The never-ending divisions and coalitions that characterized the American colonial period points to personalities becoming the focus of clear issues that we still wrestle with today: parliamentary versus presidential governance; federalism, devolution, versus a strong, unitary state; economic protectionism and free trade; independence in foreign policy and close alliance with America, and so on. The cooptation of the big political parties under the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, and the divisions within the mainstream and underground opposition both point to a division on very important issues: collaborations versus outright resistance to diminish the dictatorship; middle class or proletariat control over the direction of the government that would replaces Marcos’s, and so on. The dominant ruling coalition today is the successor of the triumphant Magdalo, of the Nacionalista Consolidado, of the LP of Roxas and Macapagal, of the NP of Magsaysay and Marcos, just as the opposition today is the successor, both in terms of its vitriol and tactics, of the Democratas of the 1920s, the Young Philippines of the 30s, the Recto, Manahan, Manglapus rebellions of the 50s and 60s and so on.
Such a continuity must mean something, and it cannot all be explained, as most intellectuals like to explain it, to fratricidal squabbles among the elite. Not everything, not even most things, can be explained away by a grand conspiracy theory involving what has always proven itself to be a pig-headed and reactionary elite. We possess an oligarchy with an extremely fast turnover of its members, and besides its being due to their own follies, it should also be understood to be a reflection of how less-dominant but significant sectors are not just manipulated by, but manipulate, those who are leaders.
Factionalism may just be another name for tribalism, which may explain the desire among the educated and the idealistic, or merely those tired of squabbling and chaos, for strong leadership, whether the dictatorship dreamed of by the Left masquerading as people’s democracy, or the fascistic desire of the upper and middle classes for strong leadership, whether under the prewar Nacionalista Coalition or the martial law New Society Coalition. But if we are by nature tribalistic, and prefer the uncertainties of coalition building, then the goal should be to channel our energies towards finding ways to make coalition-building work positively. Instead of yearning for the Anglo-Saxon certainties of Western-style parties, which are themselves more of a myth than a reality.