Filipinos Should Find Ways of Coalition Building

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Filipinos Should Find Ways of Coalition Building

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Those who want reform say the Philippines 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 the character of Filipinos, a people, and their political history?

One of the biggest ironies when it comes to intellectual circles in my 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 in the Philippines, they too maintain that it is possible to build genuine, ideologically-driven and not personality-based parties. 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 Philippine history: Factions during the propaganda movement that asked Spain for autonomy; factions during the 1896 revolution, and within the Malolos Republic of 1899; factions during the peaceful campaign for independence from 1907-1935; factions among Philippine guerrillas fighting the Japanese; factions within the two major parties after World War II and up to martial law in 1972; factions within the martial law dictatorship; factions among the democratic opponents of Marcos; factions within the Communist party and Muslim rebels; factions during People Power against President Estrada in 2001 and now against President Arroyo.

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 factions of Filipino communists and socialists. 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 Philippine 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 in the Revolution against Spain, 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 New Society Movement of Ferdinand Marcos, 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’, and so on. The dominant ruling coalition today is the successor of the triumphant Magdalo of 1897, of the Nacionalista Consolidado of 1922, of the Liberal Party of Roxas in 1946, of the Nacionalista Party of Magsaysay in 1953 and Marcos in 1965, 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 Philippine 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. The Philippines possesses an oligarchy with an extremely fast turnover of its members, and 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.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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