Philippines Continues Asian Tradition of Being a One-Party State

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Philippines Continues Asian Tradition of Being a One-Party State

by Manuel L. Quezon III

The Philippines is approaching a century of the most durable, remarkable, party government in all of Asia. We have always had a strong political party system, except that it has always been a one-party system.

The difficulty is that among Filipino academics who are ideologically embittered, there is an understandable, but unhealthy, inclination to consider party politics as not only meaningless, but devoid of legitimacy as an area for study. Not only is this because in our country history is not written by the victors, but by the losers, unlike the conventional wisdom that says otherwise. It is also because of an inherent bias that afflicts every intellectual with a modicum of integrity: Ideologically speaking, there is no outstanding difference between past and present political parties. For differences one would have to reflect on nuances; but as for party beliefs, there have only been two parties: Communists and Socialists and everyone else.

The problem is that the Left operates on the underground railroad of history, the mainstream political parties on the aboveground railway. I believe, however, that a political system must be examined, evaluated, according to its own merits and its own reasons for being. And only then, judged, even though we all know what that judgment will be: that the mainstream political system is corrupt, debased, and decrepit. But we would understand better why this is so, and yet why the overwhelming majority still cling to it.

In 1907, the first legislative elections were held for the Philippine Assembly, inaugurating a practically-uninterrupted legislative tradition that will mark its centennial next year (the House of Representatives will be a century old in 2007).

Out of a national population of 7,844,000 people, 104,966 Filipinos were entitled to vote, slightly under the number (143,029) that participated in the popular vote for the American presidency a century before in America (Jefferson’s 1804 election). As it was, 98,251 voted 59 Nacionalistas, 16 Progresistas, and 5 Independents into office. The Nacionalistas would remain in possession of the lower house for the next forty years.

And in the first national election our country had, in September 1935, what won was not a party but a coalition of Pros and Antis. There would be no single administration party until 1937, when the fusion of Pro and Anti was approved. The president of the Philippines at the time said the country would not have a strong opposition either in ten or 50 years after independence. The next year had the lower house with 98 seats for the Nacionalistas. That’s 100 percent. Not a single oppositionist won, and at no other time before, or since, has an administration so dominated the legislature. By 1940, in fact, “Partyless Democracy” was being proposed. It was hooted down by youth leaders and the press, but it was a statement of what had always been.

In 1941, out of a population of 16,952,000 there were 3,000,000 registered voters but only 1,700,000 bothered to vote; they voted in 95 Nacionalistas to the lower house and only 3 oppositionists. The politicians who flourished under this system and mobilized their electorate didn’t disappear with World War II, or even the populism reinvented by Magsaysay; they held on until Macapagal, when it all fell apart.

The elections of 1946, when 6 Democratic Alliance and 1 NP congressmen were not allowed to sit by LP, was a sign of things to come. The party system under fairly strong leaders such as Roxas and Magsaysay, was instinctively a one-party system which believed democracy consisted of factions within the ruling party. Two details, I think, suggest that the electorate has always known this and has been consistently underwhelmed. In 1953, there were 5,603,000 registered voters but only 3,592,244 cast their votes — even in that famous Magsaysay landslide of 1953.

Since then, party discipline has been replaced with an even more personalistic, even less party-conscious culture. 1955 saw the invention of “guest candidate” for senatorial election; 1957, the first plurality president; with Macapagal in 1961, the second president elected since 1946 without a majority in House (Magsaysay in 1953, Marcos again in 1965), and so party-raiding ensued, a situation repeated by Estrada in 1998 (and similar results, both quickly lost power, unlike the more successful efforts of Magsaysay and Marcos).

Indeed, the secret to political power is, symbolically the Senate but in actuality, the House: It’s noteworthy that in 1922 and 1934, the Collectivists and Antis, respectively, lost in terms of those elected to the Senate, but did strongly in the House. Thus, while the Osmena faction of the NP did well in the Senate races for those years, it lost the political struggle both times.

In 1965 the Party of Philippine Progress under Manahan-Manglapus (harking to the Magsaysay plan for 1957) was formed, the suicidal precursor of all reformist mainstream parties like Reporma, Promdi, and Aksyon. In 1969, Macapagal imported Genaro Magsaysay to try to deadlock convention and have himself nominated as candidate and the result was Serging Osmena, who inadvertently helped ensure Marcos won a 2nd term. In 1972 Marcos padlocked Congress, recreated it in 1978 as a unicameral national assembly, with majorities (151 KBL to 16 opposition in 1978, 123 KBL to 60 opposition in 1984) similar to Cory Aquino’s in the reestablished House in 1987: 149 administration-allied congressmen to 49 oppositionists then; a figure that has endured to this day.

In sum, we have had one party government for a century, and let no one tell you otherwise. Filipinos are obviously thoroughly Asian in this respect.

To look at Asian parties, particularly Japan’s LDP and Malaysia’s UNMO, and the squabbling among the factions comprising their leadership, is to see familiar political and party dynamics. What ideology do they possess, beyond the behind the scenes squabbling for the pork barrel in the case of Japan, and the same in Malaysia? None — they do not, state ideologies on paper notwithstanding. In the 60 years of Japan’s postwar history, only one prime minister, Koizumi, has even tried to wean the politicians off the pork barrel. When Mahathir gave way to Badawi, patronage dictated that Mahathir is now as politically inconsequential as Fidel V. Ramos.

For Filipinos who whine about foreign-imposed political systems, Japan and Malaysia are perfect reminders that our neighbors have all had such systems imposed on them to one degree or another; and all, like us, have mutated those systems so that their veneer of Western familiarity disguises the thoroughly Asian manner in which they are run. Just as our parties are run.

If there is an Asian political value, that is the one party state, comprised of internal factions. The Philippine contribution to this has been the ad hoc coalition, which has characterized nearly every popularly-elected administration since the first one in 1935.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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