The Long View: Making political parties obsolete

Making political parties obsolete

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 02:35am (Mla time) 04/23/2007

MANILA,Philippines – We repeatedly hear that the political and every other condition of our country would improve if only we had strong parties with devoted, loyal followers, united by common aspirations and a well-developed ideology. I have always been puzzled by such views.

We have had strong parties with dedicated followers filled to the brim with aspirations and ideas that united them. The pre-war Nacionalistas, the post-war and pre-marital law Nacionalistas and Liberals, the KBL of the New Society and the LDP, Lakas and Kampi since Edsa, they have demonstrated party politics at their most organized, efficient and effective. These parties, even when their leaders had changed parties, were able to keep loyal followers.

The real problem, of course, is that those who pine for strong parties, meaning, parties built on principle, not on personality, are dissatisfied with the principle that our political parties represent – the principle that, in politics, the pork barrel and other forms of patronage, such as jobs, are the end-all and be-all of party life. This yearning willfully ignores two realities about politics anywhere and everywhere: personalities cannot be separated from issues; and politics sooner or later can end up bogged down by the need to reward supporters and punish competitors.

We’re constantly told that those in politics are only after power and privilege for themselves and nothing else. This kind of self-defeating thinking ignores a basic attribute found in most, if not all, politicians, as well as in those who decide to embark on any kind of political involvement. That attribute is as basic to the human condition as ambition: it’s the joy of the fixer, the deal-maker and the broker. A foreign journalist once told me how he was delighted by a Filipino congressman’s explanation of his job: “I’m here,” the politico said, “to help people, and I love it! It makes me rich, it enables me to be loved, it keeps me important.”

The delight in wheeling and dealing, in getting people together so that person B’s problems can be solved if only person C gets in touch with person A, is something that’s felt, and sought, by people from all walks of life, be they investment bankers or social workers, or “barkers” who get people to ride on a certain jeep instead of the other, in the process getting a tip from the driver. The difference, of course, is that the banker makes millions, in the private sector, from being a fixer; the aid worker gets a psychic boost or a modest “thank-you” in the form of fruits or a chicken for helping the disadvantaged; and the politician obtains votes.

The problem, of course, is that aside from the aid worker and like-minded folk, most other people are out to make a living, and things get messy when a living is being made out of the public purse. Human nature is also such that people automatically assume everyone else – except themselves – is out to make a quick buck with as little work and dedication as possible, and this bias is strongest when it is directed on those after political power. (Why don’t they get a real job?) As if politics isn’t hard, tiring, sometimes thankless, work. Expensive, too, and potentially life-threatening.

The Romans tried to put forward Cincinnatus as an example of how to solve the “political trap” : politics as a career ends up corroding the morals and sound judgment of those who embark on it. Cincinnatus served only when he was needed, and would return to his farm as soon as he had done his part.

Our Constitution has this solution in mind by limiting presidents to a single term, and most other officials to a fixed number of terms. I often wonder if every official shouldn’t be limited to only one fixed term, after which he and his relatives who have been in elective office should be barred from holding public office again. Combined with providing healthy salaries and limits on campaign spending, this prohibition would allow more people to serve in government and prevent making politics a permanent career choice for individuals and their families. But then this might be an extreme and impractical proposal.

How do you channel the desire of people – many people – to enter public life, with the goal of helping others, but without using it as a means of helping themselves to the detriment of others? One way might be to encourage the political involvement of NGOs, and the eventual extinction of political parties. Put another way, the political party, with its obsession with “jobs for the boys,” the farming-out of contracts and dispensing the pork barrel; and with its penchant for ultimately gauging success or failure only by the number of officials it gets elected in each election, has to give way to something else.

That something else is what the NGOs are doing: working day in, day out on programs, with an advocacy that remains consistent because they have developed means for determining success and failure that aren’t dependent on whether people like them or are willing to vote for them. Their mechanisms for accountability in terms of leadership and the handling of program funds, as well as in building long-lasting relationships with those they represent and try to help, are better-developed in many ways than those in our current political system.

However, the credibility of NGOs, after they get access to those in power, sink, because they try to come to grips with officials who operate according to an entirely different set of values, and who use methods with very different goals and measures of success. I’ve often heard, this results in a kind of political schizophrenia which drives civil society and politicians alike either mad or cynical and corrupt. But that’s because the old political world won’t die, and the new political world is still too weak to realize it holds the key to the future.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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