The Long View
When size doesn’t matter
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:30:00 06/29/2009
One thing is sure: swept under the rug is the issue of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her administration being the least-respected and least-liked in modern times.
The political landscape is littered with the wrecks of formidable party machines that broke down and failed to accomplish their mission: to get a presidential candidate successfully elected. Going back to the presidential campaigns of 1986, 1992 and 1998, Ferdinand Marcos, Ramon Mitra Jr. and Jose de Venecia Jr. all presided over coalitions that firmly controlled the lower house. They all went down in defeat. The common complaint of all three candidates was: the local leaders, on which their pyramids of power rested, took the money and ran – for office – with the cash of their national candidate for president.
This is the dilemma faced by the President and the colossal administration coalition she has nurtured all these long years. But every official in that coalition faces the problem of politics being a continuum, in which the power held yesterday becomes less relevant than the power held tomorrow.
Much has been made of the ability of the ruling coalition to maintain its control of the House in 2004 and 2007. It was no achievement. In the first place, no administration has ever lost the House since 1935. (Even when the presidents running for reelection lost, their administrations still won majorities in the House of Representatives.) Second, for ruling coalitions, the tripartite political pillars of guns, goons and gold are most effectively deployed in local races, where the electorate can be held captive.
Within the lifetime of a specific administration, House control is useful in keeping that administration in place. But when the president, as party chief, must lead the coalition in a campaign to extend the administration’s control of government, the House must quickly realign itself: and so overnight, an administration coalition whose candidate loses the race for the presidency transforms itself, by force of necessity into the new, rival candidate’s, administration coalition.
This is the clear limit of the local versus the national. And there is a certain logic behind it: local representation might hold the electorate hostage to the provincial Mafiosi, but that is the price we pay for representative government, locally. On the other hand, national office might put those offices primarily within reach of those who are better communicators and even actors.
But as representatives of our national characteristics, so to speak – and this includes the idea that the Mafiosi are best held at bay, not by the common tao (people) but by champions anointed by the common tao to articulate his interests – then our national representatives can, and by political necessity do, articulate these commonly held values.
They are essentially a human quarantine on the Mafiosi. In this manner is the concept of checks-and-balances demonstrated in real life.
It is imperfect, inefficient and liable to abuse by officeholders. But if the public attitude is along the lines of limiting the harm officialdom can do to ordinary people, then it is the best yet devised by Filipinos, for Filipinos, to prevent the citizenry from being kept out of the power game altogether. It’s not for nothing that we have only two kinds of nationally elected officials: the chief executive and senators.
Armed with a House majority, a president can govern pretty much as he or she pleases; but without a senate majority, no president can fulfill the ambition inherent in the office, which is either to govern for life, or to build a permanent ruling coalition.
We saw this play out in 2007. Time and again, the ruling coalition – Team Unity – went into the campaign thinking its local strength was a national one; while the opposition – mainly the Genuine Opposition, but also the independents – would bring the house down each and every time by simply pointing to the President, and all her works, and all her accomplices. The only survivors of Team Unity were those with a long enough track record to justify the benefit of the doubt on the part of the electorate.
The result was also investigation after investigation, less in aid of legislation and more in aid of oversight, and simply to remind the ruling coalition that it was mistrusted and held in the lowest regard by the public. That was enough, because it served to prevent the President and her coalition from ruling with complete impunity and putting in place a system that would ensure that, as a group, they’d rule in perpetuity.
The public’s message then has been: it is not worth it to burn down the barn to smoke out a rat; but neither should the rat be accorded permanent living quarters in the national barn. This is the problem facing both the President and her allies come May 2010.
With no levers left to control, forces to command and a treasury to use and abuse, no one would follow Arroyo out of sheer loyalty; and for her servants, to remain identified with her is to guarantee perpetual servitude to all future presidents. This is because their own ambitions will be stalled and even thwarted by going down in national defeat due to her kiss of death. So at best, they can – and will – try to maintain their hold on their provincial constituents and, for some, this will be enough. Better to be a big frog in a small pond.
However, if the public can be made to forget the reasons the President and her people are – in the minds of the public – merely bandit chiefs, and unsuitable for national office, then they have a fighting chance. And so: bread and circuses, for everyone! It postpones the inevitable, at least. At best, it opens up avenues for subverting a true reckoning in the polls.