The Long View: A more balanced Philippines

The Long View
A more balanced Philippines
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:23:00 06/07/2010

LET me tackle the presentation by Dr. Mark Thompson during the roundtable on presidential elections in the Philippines, held last May 28 in Berlin, Germany. In “Cleaving Clientelism,” he approached the recently concluded election from the perspective of the dominant type of politics practiced here, which is clientelism. Coined in the 1970s from the Italian “clientelismo,” the dictionary defines it as “a social order that depends upon relations of patronage; in particular, a political approach that emphasizes or exploits such relations.”

In the Philippine context, Thompson characterizes clientelism as revolving around material or immaterial inducements/attachments to gain support; pyramidal networks based on kinship, patronage, vote-buying, coercion; and involving transactional voting behavior. Clientelism, he says, can be extremely divisive, as seen in the Philippines and Thailand, as transactional politics polarizes both the political players (as those outside the ruling circle are punished) and the public (since the normal emphasis of politics on compromise is deliberately ignored).

In contrast to this “politics of the normal,” Thompson proposes that what clashed in the campaign were reformism, represented by Aquino and Teodoro, and populism, represented by Estrada and Villar. These two approaches served to cleave, or split, the electorate along natural lines. These lines lead to lasting political divisions. These cleavages, in turn, can be polarizing, too: most particularly when along class or ethnic lines, the stuff of which civil wars and revolutions are made. But they can also lead to stability as clear divisions can end up clearly resolved, with the winning side (a social movement or a winning party) deriving a mandate society as a whole respects and adapts to. He points to Europe and North America, Brazil and Chile, and India and Indonesia as examples.

Reformism, according to him, is a “bourgeois” political narrative, has a media-based campaign strategy, is not based on clientelist political networks, and relies on voter appeals on messages like “Vote for me because I am good” or “I will not steal”: essentially a promise to govern in the national, not personal interest. Thompson points out this had broad appeal across classes, but is particularly attractive to the clergy, urban reform activists and the middle class and globalized business.

In the Philippine context, it originated with Rizal and the ilustrados; was continued by “Great Dissenters” such as Juan Sumulong (Aquino’s maternal great-grandfather), Claro M. Recto and Jovito Salonga; and involves the dynamics of questioning the ruling party, as exemplified by Ramon Magsaysay, Cory Aquino and the anti-Marcos movement, and the Defensor-Santiago and Roco campaigns from 1992-2004. Institutionally, it’s represented by technocrats and their approach to governance. Reformism also has a tradition of personal sacrifice, as represented by Rizal or Benigno S. Aquino Jr.

The problem of course is when the “outs” become “ins”: once in power, clientelism can become corrosively attractive: that is, unless “Developmental Reformism” can be upheld, which then has the potential for a “long-lasting cleavage,” focusing on the trinity of combating corruption, development-oriented economic policies and improving economic efficiency.

Populism, on the other hand, rather than being inclusive, adopts an anti-elitist political narrative. Even when its proponents themselves come from the elite, they tend to be outsiders who emphasize popular sovereignty, and who use media-based appeals in contrast to a clientelist political network, relying on appeals through messages like “I am like you,” and “I will help you.”

In the Philippine context this is a more recent line, going back to Rogelio de la Rosa’s Senate election and 1961 (aborted) presidential bid; to Imelda Marcos’ “star power,” prestige projects and welfare programs; and exemplified by Estrada’s “long” populist decade from his senatorial election in 1987 to winning the presidency in 1998 and his proving, in 2010, a constituency numbering a quarter of the entire electorate. Estrada himself and Thaksin in Thailand demonstrated the limitations of populism, too.

But unlike Thailand, somehow in the Philippines, after the shocks of Edsa Dos and Tres, society seems to have pulled back from the brink. Thompson attributes this to the ability of Philippine elites to engage in introspection and Arroyo’s antagonizing the upper and middle classes that had initially supported her. Elections in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010 focused public energies on dividing on the question of the administration, offering competing points of view for endorsement or rejection by the electorate.

Add to this his belief that the Left has found itself unable to “institutionalize” the cleavage populism represents—including being unable to cope with what Thompson calls “Gramscian ‘bourgeois’ reformists” on one hand and “millenarian movie star populists” like Fernando Poe Jr. on the other.

The great dividing line, then, is efficiency versus equality, where reformists and their focus on developmental efficiency must contend with the populist demand for economic redistribution to the poor: and where over-emphasis on development, which increases inequality, must be balanced with an over-emphasis on equality-eroding efficiency. The need to balance both is the message of the 2010 elections: both have proven dedicated constituencies, with a shared commitment to resolving differences within the electoral framework and no longer by means of insurrections.

Thompson calls the 2010 polls the “most widely accepted election result since 1965,” in terms of the presidency. It could, he says, be the basis for long-term political stability, and signal an end to “military or people power coups,” and an era of accommodation by a small elite with the poor majority. (To be concluded)

Manuel L. Quezon III.

2 thoughts on “The Long View: A more balanced Philippines

  1. I found Mark’s analysis quite lucid and coherent. Indeed the decision of Teodoro to run on a reform platform rather than make use of patronage primarily was one of the untold stories of the last election.

    The part that I found less convincing was the false trade off between efficiency and equity. This sort of thinking is a bit dated in my view. It has been proven that the lack of equity is one of the reasons for our slow growth/greater efficiency in the economy.

    Developmental policy including those that seek to create greater equality of opportunity has in the past been blocked by clientelism on the part of the elites. If Noy adheres to the reformist agenda that ushered him into the limelight, then it should mean unblocking many of these bottlenecks to development by opening up the political and economic spheres to greater competition.

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