The Long View: The ruling money


The ruling money

 / 04:06 AM January 06, 2021

In 2013 and 2016, conversations with professional politicians convinced me of two things. The first was that, for a combination of reasons (one of the most interesting of which, as first mentioned to me by a former president of UP during an airport conversation in the early 2000s, being internal migration — the unheralded, but significant, change in local populations so that formerly heavily Cebuano areas in Mindanao became heavily Ilonggo, or that Aurora province is a heavily Ilocano population, or that Cebu is 10-percent Moro), the old ties between political families and their constituents had frayed to the extent of being nearly nonexistent, so that instead, the electorate, particularly in local races, was now more mercenary than it had ever been. The second was that the expansion of the economy meant that politics was no longer as attractive a path for self-advancement as it had once been. The sum total of these two trends was that it was harder to find candidates, and more difficult because expensive, for them to be elected even if they ran.

And so in 2013 one top official, in a moment of reflection, told me that political families nationwide had found it the toughest election they’d had to face since 1987, and while most still won, they’d had a tough time. In 2016 this meant the continuation of a trend in which political factions and families who’d competed for generations decided to divide positions among themselves, rather than face the prohibitive cost of buying victory from the voters. Individually unopposed candidates could then be elected, the relative ratio of positions held by each clan having been decided beforehand. In terms of national contests where the public was still inclined to vote its mind (or feelings) and not sell its votes, the fragmentation of media — the declining clout of television, the increasingly local focus of radio, the extinction of print as a national media of electoral consequence—meant social media provided a more cost-effective means to reach voters, provided both positive and negative campaigning on a granular scale could be achieved.

Back in 2016, another leader, in the midst of the then-ruling coalition literally picking names out of the air to try to cobble together a Senate slate, sadly reflected that the political leadership over the past 30 years had failed to groom a successor generation. There are many reasons for this, including overstaying leaders making up for having been deprived of their turn at helm during martial law, and political parties essentially being torsos without legs, since the grassroots—the barangays, as barrios are now known—have illogically been decreed as “non-political” offices, which contributed to their becoming mercenaries beholden to every administration willing to bribe them by extending their terms; if the bottom is non-competitive, then how can non-competition below foster the kind of competition that tries to slowly rise to the top?

Which means that if before martial law, a young politician like Ferdinand Marcos could promise to be president in 20 years, because each rung up the ladder required coalition-building, then after Edsa, each fresh national election was a scramble to toss names into the survey lists to see which might stick. There is an old saying that a politician thinks of the next election while a statesman thinks of the next generation; we are 30 years into a system which forces even statesmen to merely be politicians, because the only permanent party is the one composed of the majority of winners who coalesce around whoever wins the presidency. Which means only individual politicians, and never parties, ever suffer the consequences of defeat. And never having tasted the true dregs of defeat, there is no incentive to change.

The story of how all these came together to elect the current ruling coalition in 2016, which also won the 2019 midterms, still has to be written from the point of view I’ve explored above. What the recent speakership fight reveals is that the balance of power is not held by the remnants of the old party system dating back to the turn of the 20th century — the LP, NP, Lakas, or PDP-Laban — but instead, the late 20th-century innovations of the parties-as-subsidiaries of commercial conglomerates: the NPC, NUP as corporate blocs. They are the ruling money because they can provide the lifeblood for any presidential campaign if it is to be viable—as one rule of thumb has it, to the tune of the P20 billion required for a serious war chest.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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