Thursday, January 14, 2010

"A Message of Modern Politics" by Randy David

Yesterday I attended a talk given by Prof. Randy David in the University of Asia and the Pacific. He addressed university students with his “Message of Modern Politics: A situationer on Philippine current politics.” Let me take this opportunity to echo salient points of his talk.

First Prof. David said he was not endorsing anyone. He structured his talk around four major themes – ‘Quest for political stability’, ‘the Philippine experience’, ‘The Arroyo government’ and ‘Possible scenarios in 2010.’

I found the first part most instructive. His training as a sociologist requires him to always paint a broad historical picture, allowing listeners to situate themselves in the current situation as part of the national context. The second part outlines some historical details relevant to the present. The third part argues GMA has painted herself in a corner where her options have become restricted. And the last attempts to forecast what might happen this year.

Quest for political stability

David observes that Filipinos are “sick and tired” of politics. In other societies, people are not overburdened with politics. And normally citizens only think about it during elections. The fact the politics consumes much of our national imaginary has both good and bad effects, he says. It is good in that citizens are kept informed. It is bad in that the constant politicking leaves little room to do much of anything else. It is time spent away from thinking about ways to improve education and health, growing businesses and the arts.

He says in the region the Philippines has had the longest experience with elections and yet we cannot seem to get it right. Elections are a good way of making the transition from a ‘traditional’ to a ‘modern’ society.

Here he gives quick yet unerring definitions of these broad concepts. A ‘traditional’ society is one of hierarchies. One might also call them ‘feudal’, ties and associations based on families. He also calls this society ‘limited-access’ in that only certain people enjoy monopolies of power and influence. A ‘modern’ society is ‘open-access’ and allows associations not based on familial or personal ties but through functions. They are ‘functionally differentiated’, allowing for clear divisions between politics and business, politics and religion, politics and other public realms. One might argue that a modern society is also more democratic.

David then makes an astonishing claim, one that many of us will probably instantly recognize but which we have not yet articulated, most of all to ourselves. I know I was struck by it. David claims we cannot seem to make that transition from being a ‘traditional’ (i.e. hierarchical, monopolistic) society to a ‘modern’ (i.e. truly democratic) society. We are stuck somewhere in the middle, exhibiting characteristics of either model. And here is where David makes a crucial point. He asks, why is it important to modernize?

He says it is important because “many young people are already leaving in disgust.” He means disgust with the status quo. Now more than ever, young Filipinos cannot see themselves in this particular context. He says it is now possible for Filipinos to pursue personal development and growth independent of their nation’s development and growth. This argument hit close to home. I have articulated before how I felt as though I were a cultural minority, believing in certain ideals and principles divorced from the reality here.

To address political stability, David defines ‘governance’ as the ability to create “collectively-binding decisions”, that is, decisions that will apply to all irrespective of identity and position. He names public debt as a collectively-binding issue. All of us incur public debt whether we like it or not.

He asks, how does government achieve legitimacy so its collectively-binding decisions are accepted? This can only be achieved through a democratic exercise free of coercion. He asks, and this one made me cringe I hadn’t realized it, “Can you imagine if we settle political constestation like the Ampatuans?” CRINGE. Political contest then will devolve to who has more guns, goons and gold to finance them. All matter of rhetoric, appeals to the public good etc. etc. will take a backseat. In such a scenario, how do people with no guns, goons nor gold make the people who do accountable?

Here David makes another important point. He says the governments legitimacy and authority should not emanate from its coercive power, that is, the ability to force people to submit. Legitimacy and authority should be consensual. The LESS there is a need to force people to abide by collectively-binding decisions, the MORE legitimacy and authority it has. The two elements – legitimacy/authority and coercion are inversely proportionate. In simple language, a government that enjoys the approval and support of the governed does not need to use FORCE.

Here David uses a statistic to drive home a point. The Philippines has the largest private security force in the world – these are the blue guards we see in every building in the country. HALF A MILLION. Almost thrice the size of the AFP’s standing army. We have gotten so used to seeing security guards toting guns, we have become immune. It is not like so in other societies, says David. And yes, I am reminded of my stay in Australia, where it took me 3 months to finally spot a police car. David also deplores the presence of security in the UP campus nowadays. He recounts how it was when he was a young professor, there were no security guards. We ask ourselves then, if visibility of police and quasi-police forces is an indication, then it must mean our current government does not enjoy legitimacy and authority?

Philippine experience

David begins his broad strokes with the declaration of Martial Law in 1972. At that time, many of our neighbours in this region were run by authoritarian governments. David argues that Marcos styled himself as a ruler in the middle of the dueling left (communists) and right (oligarchs), with the strong state creating a space for sped-up modernization. This was why, he says, so many UP professors at the time joined the Marcos regime, forming the backbone of the technocracy. They had high hopes for the Marcosian experiment.

The experiment ran aground though. My favorite example here is South Korea. That country’s martial law regime, which took over in 1973 and ran almost as long as ours, delivered an economic takeoff that now counts South Korea among the richest countries in the world (i.e. a member of the OECD). The Marcosian experiment, far from strengthening the state-in-the-middle created new oligarchs and new insurgents. Instead of widening public space and access to public institutions, Marcos created pockets of privatized gain.

David also tackles the difficulty of universal suffrage being made a tool for modernization and change. In other societies, economic rights were fulfilled first before political rights. That is, poverty and hunger were solved first before democratization. A citizen cannot take his or her political duties seriously if he or she is economically dependent. And so, until today, we have Filipinos who will gladly sell their votes for money.
Cory Aquino’s transitional regime was saddled with problems. It had the difficult task of solving problems accumulated in 14 years under Marcos. Old trapos came in to fill public offices, those displaced by Marcos again back in the limelight.

David argues that Fidel Ramos’ economic growth in the nineties didn’t trickle down to the poor. The 1997 Asian financial crisis made life even more difficult for the most vulnerable. And so by the 1998 elections, these marginalized sectors were in electoral revolt. And what better ally than Erap Para Sa Mahirap?

David makes a difficult admission – EDSA Dos was a mistake. It was a mistake because Arroyo shouldn’t have been sworn in as president and that Joseph Estrada didn’t resign. He says there should have been snap elections.

The Arroyo government

For the last nine years David says Arroyo has been in a permanent mode of political survival. Her administration has been riddled by political instability – the Garci tapes, the Oakwood mutiny, the ZTE-NBN scandal etc. etc. Her actions hence have been compromised by political survival. David says she employed tools to ensure her stay in power:
1. Firm grip on AFP & PNP through distribution of patronage
2. Firm grip on LGUs through the same
3. Firm grip on judiciary
4. Carrot and stick approach to control the business community
5. Striking deals with political warlords to deliver votes

Here David says if one should review the Garci tapes back in 2004, one would hear the word ‘Maguindanao’ mentioned every so often. And lest we delude ourselves into thinking warlords only exist in Mindanao, let us think of all sorts of organized criminal elements such as jueteng lords operating in Luzon and Visayas.

At the end of her almost decade-long reign, David claims that Gloria Arroyo has broken so many rules it would be impossible for her to give up power. She does not have an exit option like Marcos (who was flown to Hawaii by the US government) and she doesn’t want to do an Erap incarceration. Lastly the professor outlines five scenarios and we will see why charter change is crucial in all of them.

Scenarios in 2010

1. Failure of elections – automation breaks down, chaos and confusion ensues (whether spontaneous or instigated), AFP and PNP step in and we have a transitional government.

2. Elections held but no proclamation – local officials, including members of Congress are sworn in, but no national winners. Winning local candidates vote for charter change and elect House member Gloria Arroyo as prime minister.

3. Wholesale automated cheating – pro-Gloria incumbents are re-elected, changing government, GMA as prime minister.

4. 2010 results are credible, having a legitimate new government. GMA in Congress takes speakership of the lower house, pushes for con-con, shift to parliamentary government, GMA as prime minister.

5. 2010 elections are credible. GMA doesn’t get speakership, is possibly indicted or at least removed from office.

In conclusion, David reminds us of three important points. First, that political stability is important and that elections are important. Second, GMA has been there so long she has privatized and distorted democratic institutions. Lastly, and perhaps the most important note, how can GMA be peacefully prosecuted without a decisive change in government?

These are some of the things we must bear in mind this year, once we troop to the polls. Let us keep our eyes and ears pealed.