Takeaways from an important political transition

Few transitions are as momentous as our national elections. The just-concluded 2016 electoral process and ongoing political transition undoubtedly provide us with many reflection points that can be invaluable in making this a fruitful transition in the work of nation-building. That is, if we pay sufficient attention.
Reflection however is only done fruitfully if done with an open mind and with a view towards gaining wisdom and insight. The lens of media, social or otherwise, and the lens of a political campaign are not best suited for this. Insights and ideas that drive real and lasting (and more broad-based) benefit often require longer gestation periods.
Thus through this piece, I make my modest contribution to a list of points whose significance calls for more sober discussion.CONTINUING THE
DEMOCRATIC PROJECT
In reaction to the country’s international renown for its “culture of impunity,” anti-corruption was central to the Aquino administration’s election campaign. As a result, in the last six years we have seen one big fish after another brought before a court of law on corruption charges. No longer do we stand in awe of countries like South Korea for their history of prosecuting their erring presidents.

We have also come to expect the Department of Public Works and Highways to deliver, the right projects, at the right time and for the right cost, time and time again. Furthermore, the Bureau of Internal Revenue has had a similar makeover and has posted record-breaking revenues. The list goes on.

It is unfortunate that the “Daang Matuwid” has become an easy target. Some of what it has come to stand for should certainly be criticized. But real gains achieved can easily be lost when they go unappreciated and unprotected. Few reasonable people will recommend starting over when there are things that can be built upon or followed-through.

If we listened carefully to the campaigns and more so to the voters, we would have inevitably heard a mix of change and continuity in most people’s declarations and aspirations.

MIDDLE CLASS FINDING
ITS POLITICAL VOICE
There is always emphasis in building the middle class, defined in financial terms, as the path to economic development. There is an interesting and important definition of the middle class, however, that proceeds on middle class values as an organizing framework. This does not detract from the important place of the middle class in economic development, but rather deepens its proper appreciation. Mike Wootton argues that “(t)o be able to amass money is in itself not a measure of a growing middle class, unless you have sufficient savvy to know how to use it to the betterment of society, for your own children and other future generations.” (See “The Philippines’ ‘middle class’”, Mike Wootton, The Manila Times.) Thus the objective here is not simply economic strength but moral (and I will add political) influence.

If there has been a moment where the middle class, however defined, has registered its influence in bringing a President to Malacañang, the Duterte win might be a good case.

Beyond the din of social media, a noticeably middle class slant to issues was more prominent in discussions like improving the tax rate and progressive taxation, urban mass transportation (including the airport-related tanim-bala and balikbayan box inspections), and infrastructure. There was impatience with anti-crime solutions, but with particular emphasis on the rampant urban criminality.

In fact, much of the disenchantment with the current administration can be traced to middle class anger at the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) scam. The pork barrel has been around for many administrations. But was not the linking of the theft of taxes to the meager wages earned a particularly middle class take on the PDAF scam?

The middle class has earned the right to their impatience, and this can be good for democracy when properly channeled. Their willingness to experiment, even with a “socialist” strongman, bears watching. Elections have long been assumed to be won by oligarchs buying the votes of the masa. How much the middle class can influence the outcomes of elections, and crucially the policy discourse going forward will be important to reflect on.

LEADING FROM THE FRINGES
Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo arrive at the helm of national government through different paths, compared to most other candidates for these positions in recent memory. While their campaigns did not detract from the personality politics that characterize Philippine elections, their respective personal narratives and backgrounds sufficiently addressed particular policy biases that voters outside the national urban center immediately understood.

Neither Duterte nor Robredo is from imperial Manila. Both were raised in the province, and they continue to be more comfortable going home there. Furthermore, their sensibilities and mind-sets are not shaped by Manila. Even more significantly, they are from Mindanao and Southern Luzon, respectively; areas where greatest impoverishment in the country can be found.

Leaders from the “fringes” have been long in coming. If a glass ceiling has been broken, then great progress has been made.

The image of the President and Vice-President going home to the province, or indeed occasionally working from a provincial base, is tantalizing and fraught with promise for our impoverished archipelagic and regionalistic nation. Duterte’s call for a shift to federalism and Robredo’s mantra of hope “para sa mga nasa laylayan ng lipunan” are signs of the real convictions that bolster the image and solidify a sense of a shift taking place.

Although both of them are identified with political parties, they have not allowed themselves to be defined by their political parties. On the contrary, the manner in which they won the elections seems to contribute to the clout they have to effectively influence plans and programs of their respective parties, which will certainly have significant numbers in Congress.

This is not to say that they are cut from the same cloth. It is to say that in the patchwork that is our democratic project, we see discernible strands of hope.

Joey Mendoza, known for his advocacy on access to justice and human rights, is the chair of the board of trustees of Freedom to Build.

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