My main message in “The Decline of Political Parties” (BusinessWorld, 1 April 2019) is that path dependence can explain how Philippine political parties have been emasculated. That is, our colonial history has determined the path of our political parties, and it will be difficult to reverse this.
The political parties arising from the course of our history are bereft of an ideology and a long-term program, are dependent on patronage and particularistic interests, and are driven by personalistic ambitions. The question then is whether these basic problems can be addressed through reforms by legislation.
The reform to strengthen political parties has been on the agenda since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the restoration of nominal liberal democracy. As far back as the 12th Congress (2001-04), we have seen bills filed in Congress regarding the reform of political parties.
The volume edited by Paul Hutchcroft titled Strong Patronage, Weak Parties: The Case for Electoral System Redesign in the Philippines (Anvil Publishing, 2019) tackles the different issues revolving around electoral systems, particularly political parties. One chapter, written by Ramon C. Casiple, is devoted to how legislation (the political party development bill) can strengthen political parties.
Casiple summarizes the main features of bills on strengthening political parties that have been filed since the 12th Congress, namely:
• Penalizing turncoatism (defecting from one party to another).
• Regulating campaign finance and expenditures.
• Providing state subsidy to accredited political parties.
It is telling that the so-called traditional politicians (or trapos) — those who prosper through patronage and the pork barrel and who eschew program and ideology — are among those who have filed bills on political party development. That suggests their interests will not be harmed by the reform.
Of course, the devil is in the details of the bills. And despite bi-partisan or multi-partisan support for the different yet similar bills, substantial legislation has yet to happen.
But even assuming that the reforms above will eventually happen, we ask: Will these reforms really the transform the political parties? Will these reforms really lead parties to promote ideology and coherent programs as well as reject personality-oriented politics, patronage, and elite capture?
That the trapos can go along with and even sponsor the reforms suggests that they can game the rules.
Even a strict rule on turncoatism can easily be gamed by forming a coalition with whoever is in power. Note, for example, in the current setup that the majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives are made up of opportunistic coalitions. Although it is most desirable for a politician to be part of the party in power, a constraint on being able to shift to the dominant party will not alter the behavior of the politician to remain part of the majority through other means in order to have access to power and resources. Incidentally, only in the Philippines can one witness a minority in the House of Representatives being loyal to the leadership of the majority.
The regulation of campaign finances and expenditures is most difficult to enforce. Notwithstanding transparency measures, an investigator will have a hard time identifying and monitoring the source of financing, without inside information, when resources used by politicians take the following forms: legitimate government projects; veiled and layered financing from vested interests; and worse, resources from illegal economic activities like the narcotic trade, gunrunning, and jueteng.
The reforms then must go beyond those directly related to electoral systems and must include measures that are hard to pass such as the lifting of the bank secrecy law. And despite an Executive Order on freedom of information (FoI), its implementation is hampered by the lack of the culture of transparency in the bureaucracy. In addition, the bureaucracy uses other legal obstructions to withhold information (like a restrictive interpretation of the Data Privacy Act).
State subsidy for political parties is good on paper, but its unintended consequence can lead to further strengthening the already dominant political parties. The parties of trapos already have access to other bigger sources of financing, including those that are difficult to track. Further, in a situation where institutions are weak, such state subsidy will be a source of corruption.
This is not to say that the reforms on political development do not have merit. Rather, they are insufficient, especially when the old type of electoral politics is deeply entrenched. Reforms beyond electoral processes are necessary.
Meantime, the few small and floundering political parties that are driven by principles and ideology have to reinvent themselves. They have to find novel ways to break into the system, despite the rules being stacked against them.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.