December 2006
Political Predictions

Elections in a depreciated democracy

This essay was solicited by i Report, the online magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for its current series on political predictions. The views expressed in the essays included in this series do not necessarily reflect those of the PCIJ or any of its staff members.

THE FRAMERS of the 1987 Constitution thought they were doing our democracy a service by abandoning the old two-party system and opening up the electoral process to anything declared a political party. The outcome of that is the elimination of political parties as a factor in Philippine politics.

The condition of our party politics is a classic in the law of unintended consequences. The electoral process was swept clean of policy-based debates. Well-formed party structures evaporated and all the doors were left open to celebrity-driven, agenda-impoverished elections.

Instead of aspiring political leaders being filtered through a party-based selection process, the so-called parties, possessing nothing more than accreditation with the Commission on Elections, flocked to the most bankable celebrities indicated by the various pre-campaign surveys. In place of party conventions, where visions were clarified and standard bearers chosen by the party faithful, what we see today are negotiations between celebrities and powerbrokers away from the public eye and immune to scrutiny.

True, in the bad old days, the party bureaucrats pre-selected candidates. But they usually picked out bright young lawyers like Jovito Salonga who had sterling credentials that might impress voters. In the senatorial races, they balanced representation among the regions, including the obligatory candidate from Muslim south, because that worked well for tapping the ethno-linguistic vote to favor the party.

Today the candidate-selection process is done with less transparency. Electoral investors and celebrities with impressive name recall cut deals. A slate of bankable candidates emerges. Voters are made to choose from a pre-selected list nonetheless, and this time it is a list that panders to the fans rather than to some appreciation of the leadership needs of the nation.

In this current method for candidate-selection, the distinction between the contending factions is reduced to the lowest common denominator: an eternal struggle between “administration” and “opposition.” In between elections, the outsiders try every means to cause the failure of each administration in place, tar and feather the leadership, rabble-rouse every waking hour, and cultivate public cynicism of government.

The system encourages failure of governance and a poisoned political atmosphere. It has likewise encouraged a bifurcation of our electoral politics where party affiliation means nothing.

AT THE local level, electoral contestation remains largely in the traditional, “bi-factional” dynamic described four decades ago by the political scientist Carl Lande.

Greater control over the internal revenue allocation (IRA) brought on by the process of devolution strengthened the position of incumbents. Despite the term limits imposed by the 1987 Constitution (another case of unintended consequence), the local political elites have managed to entrench themselves even more by simply fielding relatives to the same post when term limits come up.

Because the Chief Executive can cause the immediate release of internal revenue allocations or delay the same (or distribute infrastructure investments to supportive localities), the local elected officials more blatantly switch parties after each presidential election. This produces highly personalized allegiances that further undermine the development of the party system.

This is further underscored by the fact that as the economy shifts from rural to urban, the bulk of electoral financing goes to the presidential candidate who, in turn, supports the campaign expenses of loyalists among the local candidates. This explains why all the so-called political parties now accredited are shells of previous presidential candidacies.

The decline of the plantation-based economic sectors have made local politicians more dependent on the IRA (more precisely, on leakages from that) or on illicit sources of undocumented money willing to invest in candidates in exchange for political protection. This produces a vicious cycle of corruption and criminality that is unhealthy for our democracy.

National elective office, meanwhile, has become too expensive to aspire for. Spending for senatorial candidacies has, in the previous elections, run into several hundred million pesos. Because of the dependence of local candidates on the presidential aspirant for electoral funding, P3 billion is now considered the minimum war chest required for any presidential run.

The prohibitive cost of aspiring for national elective office has caused its own distortions on our practice of electoral democracy. It has put a premium on name recall. There is a clear economic reason for this: the higher a candidate’s name recall at the starting line, the less money per vote needs to be invested introducing the candidate to the voting public.

The consequence is glaring. People who have developed some policy expertise by managing agencies or by serving at some local elective post are also likely to have been damaged by the destructive politicking fostered by the system of non-party politics we have. They have managed to draw adverse constituencies that will stand in the way of winning elections.

Because of this, electoral investors have preferred financing the candidacies of celebrities with high name recall from other areas of activity — especially in the highly visible worlds of movies, the broadcast industry, and sports. Recruits from these other fields of activity have the built-in advantage of high name-recognition and no adverse constituencies to worry about. They also have little governance skills and little grasp of the policy issues.

CHURCHILL ONCE said that democracy is government by amateurs. We have carried that principle to the extreme in the last few elections, populating our elective posts with people who are as popular as they are incompetent. The trend has made our policy-making process more vulnerable to populism and less amenable to tough policy choices.

Since 1987, we have progressively depreciated democratic practice in the Philippines. At this point, there are enough vested interests in that continued depreciation that it will be difficult to change course.

The only way to alter the political economy of Philippine elections is to dramatically alter the method by which we elect out leaders — possibly by taking costly and corruption-engendering national elections out of play through a shift to the parliamentary form. But the conservatives have stood in the way of renovating our constitutional order.

The forthcoming elections of 2007 will see the worsening of the most undesirable characteristics of our practice of electoral democracy.

That worsening will be due to the increasing scarcity of private sources of electoral financing. Economic liberalization has encouraged best practices in business and a much-diminished dependence on political brokerage for enterprises to succeed. The increasing concentration of our economy in the formal corporate sectors that require the predictabilities of the rule of law over the uncertainties of political patronage dramatically lessens the incentive to “invest” in candidates.

Depoliticization of the economy is good for us in the long run. But it dramatically reduces the importance of financing candidacies. For as long as elections continue in the normal, costly mold we have been used to, driven by celebrity-power rather than by real policy debate, the political party system will continue to be non-existent. The reliability of solid party adherence to a program of government will continue to be absent.

The incumbents, both at the local and national levels, will continue to enjoy an advantage because of their access to state resources. That, in turn, will encourage leakages in public funds and highly politicized spending.

And our elections will continue to be the circuses they have become.

Alex R. Magno teaches political science at the University of the Philippines and writes a regular column for the daily Philippine Star.