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Challenging Oligarchic Politics in the Philippines

Written by Roland G. Simbulan.

Electoral candidates in national and local positions who mostly come from the elites, always promise to carry out a ‘good governance’ initiative. Our response to this must be to widen participatory governance. That is, to broaden the participation of the marginalized sectors and progressive organizations and civic groups in the political process.

This article examines the possibilities and challenges of participatory governance under the present oligarchic political system and electoral process.

Dynastic families compete among themselves in ad hoc political parties to monopolize politics for their families, and use their power to control government projects and finances to further enlarge their economic power. The resurgence in Philippine politics of the unrepentant Marcos family, which for two decades plundered our economy into impoverishment while murdering democracy for 14 years, is proof of how money dominates money dominates our so-called political parties. The Marcos dictatorship looted $10 billion from the Filipino people. This money is being used to do a political ‘Lazarus’.

Elite based parties that circulate and exchange seats among themselves dominate Philippine political history. There are no ideological differences between parties. The post EDSA I era ushered the restoration of the intra-elite electoral contests and elite democracy as it exists today. Today, multiple elite dominated parties compete for electoral positions. When non-elite parties, or counter elites try to challenge the traditional dominance of the elite parties, they are attacked legally and violently.

There is no definite consensus about the definition of participatory governance. For the purposes of this article I define ‘participatory governance’ as governing by inclusion and participation of non-state actors or organizations in the policy-making process. Governance is the process by which a society is managed and looked after. Good governance is when that process is handled honestly and efficiently for the benefit of all citizens, respecting and promoting human rights and human development.  We must reclaim this government that has long become alienated from its people, and in so doing, to alter and even change our own understanding of what governance means if we are to move forward as a nation and people.

On paper constitutional provisions have institutionalized people’s participation in governance. In practice, we have never really had democracy in governance. Despite constitutional provision and a democratic space hard won by popular struggles, real democracy has yet to be realized and maximized. We have a fake democracy. We have an oligarchy: a government controlled and manipulated by the elite. Roughly 180 political clans and dynasties own the largest tracts of land and the biggest businesses.  The UNDP’s Human Development Report 1991 defines democracy as a condition where; ‘People must be at the center of development […] it has to be development of the people, by the people, for the people’.  In the Philippines economic and political power is narrowly concentrated in the hands of the few and electoral politics is a playground for the rich.

Big business and big landlords have an enduring and close relationship with the state. Vested interest groups, such as trade or industry associations, wield powerful political influence . They have the resources to raise their concerns in the policy process, and usually they fund the political campaigns of politicians. The power and influence of business in participatory decision-making is firmly implanted because officials are themselves part of or are involved with big business. This is evidenced in Statement of Assets and Liabilities  (SALNs).

The poverty that we see daily in our communities and country is not a natural state, but one constructed and maintained by unequal relations and structures of power. Government-initiated participatory governance mechanisms, while intended to broaden the participation of diverse social actors, are often dominated by powerful interest groups who are either related to government officials or have close family or business connections with them. Advocacy for people’s empowerment is faced with an elite-driven government that thrives on political patronage, elite domination, weak political party system, corruption, inefficiency and low budgetary priorities for the poor in terms of basic social services. When public officials do involve citizens, it is when the issues have already been framed and decisions are already finalized and ready for implementation.

Active citizens must be equipped with democratic sentiments, values and capacities. We must keep government on its toes and its institutions and the system work for us. Citizens give government its resources and money to spend. We give it legitimacy. It speaks on our behalf. It represents us. At the very least, government should be transparent and open to the people, its real masters, and, as President Aquino has himself said, we are his ‘bosses’.

Citizens should be involved in strategic decision-making, in agenda and framework setting, not just in implementation. Thus, it is imperative to assess the level of citizen participation. Such an assessment can provide useful insight for understanding participatory governance.

More effort must also be concentrated on grassroots education and consciousness raising.  It is public awareness that puts the greatest pressure on the different levels and branches of government to fulfill the government’s commitment to the delivery of better, basic social services. There is overwhelming evidence that participation of people in governance reduces alienation and raises not only the level of consciousness but also productivity. When a community pushes for its own issues and demands, it subjects itself to possibilities for transformation, a democracy of everyday life.

A major obstacle to genuine participatory governance and the emergence of non-elite political parties is the attitude of the oligarchy in this country who immediately suspect that those who are active in advocacy work, as subversives, terrorists, and trouble-makers. Elites are generally afraid of reforms, especially reform means meaningful social change.

Over time this has resulted in have been many extra-judicial killings extra judicial killings and involuntary disappearances. Most of the victims are farmers in our rural communities, farmers who are realizing their rights and organizing for welfare and social advancement. These are alarming developments but common in the struggle and assertion of non-elites or counter-elites in Philippine politics and elections.

Public awakening drives great change and reforms. But committed people, who only seek to reform and improve the lives of our people, are themselves the targets and victims of violent repression. Is this an indication that the elite-dominated government is afraid of the people who organize for socioeconomic reforms to build a truly democratic society? Maybe more tolerance of an empowered people will help resolve the structural roots of poverty, insurgency and rebellion, and the widening gap widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Governance is the key to building grassroots political power, and eventually a genuine, platform-based political party firmly rooted among the masses. To do that we need to understand and master the present public policy process and in so doing, help enshrine and enhance empowerment and participation in policy making and reform. It is imperative to project an alternative national development program and develop from the grassroots, leaders who can excite and capture the imagination of our people.

Roland G. Simbulan is a professor at the University of the Philippines and a Vice Chair at the Center for Peoples Empowerment in Governance. This article is drawn from: The keynote of the National Conference on ‘BAYAN AT HALALAN: The Role of Various Social Institutions in Reframing the Filipino Nation’, Bonifacio Hall, Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), Manila. March 14, 2016. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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