What has happened to Philippine political parties?
The political party is defined as an organization of individuals bound by common vision, values, program and public policies, and its goal is to win political power through free and fair elections. A political party has a clear position on each major issue that society faces. And even though one party can have similar positions with others on some issues, still each party remains distinct from the rest, in terms of its ideology, its value and culture, and its whole program.
To be sure, some political parties like the Communist Party of the Philippines or CPP prefer the extra-legal route to achieve political power. The CPP is outside the legal system, and yet in the Philippines, it is arguably the most consistent in upholding an ideology and a program. Further, it is the most organized and the most disciplined political party. Despite having the positive attributes of a political party, the CPP is weak in electoral politics and cannot win national elections.
But what about the mainstream political parties? They are far from being the ideological and programmatic parties. These parties have names that describe them to be “nationalist,” “democratic,” and “liberal.” However, these are nominal descriptions; they exist only in name. In actuality, the majority of the members of such political parties are far from being nationalist, democratic, or liberal. The majority of them are not loyal to any party, and they can easily switch from one party to another, seizing any opportunity to join the party in power.
The Nacionalista Party (NP) and the Liberal Party (LP) claim to be the oldest political parties in the Philippines. But this is inaccurate since the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), whose progeny is the more militant CPP, was established in 1930, much earlier than the LP’s creation. The NP was founded at the turn of the 20th century, with the aim of gaining independence from US colonialism through peaceful transition. The LP was a faction that broke away from the NP in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Nothing actually distinguished the LP from the NP when they split, except for the LP excuse to separate — that it constituted the “liberal wing” of the NP. The truth was that the LP became the vehicle for Manuel Roxas to run for the Presidency and challenge the candidacy of Sergio Osmeña, the NP stalwart.
Party switching of a candidate seeking the Presidency happened again in 1965 when Ferdinand Marcos transferred from the LP to the NP in order to run against the incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal. Marcos’s victory in 1965 was his stepping stone to becoming a dictator.
Jose Maria Sison also known as Amado Guerrero, the founder of the CPP, thus described the NP and LP as not being different from each other; that one is Coca Cola and the other is Pepsi Cola.
The installation of the Marcos dictatorship led to the abolition of the two-party system. Marcos created his Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) and allowed inconsequential parties to operate. But these parties were either the “loyal opposition” or were KBL’s junior partners.
The downfall of the dictatorship was orchestrated mainly by movements. And in reaction to the dictatorship as well as to the failed two-party system of the post-war, pre-martial law era, the 1987 Freedom Constitution instituted a multi-party system. However, in this set-up, the victory particularly in the presidential elections was determined by a plurality, not by the majority.
The multi-party, plurality system has not transformed the political parties into ideological or programmatic parties. Rather, political parties have become vehicles for personalities to have a machinery. Thus, Fidel Ramos resuscitated a moribund Lakas; Joseph Estrada had different party affiliations before creating his Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino; Gloria Arroyo formed Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (KAMPI); and Rodrigo Duterte used Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban).
Duterte is a curious case. He, who does not hide his fascination with Marcos and his being authoritarian, is the current chair of PDP-Laban, which was formed to fight the dictatorship and which describes its ideology as “democratic socialist.”
Duterte calls himself socialist although it is doubtful that he is one. At the height of the election campaign, when asked about his economic program, Duterte’s curt reply was that he would copy the platform of the other candidates.
And for the mid-term elections in May 2019, Duterte is linked to two political parties, PDP-Laban and his daughter Sara Duterte Carpio’s Hugpong ng Pagbabago. Strange still is the decision of Hugpong to field 13 candidates, but voters will elect 12 senators. The oddest part is that Duterte has endorsed candidates not necessarily because of their party affiliation (that they are either PDP-Laban or Hugpong candidates) but because they are his personal choices.
But the main opposition party has not behaved as an authentic political party either. The Liberal Party, acknowledging its unpopularity, hides behind the shibboleth “Otso Diretso,” although not all the candidates are LP members. The unity of “Otso Diretso” as a party is its being anti-Duterte. But being anti-Duterte is not enough to build a solid political party. It is reported, for instance, that a senatorial candidate of “Otso Diretso” is against reproductive health although the LP is associated with reproductive health reforms.
The recent developments, with Duterte’s attitude and behavior towards political parties being the foolish of all, solidify the view articulated by social scientists like Paul Hutchcroft that Philippine political competition is defined by personalities, by patronage, and by feeble parties. Hutchcroft traces the problem as far back as the US colonial period when the US continued the patronage system imposed by Spanish colonialism and further abetted it through its own “institutional innovations.”
The question then is whether path dependence has determined the Philippine political system. That is, our history has structured and constrained the system, making reforms difficult to take root.
Further, the present conditions, not only nationally but also globally, indicate a predisposition of voters to strongmen and simplistic solutions as well as a tendency to reject programmatic parties.
In a word, we cannot expect the rules of the game to change soon.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.