OPINION: Personalistic politics and political parties

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Jan 13 2020 06:12 PM

In an interview, a panelist noted that the political alliance that brought President Duterte to power wasn’t bound by a common principle or set of beliefs. I took it to mean that what the panelist meant was that the party that took the President to power was not a real a political party. That is true and I couldn’t agree more, but it’s not the first time that this happened. Our political parties are after all called as such only because as a political aggrupation, it is the organization that nominates candidates for election. It is a needed political organization especially in an electoral system where a candidate’s “ability to campaign” is a requisite. To be nominated by an accredited party is a must. But that’s all that there is to it.

Political parties are crucial in analyzing politics and elections in any country. If there are no “real” political parties, the point of convergence of any analysis is the person that is the candidate and or the particular official in government. So much depends then on how the analyst is able to piece together so many individual details, information, especially with facts and figures and make sense of trends or simply understand a particular issue or political event. This means that politics is a lot more volatile; popularities can change, they can even vanish in a snap, often without one knowing why and how.

Having real political parties allows a more calibrated analysis. A real political party is an institution. It has fixed rules and processes and therefore follows a more nuanced practice in decision-making. I can almost hear a windbag arguing that our political parties have “fixed” rules since the law requires by-laws for accreditation. The political party’s leader and/or the one funding the party more often trumps these rules and therefore resorts to only out of expedience and/or exigency.

Fixed rules and processes allow the development of a pattern for political parties. It is easier to understand, even anticipate, how and why political leaders who belong to the same political party decide on important issues. Much still depends on political leaders’ decisions and/or preferences, even idiosyncrasies, but these are not enough to set aside the rules or decide without going through established processes. The analysis of politics becomes more focused on issues. Facts and figures are used to understand and decide on issues and not just to justify the decision of political leaders. In other words, real political parties tend to come up with more objective decisions.

Political parties reflect the country’s history especially in the founding of the state and the attendant building and further development of public institutions. Political parties in many countries start more as a movements calling for substantial reforms in the establishment or acting to defend and sustain the status quo. We could have had something similar as we also had political, even revolutionary movements before, especially with the Katipunan. Of course, we would never see these movements develop into principled or in today’s use or convenance, programmatic political parties. The development of the Philippine Islands into a state in itself, with its own set of public institutions, was abbreviated by the Americans taking over as colonial master.

When the Americans were supposedly preparing us for democracy, political parties emerged. The Nacionalista Party was formed guided by its platform to pursue independence. The opposing party was the Federalista party, which as its name presupposes, advocated for the Philippines to be a state of the United States of America. The Nacionalistas prevailed. The Federalistas could have reorganized themselves to be the equivalent of a conservative party in the country but it did not. 

The proverbial two-party system we apparently had, that some continue to be nostalgic of, is a misnomer. The closest we had to a 2-party system was when the Nacionalistas and the Federalistas were battling for public support. It is wrong to assume that we had a two-party system when the Nacionalista and the Liberal parties were the ones competing. The Liberal Party was organized by a faction from the Nacionalista Party, which then started the pattern of putting up or organizing political parties in the country. Since then, you will hardly be able to distinguish one political party from the other.

This pattern illustrates the personalistic character of our politics. Whenever a candidate loses the nomination of his original political party, he would always end up organizing his own. Almost all our political parties are organized by and around a particular person or political family. There may be some political parties that started as people’s movements or organizations, but when they find themselves in government or work with the administration party, they morphed to be the same as the traditional parties.

So in analyzing Philippine politics, especially in anticipating elections, it always starts with the question who the candidate is and proceeds with the assessment of his or her popularity, followed by possible weaknesses or skeletons in the closet that could be used against the candidate. The resources at the disposal of the candidate are also fundamental; it will show not only the capacity of the candidate to run and sustain a successful campaign, but equally important is, it will show how independent the candidate is. Only then can we start assessing and anticipating the candidate’s policy direction.

We tend to compare our politics with that of the Americans, as there are a lot of similarities. Again I can’t help but hear someone saying “we are copycats” of the Americans. Yes and no. Yes because, of course, we were once their colony and developed our politics under their tutelage. We learned the tricks that come with elections and getting to government but the structure, that is, the political institutions and processes are fundamentally different. And so, no, we are not and could not be copycats. Admittedly, we could gain a thing or two if we could be copycats but we simply cannot. The rules of the game are fundamentally different. There may be one or two things we can learn from US politics but we cannot apply the same tools in analyzing, much more conduct the same campaign strategy here.

It is true that personalities matter in analyzing American politics but the significance is different. Halperin and Heilemann wrote about what they called the “Game Change” in the 2012 US Presidential election and revealed how the individual idiosyncrasies of candidates matter. I didn’t know how recalcitrant and cocky and therefore impatient then President Obama could be. He was always the cool communicator that many saw when in a press conference answering questions substantially yet wittingly and engagingly without even trying. And so it was quite a revelation learning that he was not always as what many thought he was. The political party team with him was instrumental in keeping hubris in check and ensuring he’s always ready for the debate.

In the Philippines, politics revolve around the candidate himself. The political party is but a formality and a needed vehicle to run a campaign. It is not as fundamental as shaping the character of the candidate as how the Democratic machinery did with Obama. There are political consultants who take care of preparing the candidate but they are not there because of the political party and not guided and/or bound by its traditions and or principles and rules. Political consultants are political professionals asked to serve by the candidate or someone closely supporting the candidate.

Preparation starts rather early when preparing for the next elections in the Philippines, precisely because so much as everything depends on the candidate. So when asked who might be the contender come 2022, I have been saying so far that we can only come up with a list now and based on what I’ve mentioned above, 1) who the candidate is, the personal background of the candidate, 2) the popularity of the candidate and how and why he or she is popular, this should include the weaknesses of the candidate especially if he or she has skeletons hidden, and 3) resources at the candidate’s disposal to identify who could possibly run.

Given these, it should not be a surprise that we will have much of the same names on the list. The question is if any and all of those familiar from before can make a come back and be successful this time. If all the previous elections can be considered as a pattern, voters always tend to favor someone or something new.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.