Coalition of Convenience

The coming together of political parties is often received with cynicism and apprehension by most Filipinos. This is viewed as nothing but actions of convenience by politicians to win elections, devoid of ideals and principles. Worse, it is assumed that the forming of coalitions involves the use of public resources as concessions to advance private partisan gains. Such is an unfortunate take of majority on coalitional politics.

On a normative level, however, coalitional politics is not at all bad. It allows the consolidation of political parties that supposedly provides stability and balance in the political process, especially in a multi-party system where often you will need a coalition to form a majority in parliament. It also facilitates the consensus-building among political parties on priority programs and agenda in government with an assumption that such coalitional politics entails reconciling of reconcilable ideological premises, ideas and principles.

This election, two coalitions were formed to offer their respective slate in the Senate. The administration ticket, which is called Team PNoy backed up by President Noynoy Aquino himself; and the opposition ticket named United Nationalist Alliance or UNA supported by the Vice President. Five parties formed Team PNoy namely: Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), Liberal Party (LP), Nacionalista Party NP) and the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC). On the other hand, UNA is formed by Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) and Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP).

One unique aspect of the coalitions formed this election that shocked many are their “common candidates.” Three candidates were presented in the beginning of the campaigns as running under both coalitions. These were Chiz Escudero, Loren Legarda and Grace Poe. The two coalitions had rough attempts to justify this but the real reason was clear: the three were accommodated because they were perceived as winnable and therefore could bring plus points in the perceived overall winnability of the two coalitions’ senatorial line-up. Last month, UNA announced that they are dropping these three candidates for not showing up in any of their sorties and campaign rallies.

Having “common candidates” and dropping of candidates simply because the coalition cannot make them attend rallies and sorties is unthinkable, unheard of and absurd—a clear manifestation of what is wrong about coalitional politics in the country.

Personalities are more powerful than institutions. Public opinion seems right. Coalitions are not at all about consolidation of forces to provide stability nor reconciling of priorities. It is simply about personalities, popularity and winnability.

The weakness of parties vis-à-vis personalities and families has a lot of ill-effects on democracy. One of the more serious problems it causes has something to do with making accountability in the exercise of power precarious and extremely difficult. Personalities and families operate in private spaces that are away from the public eye, hence are protected from public scrutiny or any accountability checks. Abuse of power and sheer bad, ill-informed decisions of politicians involving matters of national importance are at the heart of bad governance in the country, which makes accountability one of the biggest pre-requisites of governance and political reform.

Political parties are supposedly mechanisms of accountability. They are supposed to discipline politicians and act as intermediaries between voters and candidates, allowing the former a well-thought out set of options in the elections that have programmatic basis, which is expected to guide governance after elections.

There is an apparent attempt of the administration ticket to address this by telling the media that its line-up was formed to support the reform agenda of the President. As the president himself said: “We need to elect the entire Team PNoy in the Senate to enable the President to keep on working hard on programs that sincerely empower the people and provide them with opportunities to rise above poverty.”

But not even the efforts of the administration coalition to communicate a semblance of a common platform that their candidates purportedly support could arrest the prevalence of personality-oriented politics this elections. While it is true that a few of its candidates have a clear track record that indicates their support for the President’s reform agenda, majority of those in the line-up have questionable disposition on the reform agenda, particularly those agenda that entail the strengthening of institutions to discipline the powerful and empower and support the weak.

The truth is personality-oriented politics is still prevailing because the parties forming these coalitions, by and large, are weak and ineffective, unable to assert their purpose in the first place: program-based politics and collectivized actions.

What senatoriable Chiz Escudero mouthed as a reaction to UNA’s dropping of his candidacy shows how seriously defective is the country’s coalitional politics and how twisted is the understanding of politicians of why they join coalitions and parties. He said: “While I consider UNA’s decision removing me from their senatorial slate a big loss, I maintain that the elections in May are more about issues and platforms rather than parties and coalitions.”

If parties and coalitions are not about issues and platforms, so what is it about? And this is why we are stuck. Electoral exercises do not facilitate better governance because elections do not serve as a venue for programmatic options advanced and sustained by accountable institutions such as political parties to be decided upon by the electorate. Parties and coalitions are just that: for temporary electoral convenience.