That Critical Link and Delicate Balance that Make Change in the Philippines Possible

Our failure to get the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill ratified should once again remind us in the good governance advocacy of the interconnectedness of partisan political work and our anti-corruption work; of the work to change who holds power in our society and making those who hold power accountable; of partisan electoral engagement and governance. As long as power remains in the hands of those who want the status quo and resist reforms, our gains will be minimal with hardly any effect in power relations and the deepening of democracy.

I’ve written several pieces in recent years that point to this problem of disconnected advocacies of partisan political engagements which include party politics and the electoral engagement of trans-partisan and partisan volunteer groups, on the one hand; and the non-partisan work of those in the developmental and good governance work, on the other hand. My reflections on what happened to the FOI Bill led me to look back at these pieces and the thoughts they communicate.

The first time I pointed this out was when the NBN-ZTE controversy came out, which depressed the entire anti-corruption community. I pointed out in that piece the frustration of doing and believing in the everyday toils of incremental anti-corruption work that arguably has protected some amount of money from corruption only to find out one day that billions had just lost to unscrupulous deals that politicians enter while they play golf or over a cup of coffee abroad, spaces hardly accessible to citizen reform groups. 

In the same piece, I pointed out the need to step out of the frustration, while learning to balance the need to respond to sudden political ruptures that are bound to happen due to the limited democracy that we have and continuing the painstaking and incremental work of good governance. 

Though difficult, we must strive hard to stay the course of taking the little steps towards reform and development. Given our country’s precarious condition, we simply cannot afford to leave it behind. There is always the need to balance the political actions that are required from us while painstakingly continuing our little steps (the never-ending technical, administrative and partnership tasks) on governance work to build on reforms and development. This is a challenging predicament—a difficult balancing act that we are forced to do because the so-called leaders of this country are in business of betraying the public trust whenever they can.

If the reform-minded become oblivious of their work and give in totally to outrage, we might totally lose the small victories (such as the best practices, governance models, policy and bureaucratic reforms)that we, and the generation of reform workers before us, worked so hard for. We may fail to build on those little victories, which hopefully will at the very least contribute in preventing the same crisis we now face from happening again. At the same time, we should be ready to respond to and join the more radical and broader actions that could unfold because not doing so is a disservice to what we work for every single day. Governance and reform work on the one hand and the protest actions and “political” involvements one the other hand must be viewed as a continuum and not a divide that we tread as the need arises.

All of these multi-faceted approaches and actions that we take will hopefully come together in the future to bring about the fundamental and structural changes in the country’s politics and governance that we so desire. Hopefully, one day we’ll wake up and say, “The gradual changes we painstakingly labor on have given birth to this new world.” It requires a big amount of faith and just as much hard work. It’s something we personally and collectively deal with every single day because while we hope for the best in continuing our reform work, the fact remains that “a country of victims cannot afford to be patient.”


This idea of connecting and balancing the multi-faceted reform and radical democratic action came out again in conceiving the idea of the discussion series called Partisan Civil Society. The summary paper that presents the highlights of the discussion series laid down the “Partisan Civil Society” framework, which is an attempt to frame the link between civil society action and partisan political work through serious democratic party-building. 

The seeming “democratic rollback” in the country under the current administration poses serious threats to civil liberties and political rights that constrict the space for non-partisan and “harmonious” civil society work; hence more than ever, the fundamental significance of partisan political work by civil society actors requires serious consideration. Institutions of democracy are weakened, as repeatedly pointed by advocates and scholars; and the serious implication of this on citizens’ participation is that without the restoration of these institutions to their supposed form, citizens’ engagement with these institutions could be distracting to the real reform work and thus could be destructive to democratization. 

The imperative of partisan electoral work is further underscored given the seemingly insignificant democratic change in the country’s power structure. Significant political power remains in the hands of the same privileged few, despite the active and vibrant works of different groups and forces in civil society. This proves the limit of associational and counterweight civil society work that in general do not presuppose contesting state posts and gives much relevance and urgency on the need for societal forces to compete for formal seats of power. Why guard power if you’ll just end up guarding the same abusive power holders? It only becomes a self-perpetuating cycle if citizens’ participation in governance is not linked to citizens becoming the government. 

Given the limitation of resources, the narrow ranks of reformers and reform-oriented groups and with formidable forces whose interests lie on keeping the status quo, there is a need to prioritize and to concentrate efforts. Both the conjuncture and the capacity of reform and progressive movements make it imperative to identify a focus and locus of efforts….

The historical account of the experience (of citizen groups engaged in presidential campaigns) pinned down the limits of partisan electoral engagements of civil society groups such as the lack of effective machinery in converting mass base to votes and the absence of a permanent collective that could support those who “crossover” to government particularly in dealing with the balance of power within and outside the government. These learnings point to the need to consider serious political party building efforts. There has been enough explaining of why there has been little progress on this, but the most important challenge from this point on is how to finally make it work.


A related project dubbed as Citizen Reform Agenda 2010 (CREforms 2010) was an application of this idea of linking governance/ reform work with electoral/ political engagement. An additional idea that this project aims to put in practice--coined by Dean Tony La Viña as the approach to development of Ateneo School of Government--is the creation of a “mosaic” of the different elements and factors that enable reforms to happen. 

The CReforms 2010 framework paper pointed out several “pieces of the puzzle” that the project tried to put together to create a mosaic for reforms. These are (a) the opportunities provided by the upcoming elections; (b) the new leadership of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and the automation of the elections (which was only a prospect then); (c) efforts to reform political parties that continue to assert the significance of parties in democratization; and (d) the growing and consistently vibrant reform actors and groups from the civil society, which advocate for reforms in policies and governance through protest, collaboration and other forms of engagement with the government. 

CReforms 2010 served as the space for the civil society groups to engage the elections by coming up with a set of reform agenda for candidates and parties on their respective advocacy areas/ themes. The project deemed it necessary to facilitate the engagement of citizen reform groups because not only that there is a need to bring these diverse groups with scattered reform efforts together; but more importantly, there is a need to emphasize the importance of political electoral engagement given the limits of governance work. 

there have been openings for citizen reform groups to participate in governing, corruption is still pervasive. A lot of reform efforts are at the mercy of those holding power in government. The exercise of power by public officials especially that involving big-ticket corruption is hardly transparent and accountable. They happen not in official and public spaces but in golf courses, coffee shops and abroad (not official but neither illegal decision-making spaces), which the reform groups will never be able to access. The limits and difficulty of governance engagement for reform groups should force them to look at who holds the formal power that they intend to engage and make accountable and how did these power holders get their power in the first place—the key subject matter of politics and the terrain called elections.

I summarized my book review on Nathan Quimpo’s book Contested Democracy with the term “reform-revolution continuum,” which simply means engaging the limited democratic order now for incremental gains towards reforms that build on radical changes towards a revolution (gleaned upon Chantal Mouffe and Ernest Laclau’s concept of radical democracy). Given previous reflections, this could also mean linking and balancing the various multi-faceted action of reform and radical democratic forces and consolidating them into a force that can challenge the status quo—the same thought that Dean La Viña and I put forward in our piece for the publication of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Agenda for Hope: 

This attempt of establishing synergy and linkages among the various reform efforts is akin to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony (1997: 161), which asserts that a subordinate sector in society can only gain national preeminence if it is able to gain the support of other classes and social forces. This then leads to the formation of what he describes as the historic bloc—that is, the ensemble of class and sectoral alliances serving as the most organized expression of counter-hegemony (1997: 168). (La Vina and Aceron 2009:__)

The news that the FOI Bill failed was frustrating, but it should serve as a wake up call. Not only that we must make power accountable, we must reconstitute power; for as it is now, the power configuration in our society only allows limited reforms and hardly any radical changes. Important legislations that deepen democracy by giving more power to the people and making the exercise of power more accountable like the FOI Bill will hardly have a chance and our toil to make a difference will be more of the same without making any difference in the existing power structure. This is why it is most critical that while we continue our governance work now, we do not lose sight of the important task of developing our political party system, continuing the political engagement with the new administration and creating a reform-oriented context for the next elections through electoral reform and political education.