Electoral Reform as a Litmus-Test

An administration’s reform-mindedness or reform-orientation will be determined by its demonstrated commitment to reforming the ways by which power in government is constituted, with the elections being the most basic formal mechanism to give and enable such power.

What does political reform mean?

In the broadest sense, political reform in the Philippine context means a shift (incremental or radical) from the old ways of patronage-based, personality-oriented politics and corrupt, unaccountable governance.

In this light, the theory and concept of political reform in the Philippines could be broadly informed by modernization discourse, which simply put, is the development of rational, effective and efficient government institutions. Political reform has also been shaped by the pursuit and practice of good governance,which values transparency, accountability, participation, the rule of law and responsiveness.

Therefore, to pursue political reform means to establish rational public institutions and processes that are governed by good governance principles.

The context of this basic and rough definition of political reform substantiates the discourse and agenda of reform in the country. The Philippines has been described as having weak institutions captured by particularistic interests.These particularistic interests have remained in power through the use and perpetuation of patron-client relationships, which is fueled by corruption. This dependency and highly disempowering arrangement is perpetuated through elections.

What is the context of reform work in the Philippines?

The Philippines has been hailed as one of the countries that have the most vibrant and active civil society. Civil society is considered to be critical in a democracy. Associational civil society is considered to be critical in the formation of social capital, which facilitates cooperation and joint civic, non-partisan, collective actions. Counterweight civil society is critical in checking the use of public power, “guarding against a tyrannical orpredatory state.” In the last decade, there has been an increasing number of civil society groups that promote social accountability (SAc), which gained international recognition assources of best practices of SAc. SAc groups monitor government programs and projects, and the utilization of public funds to ensure that these are implemented and used properly.

It can be said that the state of democracy in the Philippines could have been worse without this vibrant and active civil society. Still, despite the strong presence of civil society, political clans and dynasties still persist, many tracing their origins back to colonial times. New names and faces may have emerged, but they generally fit a distinct profile: coming from the upperclass, predominantly male, from Luzon and Visayas, Christian, and without a clear and solid platform for governance and development. Thus, the “trapos” (traditional politicians) remain in power. There are a few from non-mainstream political parties and social movements who have entered government through the Party-List System, but they have yet to become a strong and game-changing force.

Because of this power structure, Philippine democracy remains weak, limiting, elitist, oligarchic and contested. Particular interests are upheld, patron-client relationships are perpetuated, and corruption remains prevalent.

For rational public institutions and processes to emerge, and for good governance to be mainstreamed and sustained, the use of power and the actors wielding it have to change.

The Role of Electoral Reform

There are several paths that can be taken towards political reform.  

Some would argue economic empowerment is the way to go. This is where social protection and welfare programs become critical in liberating the poor from the bondage of the patron-client relationship. Gaining higher real income and increasing economic independence affect political attitudes and behaviors,which, in turn, affect collective decisions that determine and define power.

Others would contend that citizen engagement in governance can change the way public institutions are defined, operationalized, and used, and makes governance open, accessible, transparent and participatory. This redefines the expectations and demands from the holders of power, which serves as pressure through constant engagement in varied forms. 

The last is the classic participation in the formal contestation of power, fielding alternatives in the electoral arena. Several non-mainstream parties have attempted this through the Party-List System and are now branching out to field new candidates in local and national positions. We have also seen a number of independent individual candidates running in elections.

The limitation of the first (economic empowerment) is the length of time it requires for it to happen. Sustainability is key, and this remains to be a major challenge. And in a situation where institutions remain largely captured by a few interest groups, and patron-client arrangements remain prevalent, how can economic empowerment programs of government be truly effective and sustainable?

The second option (citizen engagement) can work only with the assumption that power-holders will respond positively to public pressure. The possible counter-response by power-holders is not to squarely deal with the issues and problems raised, not consider the recommendations or alternatives offered, or worse, not do anything at all.

The limits of the two could be best addressed if they are complemented by the third option (formal contestation of power). However, mechanisms that will allow complementation of the three approaches are still problematic. These mechanisms are still largely undefined; and if there is any semblance of these mechanisms, they are underdeveloped and underutilized.

More importantly, the third option is perhaps the most challenging largely because of the state of our electoral and party system. By and large, it is not designed and is not functioning in a way that is facilitative and supportive of the intake of new politicians and political actors. It is still governed primarily by money politics and patron-client ties; still personality-oriented with popularity playing a major factor in winning seats; and the electoral system is too huge (i.e., in terms of frequency of the conduct of elections and the number of seats to be filled in an election) that it tends to disempower ordinary voters.

While significant progress has been made in modernizing processes and procedures of the electoral exercise, and on how they are being managed by the Commission on Elections, significant reforms have yet to be seen to enable that shift in power-holders. Ironic as it may sound, the system has yet to be democratized in order to regulate political monopoly and promote competitiveness in the political arena.

Such reforms in the electoral and party system are critical not only in having the potential of changing the composition of power, but also in sustaining the other ways power structure could be changed. In other words, electoral and party reforms are most important because it is central in ensuring the success of economic empowerment and citizen engagement in achieving political reform.

This issue of Pop2013 presents the achievement of the current administration on the field of electoral reform and presents the PODER electoral reform agenda on promoting political competition and regulating political monopoly.