A Sunday Reflection on Political Reform Work

Without a constituency rooted below in society and social movements, institutional reform will not stand a chance in Philippine politics.

After several years of working on reforms in electoral and party system and Constitution, this is one of the most important realizations I have come to accept. Change in institutions (i.e., on how actors and units in politics and governance relate to each other are structured and constrained) affects power relations, particularly the distribution of power. Those who hold power know this well and they will certainly defend the design that keep them on top. No amount of dialogues among “leaders” will get us these victories! Only when there are pressures from below that will push for and claim these institutional reforms that these victories can be achieved.

Hence, if we want reforms in elections, we should build a constituency that will push for and claim those reforms. And this can only be done if electoral and party reform imperatives are mainstreamed and linked in other advocacies in governance and development work. Working on these reforms in isolation with just mere intellectual work, such as research that provides evidence for the importance of such reforms, and convening of leaders will not work, unless there is a social base that will say “these reforms are important to us”. Sad to say, we do not have that constituency yet or at least we have not consolidated them yet. We have an active civil society and vibrant social movements, but their advocacies remain detached from elections and party politics.

That social base and constituency can only be achieved if we work in grassroots, in movements, at the local level, with real people—educating them and showing them the link of their everyday politics issues and circles of reform work with that of the big institutional reforms; of the link between how power is used in government and who holds power as determined by elections and party politics; of how patronage, the main source and cause of corruption in the country, cannot be totally addressed without fixing the institutional and structural designs that perpetuate and facilitate it. Birthing leaders from the grassroots, from social movements, from ordinary citizens, who will contest power to push for and win these reforms will be the natural next step once these constituencies realize their potential and slowly but surely achieve policy reform victories.

So I say if we want reforms in politics, we go to the people, in their daily lives, in society, at the grassroots. Problems in politics, in power relations and how power is distributed, have become systemic and cultural, fixing the institutions and working on isolated terrains (such as elections and parties) will not do the trick. In all the reform and development work we do, there is political and hence, in all the reform and development work we do, there can be reform in politics.