Traversing the Historical Continuum of Reform, Institutionalizing the Politics of the Reform Process

Closing Speech Delivered in the Metrobank Professorial Lecture of Sec. Butch Abad on 7 March 2013

Our country has long been considered a “changeless land.” It is a land where status quo is the rule of thumb and the same faces and family names have been able to withstand even so-called revolutions. For the longest time, structural and systemic change has evaded the Philippines.

Thus, it is no wonder that a colorful strand in our history involves struggles of movements, groups and individuals towards change. Alongside the mainstream stories of victors in history who have largely shaped and are responsible for the “truncated procedural democracy” we a grappling with at present, are the multitudes and varieties of efforts in the margins, of alternative forces, making a difference in the landscape of Philippine politics, particularly working on the shifting of power from the few who are the purveyor of the status quo to the many who are powerless, prone to abuse and vulnerable to capture.

The Metrobank Professorial Lecture of Secretary Butch Abad this afternoon puts forward a proposition for change that perhaps is not new. I see it as still based on the same lofty ideals and grand frameworks that ignited passion for structural and systemic change in the past. However, this time, the formula is pulled down to the level that is practical and realistic and more importantly, tangible to the many Mang Pandoys and Aling Bebangs, who need not be in the "Waiting for Godot" mode before they get to address their basic needs, but instead are provided their basic needs so that they can take part, as independent and responsible citizens, in the movements for change that will chart their destiny.

Such is the empowerment agenda of the formula for structural and systemic change presented by Sec. Abad. It takes off from an idea that is as practical and technical as using the budget, which is central to government, as a tool to effect change, particularly to neutralize or countervail against patronage politics that is at the heart of inefficiency and corruption in the government, a monstrous hindrance to development and democracy in the country. Such reform process is supported and sustained through a constituency for reform that will protect and advance the incremental changes of the reform process until its gains result in the reconfiguration of power structure towards that which is more democratic and just.

It is a promising formula that traverses the reform-revolution continuum, linking governance reforms to social transformation, situating the critical role of politics in ensuring that good governance leads to improved development outcomes.

This centrality of politics, particularly partisan electoral engagement, is the subject of the book we launched today. The book Infusing Reform in Elections supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, we believe, serves as a good context for the lecture of Sec. Abad chronicling the partisan electoral engagement of reform movements in the country in the 1992, 1998, 2004 and 2010 elections where Sec. Abad played a key leadership role. Arguably, the gains we are seeing now can be traced to that daring gamble taken by actors from the social movements after Martial Law, testing the new democratic dispensation at first and learning, relearning and unlearning after several attempts until some of them (who withstood the test of time) see victory in the 2010 elections. The reform constituency that is being nurtured and consolidated today to sustain the gains of reforms being won by the Aquino administration will be the continuation of the story of the reform movements chronicled in the book. Hopefully the book is able to generate key lessons that will ensure that this continuing struggle for reform towards social transformation will be successful this time in deepening democracy, particularly in terms of improving the economic and political equality in the country. 

Let me close with one key lesson from the book which is something that the constituencies for reform, particularly the leaders of this reform constituency, will have to grapple with in the coming days. Institutions matter and institutionalizing this reform process including the political dimension of it must be attended to so that it becomes a norm and its momentum cannot easily be subverted. Patronage politics supported and fed by political elites is an all-enduring institution in the country. For it to be subverted and replaced by modern and empowering institutions, the reform process and its constituency must also take the form of institutions--repeated pattern of behavior with predictable results that is accountable and efficient. Working towards party building and party system development that is democratizing must be taken up as a critcal challenge to the reform constituencies and champions.

On behalf of Ateneo School of Government, I would like to thank again the Ateneo Political Science Department, the Office of the Vice President for Social Development and Metrobank Foundation for making this year's Metrobank Professorial Lecture possible. More importantly, we thank Sec. Butch Abad. I said on my invitation to this lecture on FB that I am hopeful not to be disappointed in this lecture. In the middle of Sec. Butch's lecture, my FB post says: "Not only that I am not disappointed, firstly, I never expected that a very technical (therefore expectedly boring) topic such as the budget can be this politically exciting; and secondly, I felt like listening to a SONA, a dream SONA, which is perhaps worth considering and even pursuing in the 2016 presidential elections. Sec. Abad, after all, is a politician first and foremost before a bureaucrat or a technocrat. The best part about Butch Abad is that he is a politician from the social movement who has long discoursed and worked on reforms and social transformation. Butch Abad for Pres in 2016, anyone?" 

Thank you all!