What does party-switching mean?

In the Philippines, party-switching means nothing. It is as normal for politicians as changing clothes. It is more regular than legislators attending congressional hearings.

Yoko Kasuya in the book "Presidential Bandwagon" attributes party-switching to the need for politicians to align themselves with the president, who ultimately controls the budget. The ability of legislators to bring projects and services to their constituencies determine their chances of winning the elections because, by and large, patronage determines voters' vote. 

But what does it really mean if a politician switches party for us, ordinary citizens? How does party-switching affect us? 

"All parties are the same anyway"

The common justification for politicians shifting party is that all parties are the same anyway. Parties are simply electoral vehicles. The institutional-legal framework only provides administrative functions for parties - nothing more, nothing less. 

This is in contrast with what is ideal. Parties are meant to be vehicles of programmatic and strategic options for the citizens. They are, therefore, mechanisms for continuity and accountability of governance. It provides system and regularity in how politicians contest power. 

When politicians shift parties like it is normal, they perpetuate the situation of parties not serving any democratic and developmental ends. What makes this worse is how it turns parties a threat to democracy, instead of a critical element of it. Citizens are left with nothing to hold politicians to account - no party, no program, no word, no commitment. A politician is simply a person who is accountable to his whim. 

Powerful president, weak citizens

The Philippine presidency is vested with so much powers by our Constitution. What further harnesses this power is how politicians behave to further concentrate the power in the hands of the president. 

Party-switching to the party of the incumbent president makes the president more powerful - in control of politicians in Congress that is supposed to check and balance the presidency. 

An overly powerful presidency does not only undermine checks and balances, it makes it more difficult for citizens to make their voices heard. Instead of the politicians relying on citizens for power and support, forcing the politicians to listen to their constituencies, politicians rely on one power source alone: the president's support. Instead of the citizens setting the agenda, it is ultimately the president that sets the direction. No legislator, party, civil society group and citizen can do anything about it. 

Pork system is back

The "presidential bandwagon" phenomenon is an effect of the pork system. It is the president that ultimately holds the power of the purse in pork system and hence to gain as much pork allocation, legislators switch to the party of the president.

The pork barrel system has been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. Legislators are prohibited from being involved in budget execution and they cannot be given lump allocation that they can claim as their own. The essence of this ruling is to keep the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative crucial in checks and balances intact. This is also deemed useful in curbing patronage politics by removing its tool, the pork. 

The way politicians are behaving today signals one thing: pork is back. Or perhaps, it never totally ended, until it morphed into something else that is formidable than ever in stimulating the presidential bandwagon effect and hence patronage-based politics. How much of the new pork goes to corruption like before is a big question that must concern every citizen.

Ultimately, it is an insult 

When a politician who shifts party says "it is to serve my constituencies," it is an insult to citizens. This is treating citizens as simply recipients and spectators, as needy and helpless subjects who rely on the politician's ambitions and political career to be served. It is classic clientelism that is disempowering and old. 

Politicians who shift parties think of their own self interest. Period. They are lazy - lazy to reach out to and organize their constituencies the right way. They are cowards - unwilling to take the risk of investing in institution-building, instead of resorting to quick fixes that rely on personalities. They are self-centered who think they can do whatever they want because their decisions are ultimately about them.  

What does this mean for citizens? What does it mean if our politicians are lazy cowards who think of their self interest first and foremost? 

It only means we have a lot of work to do if we are at all aiming to change the state of affairs in our country. It starts with not accepting party-switching as normal and by demanding more from our democracy. 


*Joy Aceron is the Convenor-Director of G-Watch, formerly a social accountability program of a university that is now transitioning into an independent national action research organization. She is also concurrently a Research Fellow of Accountability Research Center (ARC) based in School of International Service of American University, Washington DC. For more of her writings on party reform and accountability, visit Resources on www.g-watch.org