Sunday, February 17, 2008

The People Want More Than Just Regime Change

So it begins. The usual "People Power" people are now trying to orchestrate another People Power on the advent of Jun Lozada's revelations. So far, a rally in Makati and a mass in La Salle-Greenhills were held which anti-GMA forces hope would gain momentum and morph into another People Power. Police estimated the crowd in Makati to be 10,000 while another 4,000 attended the mass in Greenhills which I am sure is quite disappointing to those who were hoping for another People Power.

I think that people nowadays demand more than just regime change. Marcos was replaced with Cory and Erap with Gloria but corruption still persists and has in fact worsened. Majority of Filipinos see no point in replacing GMA with Noli de Castro because past experience has shown that the so-called "reformers" become the ogres they once swore to slay. We have had two regime changes via People Power and look at our situation now: corruption has risen to record heights and political power once again is concentrated in the hands of a few families. The rich are not only getting richer but are buying Ferraris and Porshes. The poor are not only getting poorer but are getting destitute, eating garbage and selling their kidneys just to survive. The middle class are leaving for abroad, those who choose to stay are cynical and suspicious of politicians in general. All classes are sick and tired of politicians - one indication of this is that during the rally in Makati, organizers did not allow politicians to go up the stage fearing that they would turn-off the crowd and drive away potential sympathizers - and elections are getting more and more expensive.

Unless the "organizers" offer our people something more, I am afraid that their efforts to bring about another People Power will fail. Merely ousting GMA from Malacañang is no longer enough to convince people to go out into the streets. After GMA, what then? What they need to do is promise to institute radical reforms and wipe out politicians in government. On my part, I will probably join another People Power only if it promises to do the following:

1. Amend the Constitution to limit all elective offices to only one term, with no reelection. This will not only limit the preeminence of political dynasties but will radically change the flavor of Philippine politics (read more on this below).

2. Institute a comprehensive population management plan. Population growth should coincide with economic growth because at present, our country is producing more people than it can support. Filipinos are not experiencing the 7% growth simply because there are too many people.

3. Prioritize SME development. We must train our people to become successful entrepreneurs. A considerable chunk of the budget should be devoted to financing small-time businessmen.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

One For All, All For One

The Professional Politician. It used to be that people took offense at being labeled a "professional politician" (read this speech by President Manuel Quezon defending himself against Simeon Ventura's insulting characterization of him here). A "professional politician," as Quezon defined it, was someone "without a profession or business calling and who derives his living solely upon politics." It was said that Quezon and Ventura became lifelong enemies and that the two only kissed and made up when Ventura was already on his death bed. I find this quite fascinating (I mean I could understand why President Quezon was ticked off but I also think it too much for him to have harbored a lifelong enmity against Ventura for the slur) because calling someone a "professional politician" is not exactly the gravest insult you can throw a person today. A different time.

A professional politician, if successful, will naturally breed a dynasty. Today, political dynasties are not the exception. They are the norm. It is not rare nowadays to see one province ruled by one or just a few families for decades. In Iloilo for example, five families have consistently dominated politics for the past two decades, namely; the Garins in the First District, the Syjucos in the Second District, the Defensors in the Third District, the Tupases in the Fifth District and the Gonzalezes in the Lone District of Iloilo City. (The Fourth District used to be Narcing Monfort’s bailiwick but when he died and with no children interested in politics, he was succeeded by Dr. Ferj Biron who some say is on his way to building his own dynasty in the Fourth District). The Tupas family, for instance, counts among them a governor, a vice governor, a congressman and a mayor with a number of other “non-incumbent” family members employed as confidential “executive assistants” in their offices. The Garins have a congresswoman, a mayor and a board member and their patriarch is currently heading a minor government agency in Manila. It’s almost as if politics in Iloilo has become an "elective monarchy." During elections, “dynastyism” (to borrow a term from Senator Tatad) is a non-issue and individuals who attempt to vie against political clans almost always get defeated. Families, not parties or ideologies, drive politics so much so that pundits have characterized the recent Speakership fight (which has resulted in the ouster of De Venecia) as basically a “family feud” between the Arroyos and the de Venecias.

Now I do not wish to engage in a debate on the pros and cons of political dynasties here (personally, I believe there are "good" as well as "bad" dynasties). But the fact is, the framers of the 1987 Constitution have decided that political power concentrated in the hands of a few is bad for the country and they have included a provision prohibiting political dynasties in our present Constitution. The said "anti-dynasty" provision is not being implemented because of the lack of an enabling law. Efforts to enact an enabling law have time and again hit some snags, primarily because lawmakers cannot seem to agree on the definition of "political dynasty" and with some arguing that it would unfairly deprive some persons their right to participate in the political process, etc. etc. And even if by some miracle Congress manages to enact such a law, I think our politicians will just find another loophole to subvert the law just like what they did with the three-term limit rule.

But there are several ways to skin a cat. I believe that one can achieve the same goal by applying a different, more “imaginative” approach. So instead of racking our brains trying to find a definition for the term “political dynasty” or banning certain families from running for public office, why not just limit all elective offices, from the barangay to the national level, to just one five-year term (without reelection)? This way, you not only eliminate or at least limit or make it harder for political dynasties but at the same time strengthen our career civil service system and curb corruption. It's like killing three birds with one stone. And all of these we can achieve on the cheap - we only need to amend a few lines in the Constitution. Allow me to amplify briefly my points.

No Return, No Exchange. The three-term limit rule was meant to check the rise of dynasties. Instead, politicians only substituted their spouses or children once their last term was up and return to their post after a three-year interlude while others switch or “exchange” positions with another family member during the nine-year cycle, thereby subverting the spirit of the law. Under the “one-term-for-all,” “no-return, no exchange” rule, one cannot occupy the same position twice. Once your five years are up, you either run for a different office or go back to your original profession or business practice. Of course, someone can still become a lifetime politician under this one-term system by vying (and winning) for all the elective posts available. But it will surely take an exceptional individual to be able to accomplish that and I have nothing against giving him that. Besides, this is the most stringent way possible where we can prevent political dynasties from achieving hegemony without infringing on their universally-guaranteed human right to political participation.

If we limit to just one five-year term all elective positions, I believe the flavor of politics in this country will drastically change. For one, the level of electoral spending and intensity of violence will go down. It would no longer be economically feasible for individuals to spend tens of millions on elections. Why spend P80 million for a Congressional seat when you will only be occupying it for just 5 years? This will mean one has to steal P16 million a year just to make even (which I think is very hard even for a Congressman). Why maim or kill a political opponent when you know that someone from his family in a decade or so would very likely replace you and will be in a perfect position to exact revenge on you? If we limit all posts to just one term, not only will politicians be nicer to one another but there will likewise be a sense of urgency on the part of politicians to implement their pet programs. Senators and congressmen will try to enact their pet bills before their time is up, mayors and governors will rush the construction of infrastructure projects in his area and not think of completing it for their second or third terms. Never again will politicians be able to coax people to support them in exchange for their continued “15-30” employment in some public agency.

Persons who have been in power for so long tend to treat their offices as their personal fiefdoms. This peculiar sense of “ownership” or unwillingness to give up power is what actually pushes politicians to cheat and steal and commit crimes. Being in power for so long skews most peoples’ perception of themselves and one soon develops a taste for bodyguards, aides, wang-wang, public adulation, the best food, etc. And if found stealing, politicians are usually very hard to convict because they have through the years cultivated a number of contacts (i.e. fiscals, judges, police, etc.). It is even hard to convict them in the court of public opinion because some politicians are quite media-savvy.

Individuals vs. Institutions. It is easy to see that in this country, individuals have become more powerful than institutions. Politics revolves around the “cult of personality” and not party platforms or ideologies. The civil service, which our Constitution envisions should be insulated from politics, is heavily politicized. As outgoing CSC Chair Karina David pointed out, more than half of Assistant Secretaries and Undersecretaries today owe their appointments not because of their qualifications but due to some political padrino or kamag-anak. That government positions are being treated as "spoils of war" by Malacañang victors is the logical offshoot of the "winner-take-all" political system in the country today.

If someone will ask me to describe our career civil servants in a word, I would use the word timid (note: timid, not tamad). I say timid because I observe that in general, career executives seldom take the initiative and merely wait for signals from whoever is the Secretary or President at that time. This lack of “boldness” on their part can be partly explained to the fact that civil servants are in “awe” of politicians. One false move (meaning: if you step on some politician’s toes) and you are gone. A congressman for instance can ask for the head of a bureau chief or influence the appointment of a police chief in their area in exchange for their political support in the next elections. We can never have a strong, competent and professional civil service system as long as professional politicians reign supreme. Knowing for certain that a politician will only be in office for five years (with no prospect of ever coming back) will perhaps embolden our career public servants and make them pro-active. Professionalizing the bureaucracy would take several generations to achieve, as the current civil service has been abused for so long by professional politicians. Increasing salaries is a significant first step in attracting quality people in government but we cannot hope to retain good people in government if the civil service is not completely insulated from partisan politics.

Seasoned politicians have become powerful because, by virtue of being in the corridors of power for so long, they have become experts in manipulating the system. They usually get what they want because their “support” is needed by Malacañang or some other politician ambitioning to be in Malacañang. Former COMELEC Chairman Ben Abalos would not have been able to orchestrate the ZTE-NBN deal without his wide network of connections and intimate knowledge of government which I am sure he accumulated through his years in public office starting as judge, mayor and then COMELEC chairman. Under the “one-term-for-all” scheme, a professional politician’s support will no longer be as potent because he is constantly in stasis moving from one office to another thereby negating the possibility of him using the resources of that office in succeeding elections. The political dynamics would simply be too dynamic for one person to dominate it all.

Some will argue that by limiting positions to just one five-year term, we will deprive our people of experienced public servants. But having been in government service and seen politicians up close, I can confidently say this - the vast majority of elected officials don’t “grow” in their offices. Their nine year stints can best be described as simply a three-year experience repeated three times. Instead of spending their terms accumulating policy-making wisdom, most preoccupy themselves with preparing for the next elections. Also, this might be an unfair generalization but I notice that most politicians during their first-terms are friendly, approachable and eager to learn but by their second and third terms they begin acquiring a taste for flashy cars, bodyguards, close-in aides (to carry their clutch bags), etc.

Sick and Tired of Politicians. In conclusion, I can see that most Filipinos are sick and tired of their politicians. Most people I talk to nowadays are cynical and seem to adopt the so-called “same-same” (pare-pareho lang sila) attitude towards all politicians whether pro or anti-GMA, pro or anti-Erap, pro or anti-whatever. I have observed this “politician fatigue” firsthand during fiestas and other large gatherings. Before, a politician’s presence in a town fiesta celebration or a wake or a wedding was genuinely welcomed since it added some prestige or substance to the said event. Nowadays, people just “tolerate” their presence and could barely tolerate their attention-getting “antics.” And I am sure many, at one time or the other, have wished that this country be rid of its politicians forever.

I think many Filipinos have finally come to realize that their future does not depend on some politician but on them. It took us a little while to realize this as a people but just the same, I consider this a good omen for our nation. Limiting all elective positions to just one term is the closest thing that we can do to exterminating professional politicians within the bounds of law. To me, a person becomes a politician when he becomes too comfortable with power. By limiting to only five years all stints, we will nip in the bud all those budding politicians. Then and only then can the Filipino have true "servant-leaders."