Monday, January 30, 2006

The Root of the Divide

Of the columnists of the country’s leading broadsheet, Amando Doronila is the one I usually pay attention to. Unlike many of his colleagues, one does not know what he will tell us before starting to read. Excessively opinionated commentators get boring with the time.

This time, however, Doronila was out of touch. In his “analysis” published today, he attributes the divide within the ranks of the Liberal Party of the Philippines (LP) to “the rivalry for the country’s presidency between Senate President Franklin Drilon and Sen.Mar Roxas II, grandson of the late president.”

If this were the case, the return to a united liberal organization would merely be a matter of time. No, unfortunately, it's not between those two senators. Unfortunately, the divide reaches much deeper and has to do with fundamental, almost philosophical differences.

I have given my take on the present divide in a commentary entitled “Filipino Liberals” published the other day in the BusinessWorld newspaper:

"As on various occasions in the past, today, once more, two opposing concepts of politics are evident among the leaders of organized Philippine liberalism: the politics of conscience versus the politics of convenience. On the one hand, Liberals are proud of their progressive values and concepts; upholding them is a conscientious imperative. At the same time, Liberals tend to be pragmatists; they know that in order to shape meaningful reforms they have to work within the system and within the parameters of the law.

The Philippine political context includes features and mechanisms not conducive to clean and transparent governance. Confronted with the dilemma of conscience and convenience, not all Liberals adopt the same standard. Some prefer to stay in power arguing that their presence allows them to influence developments in a positive direction. Others have chosen to quit arguing that staying on in what they perceive as an illegitimate structure would signify collusion.

In abstract terms, this is the situation of organized Liberals today – a split between two camps with diametrically differing views on the dominant issue of domestic politics."

Go to Filipino Liberals for the complete text of the commentary.

P.S.: In his “analysis,” Doronila quotes from the statement of former Senator Jovito Salonga and says this was read at the Plaza Miranda rally sponsored by Manila Mayor Lito Atienza and “not at Drilon’s assemblage at the Dusit Hotel” in Makati City.

Doronila overlooks that Senator Salonga personally showed up at the LP’s testimonial dinner at Club Filipino and was celebrated by all those present as the true icon of Philippine liberalism. It is quite embarrassing that columnist Doronila and his editor overlook this politically significant detail.


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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Liberal Party at 60: Divided, but Inspired

My job demands that I spend many hours in talks and sessions with people working for and in political parties. My focus is liberal and partisan: I make a point not to get to close to other ideological mainstreams.

At the end of this week, I have the feeling I have rarely spent more hours at political party activities than in these past days, attending the numerous events in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Liberal Party of the Philippines (LP).

Politically, the timing of the anniversary was all but ideal. The Liberals are (deeply) divided. One side has joined the opposition against President GMA. The other side supports her. The latter group is headed by the Mayor of Manila. He organized a huge rally at Plaza Miranda to demonstrate his support for the president (and, at the same time, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the party which he chairs).

I have many good friends in both Liberal camps. Therefore, it was only normal that I attended both the Plaza Miranda affair as well as the numerous activities organized by the headquarters of the party (identified with the LP and Senate President Franklin Drilon). Those activities were impressive. As I am fond of political discourse and intellectual debates and don’t enjoy too much noisy mass rallies, I felt more at home at the latter activities.

I could fill a book with the many interesting impressions, information and discussions of these past three days of Liberal celebrations. But I will limit myself to three quotes of liberal leaders which I find relevant for the debate on the future of organized liberalism in the Philippines:

"Nowhere in the world can you find a stable democracy without strong political parties."
Senator Francis Pangilinan, Vice Chairman Liberal Party

United, there is little we cannot do; divided, there is little that we can do.”

Franklin M. Drilon, Senate President, President Liberal Party.

“Without power, principles are impotent in influencing public affairs. Without principle, power is easily prostituted to passing fancies…Working on the correct balance between the demands of power and fulfilling the calling of principles is going to be the main issue in defining the future character of the Liberal Party.”

Mario Taguiwalo, President, National Institute for Policy Studies (NIPS)


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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Cha-Cha, Political Parties and trapos

Whether one likes it or not, the political class of the Philippines will dance the cha-cha for months to come. The president’s party is seriously proposing to have a plebiscite and a transformation to an interim parliamentary government by the end of June 2006. Whether this is realistic, is another matter altogether. This government is not famed for adhering to deadlines, and I am not only referring to the airport…

Let’s assume that once the information (or propaganda) campaign for the new constitution kicks off sometime after Holy Week, the public will have a closer look at the 64 pages the delegates of the Consultative Commission (ConCom) filled with ink.

Just how progressive this country is may be seen at the fact that the full text of the proposal is available online, but not yet in print. This may still take some weeks, Con Com Chair Dr. Abueva told foreign correspondents at a forum in Manila on Monday.

I downloaded and read the text a few days ago. Some sections I find very remarkable. Today, I will only share some brief comments regarding references in the draft to political parties.

Among the most impressive sections I find the following.

“Political parties shall observe fair, honest and democratic processes
in the selection of their candidates. They shall ensure the integrity,loyalty, and discipline of their members and publicly account for the sources and use of their funds and for their assets.”

Wow! I nearly forgot, they were talking about the Philippines. I really wonder how they’ll manage to get this organized in less than half a year. Implementing such a provision in the existing political parties comes close to a political revolution.

The political class has been talking about democratizing political parties for many years. Just how serious their intentions have been, is proven by the fact that practically nothing in that direction has happened. And now, they will do it in a few weeks?

Democratic political parties are of strategic importance for democratic consolidation and progress. With the envisioned shift to a parliamentary system of government the (constitutional) role of political parties will increase immensely. But in reality, the parties are nowhere close to meet the envisioned new obligations. Maybe their leaders don’t even want them to be. This, at least, is what my favorite lady Senator (when she has a good day) insinuates::

“A parliamentary government run by trapos (traditional politicians) will simply mean that trapos and not the people will choose our head of government. Without principled political parties, the highest post will become a trophy for the highest bidder.”
(Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 17.1. 2006)

One could add that the same applies also for all other posts.


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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Prospects of Podcasting in the Philippines

Today, the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a full page article on podcasting in this country. Entitled “30 peas in a podcast,” this was more a PR-affair (with numerous mentions of a company selling Apple products) than a serious discussion regarding the state of podcasting and its potentials in this Asian country.

Gathering from the (incomplete) list of Filipino podcasts mentioned by the author, the great majority are produced by traditional publishing companies and other established institutions. From this account, one must gather that podcasting as the grassroots audio-blogging as we know it primarily from the United States has yet to arrive in this part of the world. While there are individual Pinoy podcasters, these - this is my impression – are not based in their home country. Please correct me, should I get this wrong.

Some weeks ago, Abe Olandres, who some call the guru of Pinoy blogging, asked the question: “Will podcasting pick up in the Philippines?” He said he was “still a bit skeptical,” and predicted there could be a surge in listeners, but not in Filipinos actually producing podcasts. This, Olandres explained, was due to “inherent barriers” not limited to the Philippines, but found in all developing countries: low internet penetration and broadband connectivity.

Based on the situation today, I find this a realistic assessment. But this could change dramatically the moment mobile telephony and podcasts get linked or integrated. In the Philippines, I can think of at least two factors favoring the audio format:

First, the people’s craze for mobile phones and the readiness of even the poor to chunk out large parts of their meager income for mobile services.

Second (and this is a cultural phenomenon), the prevalence of the oral as opposed to the written in daily communications. It is no secret that, compared to other countries, reading is quite unpopular in the Philippines.

In spite of this, “classical” written blogs (as opposed to the audio variant) are doing quite well in this country. Imagine how successful audio-blogging or podcasting could become once technology produces a system that is accessible and affordable for the highly talkative masses.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Podcasting from Manila

There’s a new liberal voice out there in the World Wide Web. It’s in audio and its origin is the Philippine office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation: I am happy to announce the launching of The Liberal Times Manila Podcast with news and commentary on various matters related to the work of the liberal Foundation in the Philippines and beyond.

Joining me for the monthly show is Alexandra Cuyegkeng. I won’t loose many words here, and simply invite you to listen to the show and hopefully also enjoy it.


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Friday, January 06, 2006

“Begin the reform process by rewriting party rules”

Central to my professional advocacy, if you may call it that, is the message that democratic political parties are crucial in democratic orders. This is a long story, but I will keep it short here.

Democratic political parties are important avenues through which the popular will is transferred into the political decision making process. Where this avenue is blocked, the quality of the democratic governance is deficient.

I raised this point in a recent posting in a discussion board. In the ensuing debate a contributor by the name of Michael made what I find an interesting observation.

"We’ve talked a lot about reforming the party system as a critical step toward improving governance, but we seem to think that that can only be done if a new Constitution mandates it. Why is that? FVR, JDV, Drilon, etc., are all party leaders, and they all claim to desperately want to see reforms in the current system. To demonstrate their commitment to honest reform, why can’t they begin the process by rewriting their own party rules right now? One party may not be able to pass a law that applies to all elected officials, but they can certainly enact internal rules that bind all members of that party. Rules about transparency and accountability in the use of government funds for example.

Michael has a point there, don’t you think so?


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No, there’s no Grand Realignment of the Philippine Opposition

I had planned to join the debate on the hottest political issue in town these days – the buzz about an impending alliance between former Presidents Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada yesterday. But then, I was distracted by other matters. That’s good, because things have become even clearer today, so I am happy I waited.

Various media outlets had suggested that FVR was contemplating to jump ship leaving GMA behind to join the opposition. According to fellow blogger (and journalist) Ricky Carandang, FVR had realized “he needs a Plan B.”

It is always good to have a Plan B. On the other hand, talking to your political opponents is not only legitimate but also mandated in a democratic order. Talking and drinking wine does not automatically mean going to bed and staying there. FVR is quite comfortable where he is now. In my eyes, he is too smart to leave the ruling camp to join up with… whom?

If the opposition were indeed a serious contender for power (and, thus, a real threat to GMA’s reign) the scenario of switching sides could make sense for a politician of the likes of FVR who is said to have ambitions for a second shot at power. But let’s be realistic: the opposition is nowhere close to unity, and even less a threat to the government. Adding a new leader of the bearing of FVR to the already disunited oppositionist camp would not enhance unity. To the contrary, it would create even more personal competition and, therefore, also disunity.

“Why should FVR make any move to form an alliance with the opposition … when they themselves are far from forging a united front?”, was the short and sharp comment of Ramos’ media adviser Ed Malay, as quoted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In my view, the latest rumor mongering is part of one more grand political spin which, as is well known, is so common in Philippine domestic politics. Many people go for it, “as we love political gossip,” confided a young liberal friend with whom I regularly discuss developments.

On the other hand, foreign observers don’t seem to get too excited about all the noise: “It’s too stupid to write about,” said a senior foreign correspondent. That might be strong wording, but it’s a fact that the foreign media are practically ignoring the domestic political rumblings and focusing their reporting and commentary instead on other news items much more becoming to GMA: the rise of the Philippine Peso and – to quote from the front page headline of yesterday’s International Herald Tribune – the "new, bullish mood (that) grips Manila.”


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Monday, January 02, 2006

Puzzling Filipino Optimism

As a liberal, I don’t like stereotypes and try to avoid them as much as I possibly can. But, in certain situations, it is hard to resist generalizations. One such case is the discussion regarding an important collective character trait of the vast majority of Filipinos I interact with on a daily basis: With very few exceptions, these people are friendly, happy and - overtly optimistic.

The stereotype of the happy and confident Pinoy is substantiated, on the macro level, in the annual surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations. Every year, SWS asks a representative sample of Filipinos how they view their prospects in the coming year. This time, eighty-five percent of adult Filipinos entered the New Year with hope rather than fear, the institute said. Remarkably, the hope levels are higher than last year’s.

For more than one reason, I find these results mind-boggling.

Filipinos’ hopefulness stands in stark contrast to the generally perceived realities - politically, socially or economically. While well over four fifths of the people say they have hope for the New Year, many of the same people live along the poverty line and in all but merry social conditions. Also, in other polls, the same individuals claim to believe that their president has cheated in the last elections and nearly two thirds are so unhappy with GMA that they want her out.

Particularly remarkable I find the pollsters’ finding that optimism is more pronounced in the less affluent (or poor) groups of society than in the middle and upper classes. In other words: In the Philippines, the better-offs are more worried about their future than the have-nots living in or on the verge of misery.

This leads to the conclusion that, in this particular case, the objective living conditions and prospects don’t seem to determine the mindset of the people. While Marxists wont like this conclusion at all, this observation is substantiated by comparable polls conducted in my own country, Germany.

The economic and social situation of the vast majority of Germans is doubtlessly much better than that of the people in the Philippines. Still, compared to Pinoys, Germans may be called collectively depressed: According to a recent survey conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, only 45 percent of Germans entered the New Year with hope.

Seen collectively, Filipinos may be called double as happy as Germans!

The discrepancy between the German and Philippine figures is remarkable. Having lived in the Philippines for nearly four years, I have come to the conclusion that more than anything else this country’s “peculiar brand of optimism”, as one local commentator has called it, has to do with its’ people’s spirituality and religious faith.

“The Filipino views what’s coming up with more hope than fear because he finds it easy to forgive and to forget what had gone before,”

the commentator opines.

On a personal and subjective level this may be an enviable quality as it may lead to a life void of anxiety and angst. On the other hand, the collective inclination to forget and forgive produces less positive results for society as a whole. If you prefer to forget, you tend to be distracted easily. This may lead to a situation in which words count more than deeds, which according to my Philippine friends is a typical trait of this country’s politicians. This said, forgetting and forgiving is particularly hazardous in the political and legal spheres. There it may lead to impunity, the worst enemy of the rule of law.

“It may well be that Filipino optimism is actually what is holding the country back, rather than pushing it forward,” writes the commentator, and I tend to agree.

Think about it. As you wrench your mind, don’t be surprised if you start philosophizing. Looking at the Germany-Philippines comparison, you might end up believing that the choice is between either poor and happy or rich and unhappy.

I hope you don’t get stuck there. Life is more complex than black and white. At least from a liberal view point, it is always useful to examine also the grey.


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