Not just numbers: Towards real political parties

By: Edmund S. Tayao

IN MOST democracies, even before elections are concluded, they can already anticipate who gets to be Prime Minister, or Senate President, or Speaker. Presidents of course have influence, yes; not only in the Philippines, but depending on a particular country’s system, this influence may not be as considerable. What is clear is that this influence is not absolute.

The President’s role in choosing the leader of Congress becomes crucial only because the contenders have the same numbers or, each does not have enough to settle the race. In our case, after the elections, the race to be the leader of either chamber of Congress is almost always literally another election as each candidate cajoles fellow members for support. Of course, if the President decides to support a particular candidate, as we have seen in many cases before, the leadership is already a foregone conclusion.

Our system is very much anchored on the President, that if we do not have a good one, nothing will work. When I say a good President, that means a President who gets things done, not only because he speaks well but actually does not accomplish anything of significance. If you think the public would not discern if the President is performing or not, you might want to think again.

If you were a good President, the numbers in the legislature would just be numbers, without need to determine further what the numbers represent. As a good President, you already know who and how many support you, most especially if this support is just a little short of all the members being with you. Regardless who gets to lead whichever chamber of Congress, each member would want to be working with a good President.

Lest this is misunderstood, this should not be taken to mean that the President controls Congress. The Office of the President of course wields so much power that it has considerable influence, but this does not amount to control of Congress.

It is but saddening that the public does not have that high regard of our public institutions that the assumption is that our political leaders are there only for their own interests. Of course they are, but who does not have his own interests in mind?

Regardless whether one is a politician or not, he or she will always have interest; the more important question is the extent of difference between individual interest and the public’s or common interest.

It is because of the unabated partisan politics that many have come to assume that the President controls Congress. What this many may have forgotten is that there have been so many instances before when Congress, both houses, showed independence, differing with the President on issues, legislations and even going against a sitting President.

In fact, if one is to examine how laws are passed, especially priority legislations like TRAIN, he might be surprised at how significantly different it looked like when it was submitted to Congress to the one approved. The point is, Congress remains supportive of the President; in fact, of any President only because he continues to deliver, continues to perform. When need be, Congress has shown that it knows its mandate under the system of checks and balances.

If you were not as good a President, on the other hand, you would want to literally influence the final outcome of a leadership race. You would be of the opinion that you will need Congress to be led by an ally so that your priority legislations can pass, especially at this juncture when we are just looking at the last 3 years of the current President’s term.

Numbers are fundamental in a democracy. More than winning elections, numbers, of course, get policies and programs passed. In fact, it is because of getting policies and programs passed that elections become important. It is in the passing and implementation of policies and programs that interests are pursued and met or achieved. In other words, you want to win elections because you want to make decisions, to get policies and programs passed and implemented.

Politics is defined as “who gets what, when, where and how”. Politics appears to be about partisanship but it seems so only because it is about decision-making, specifically it is about who makes what decision. It starts with the question “who” precisely because it’s about people having and getting their interests, which is the answer to the question “what”, through policies that allow and or prevent things and or actions, and programs that get things done.

This explains why politics essentially is about policies and programs. When policies and programs are passed, it only means interests are being met, in particular or in general. Yes, policies and programs are about interests; the question is whether only a few interests are met in the process.

“When” answers the question of timing as satisfying a need depends much on time, as it may no longer be needed or valued if it comes too late. A suitable place that is the answer to the question “where” is also an important consideration; it oftentimes adds to the preeminence of a particular policy or initiative, especially its symbolism, including the prominence of the political leaders involved. All in all, if politics is characterized more by this description, then we can expect some consistency in politics that is synonymous with good governance.

The point of it all is that in the end, it actually all boils down to who really is the choice of every member in each chamber of Congress to be their leader. What is clear is, if almost everyone supports the President, there is no need for him to choose who he’d prefer to be the leader of the chamber. The differences between contending leaders are their own differences and need not concern the President. This preserves the independence of Congress, which is a plus both for the legislature and the President.

In the end it will be a question of capacities, of leadership qualities, not only as perceived by fellow members but also as shown by a contender’s track record. Interests will again play a crucial role in this regard. The leader who is able to satisfy the interests of many without significantly compromising the interests of the other will prove to be the most able leader.

Now let’s say the contenders share these capacities, it will then come to whether one of them has the better personality, possesses the charisma that makes him respected, even admired if not loved by his peers. It will be a question of resources, of spoils, and this is true everywhere, not only in the Philippines as some would like to assume. But this is not the single defining factor that will decide a race for leadership.

Without any doubt, the members of Congress know all of these already. Perhaps not in a way that could be explained or put in a handbook so that everyone, regardless of the number of years already spent in Congress, would understand at the outset and put it to practice. As any work will require, experience is integral and will always be an advantage.

With all these considerations and preparations for the 18th Congress, I hope some fundamental learnings can already be had. Everyone knows that numbers get things done in Congress, but with the latest developments, I can only hope that some realization is reached that political parties are most significant.

Parties don’t only get numbers, it also sustains numbers and gives meaning to numbers. Right now, the parties’ significance is next only to a particular leader or leaders’ significance. The challenge to the incoming Congress is to change and improve this current set-up.

(The author is a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)