The writings on the wall: Why political parties?

By: Edmund S. Tayao

With the result of the recent elections, where many old, supposedly steady names in politics losing and younger political leaders emerging, interestingly, there is now renewed talk about Philippine political parties. Interesting because we only have political parties in name and that these organizations are hardly institutions as in other countries. Many who still could not believe or accept the results of the elections especially at the national level are now scrambling for explanations. The results were off-beat for lack of a better term; it’s remarkable but expected. It generated discordant reactions from many; hailing how local elections turned out but resented the results at the national level.


Change in Pasig

The surveys may not be that precise but very well showed the trend; throughout the campaign, it was already expected that the administration will dominate. It was expected but still it was a surprise as it is the first time after 6 midterm elections that the opposition was completely shut out. More than surprising, the result of the local elections on the other hand was extraordinary, especially those races keenly watched by the whole country. It is just difficult if not impossible to win against an incumbent, how much more if it’s also a political dynasty. For many wanting real change therefore, the results were a welcome surprise. This is true, most notably, for candidates seen to be offering something new and better for the people.


Infighting, lean bench

So, overall, the midterm elections turned out to be a surprise but the contradictory reaction of some, especially those wanting to have the opposition to win is quite strange. It’s not unusual to have similar if not the same set of preferences for candidates at the local level and different choices for the national level and vice versa. What is strange is to criticize voters, consider them stupid for their choice of national candidates and praising them for their choices for local positions. Needless to say, you have the same voters for both local and national positions and having this contradicting judgment assumes that they were sane voting for local candidates but got insane in choosing their national candidates.


Sea change

This brings us to the perennial but (pardon me for saying) absurd question if this midterm election was a referendum of the incumbent President and/or administration. The point is, every midterm election is a referendum of a sitting President’s and his administration’s performance, whether here in our country or in other countries. This precisely is the reason why there are midterm elections, to have a test of the public’s approval of the incumbent government. We can take a look at all previous midterm elections and see how the results reflect the popularity or unpopularity of the incumbent President. The recent elections only validate what has been already shown by surveys and expressed and assumed in public by many: that this President remains unprecedentedly very popular. What else is there to see from the overwhelming support of the public for his candidates and the repudiation of those identified to be the opposition?

Thus, many are now asking what led to this results. The truth is, the results are not at all surprising because there is one single explanation why it turned out how it did, the President. We find the results surprising only because we did not have any idea of the extent of this popularity. The point is simply that a sitting President is a constant in any midterm election, precisely because it is a referendum. The only question now is whether the President is popular or not and whether and how this popularity or unpopularity is transferable to his candidates. With the results, we already know the answer as far as this President is concerned. Whether the same is true with the previous Presidents will require another discussion.

This can be disputed as not all candidates the President endorsed won. Of course, the President’s endorsement and support is only one of the many factors needed to win. It is probably the most important, but by itself is not enough to ensure victory. How the candidate convinces the public for their support is another important factor. The President is popular, extremely at that, and therefore the public would most likely heed his advice. But if a candidate himself is not acceptable enough, that is if he or she has some old and or new issues to contend with, and or his or her campaign was undermined, deliberately or otherwise or simply not known enough everywhere, it can still result to a loss. One is halfway there already with the endorsement of a President this popular, but it it is entirely up to the candidate how he or she would move forward with the other half of the campaign and use the endorsement or support to his or her advantage.

In this regard then, is it messaging? Is the candidate able to get his message across, that this message is not only substantive but also appreciated or understood, even valued by the voting public? How about style in and of the campaign? Does the candidate appear respectable but not necessarily stiff or unreasonable? As he or she speaks, is the effect not polarizing, gaining support on one hand but losing some on the other? In other words, one has to ask whether or not he or she is not repulsive, that is, generally amiable. The President has a very strong personality but this does not mean you have to mimic the President and expect that his popularity will automatically rub on you. Each candidate is a unique case. One has to develop his own style, a unique identity in politics, one that is acceptable enough to the public, one that is natural and true or, at least, not very far from his or her own self.

Resources are, of course, another important factor in a campaign. Then again, it’s not as if it’s enough to get one elected. How the resources are used or maximised, especially with reference to all the foregoing, is an important consideration that can spell the difference. If one has the resources but the source or reason for which is seen by the public as suspicious, to say the least, then the effect may even be negative. Resources should also translate to organization. A candidate cannot cover the whole country literally in a national campaign, but the resources can ensure a credible enough coverage and at the same time ensure that this support is translated to votes and counted come voting day. The same organization should be able to show where a candidate is strong and weak and the reasons for which so that the campaign can be calibrated accordingly; improve on those areas identified as weak and sustain even improve in those areas already determined as strong. Sadly, many rely on what popular surveys say, as if this are enough to show whether one is certain to win or not. The surveys serve as a guide, but should not be seen as the would-be result.

What does the foregoing tell us? Does it say anything close to a political party? Everything that was discussed is of course relevant to a political party, but because we are discussing the prevailing political setup, hardly does it suggest of political parties, at least as far as the kind of political parties we know in other countries. The result of the recently concluded election is surprising, but it is all the more surprising to ask if losing political parties have to be reconfigured. So much of what we discussed depend mainly on personalities, the President and the candidate. There is reference to political parties but only so much as the key personalities identified with them. In fact, the dominant political personality is always “the” political party. Accordingly, there’s a need to reconfigure the parties precisely because it remains dependent on personalities.


Time to change now

We then have to ask Why and How political parties in the Philippines have to and can be reconfigured. How will this reconfiguration will be and could be undertaken should take into consideration the public, why and how the results were the results serve as reference moving forward. We have repeatedly argued that there is no such thing as bobotante (or stupid voters or that voters are stupid), that voters ever since have been making the most out of the limited information they have to vote wisely. With this midterm election results then, can we say that change has come, that many should see the writings on the wall?

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