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After the party

March 01, 2011 22:41:00
Michael Tan opinion@inquirer.com.ph
Philippine Daily Inquirer

UPRISINGS LIKE the Edsa revolt(s) have been compared by political commentators and journalists to street parties, with the question: What happens after the party?

In the case of the Philippines, the question is more often couched in terms like “What went wrong?” followed by a litany of woes like the continuing domination of an oligarchy, poverty, graft and corruption, etc.

There has been no lack of research looking at these new democracies and if it is any consolation to Filipinos, the studies show that all throughout the world, the period after the “party” is marked by many disappointments, even a sense of betrayal.

The findings of these research projects, usually involving reviews of several years of post-revolt experiences, all agree that it is not enough to bring back democracy in the form of free elections. Across the world, two particular structural weaknesses come out in many of the studies that block social change in the new democracies and both relate to the dangerous illusion of democracy that comes about with elections.

More than elections

First, and this comes out in a book, “Party Politics in New Democracies,” published by Oxford (available online from www.oxfordscholarship.com), a strong multi-party system is essential to a democracy. If a new democracy continues to have a weak party system built on personalities and clientism or patronage (the padrino system), old inequities can actually worsen. We’ve see this in the Philippines in the 25 years after Edsa. Only in the last election did we see some substantial differences in the platforms of political parties, and only under the current presidency have we seen some moves to translate political platforms into political action and governance.

I am saying “some moves” because the Aquino presidency continues to be hobbled by decades of the old system, one which dates back even before the Marcos era. I remember that during the last elections, many Liberal Party workers, especially younger ones, were genuinely fired up by the prospects of change, and were able to link this up to liberal principles, especially a respect for individual human rights. Much of that idealism is, unfortunately, deteriorating into empty rhetoric, exemplified by all these cars with yellow ribbon stickers and declarations of support for “pagbabago” (change), yet violating traffic rules left and right.

The reference to a worsening of “old inequities” in the review of new democracies reminded me of something even more painful in the Philippine context: the perversion of the party-list system. Intended to give under-represented sectors a voice in the legislature, we have seen the party-list system hijacked to give congressional seats to traditional politicians.

Vertical accountability

Let’s move on to the second major structural weakness in new democracies such as our own. I draw now on the work of Argentinian political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell on “horizontal accountability,” particularly an article that was first published in the Journal of Democracy in 1998. O’Donnell notes that elections function for vertical accountability, where, hypothetically at least, you can vote out a politician who does not deliver on election promises. But O’Donnell points out that electoral exercises are sporadic, which makes accountability problematic. Again, we see that in the Philippines where politicians tend to perform (literally and figuratively) only as elections approach.

Vertical accountability, for O’Donnell, includes oversight provided by the private sector, particularly the mass media and civil society. But again, O’Donnell raises questions about the adequacy of this vertical system. One particular observation is important for the Philippines: Even with a functioning and fairly free mass media, citizens may actually end up even more disgruntled and disillusioned if the structures for resolving problems, especially around corruption, continue to be weak.

Extensive exposés and coverage of government anomalies without satisfactory resolutions, as we are now seeing, can be dangerous on two counts. First, when the guilty go unpunished, impunity worsens. Second, mass media could end up as kangaroo courts, prejudging the innocent.

Horizontal accountability

Horizontal accountability becomes important in systems marked by economic and political inequities. Bear with this rather long but important definition from O’Donnell: “the existence of state agencies that are legally enabled or empowered, and factually willing and able, to take actions that span from routine oversight to criminal sanctions or impeachment in relation to actions or omissions by other agents or agencies of the State that may be qualified as unlawful.”

After our Edsa revolt in 1986, we did attempt to build this horizontal accountability, through structures like the Sandiganbayan and the Presidential Commission on Good Government plus congressional investigations but, alas, all we saw were, well, an epidemic of investigations.

Meanwhile, we were neglecting older government agencies such as the Commission on Audit. We saw how one of the auditors, Heidi Mendoza, did her job so well checking the AFP’s books that she was asked by superiors to back off. We saw too how one weak link in the last few years—the position of the ombudsman—threatened to destroy the entire system of oversight.

There is no lack of procedures and mechanisms to insure accountability. Those of us with administrative positions in government know only too well the voluminous paperwork, documents filled out at least in triplicate, and more often in quadruplicate and quintuplicate, embroidered with signatures and endorsements, down to tricycle drivers certifying a government employee was his passenger and paid P20 for the fare.

But, as O’Donnell observes, the success of horizontal accountability depends on much more than paper work. There must be assurances that “preventive agencies” are highly professionalized, “endowed with adequate resources” and assured of independence in their work, especially from “political interference.”

I was struck, too, by one important recommendation from O’Donnell and this is putting extra effort into assuring that the poor and the weak “are at least decently treated in their manifold encounters with the State and its agents.” Again, that resonates for us: the face of government for the man and woman on the street is the policeman and traffic enforcer. Right now, people run to politicians when they have grievances, which reinforces the old system of patronage. We need more independent mechanisms within government itself to address the grievances.

O’Donnell started out his 1998 article by stating that his interest in horizontal accountability “stems from its absence” in the many new political democracies that have emerged, the Philippines included. Ultimately, he says, much-needed social change will come out not just through the principles of democracy but also those of liberalism (particularly ideas of rights) and republicanism (particularly the responsibility of leaders to uphold the law by being subject to those laws).

The AFP anomalies offer us an opportunity to reform the system through vertical accountability by way of strengthening civil society’s “watchdog” functions, as well as through horizontal accountability, strengthening the checks and balances in government.

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