For 2016 polls, let’s bring out the balance sheets
Sans the entertaining word wars between presidential candidates and the hilarious trolling and counter-trolling on social media between their fervent devotees, the 2016 elections pre-campaign season in the Philippines is actually showing signs of emergent intellectual discourse.
It is easy to condemn the polarizing divisiveness and the noise it has so far generated. But it is also, quite misleading to do so. While the mudslinging is easily apparent, hard and real contentious issues, albeit insufficiently articulated, already underpin the passionate exchange of convictions and ad hominems.
For the pseudo-intelligent voter, this is an occasion to display self-righteous cynicism.
But for someone who knows the crucial distinctions between politics and democracy, rhetoric and policy, or strategies and tactics, and can read the distinctions between the huffing and puffing of candidates and talking heads on mainstream and social media, the emerging discursive field this campaign season, at least on the national level, is on the contrary a refreshing break from the clichéd and bland pro- and anti- polarities voters have been accustomed to identify with.
Rodrigo Duterte for example is forcing us, Filipino voters to theorize our own collective sense of justice outside its narrowly confined constitutional norms. Meanwhile, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos is destabilizing attitudes towards historical remembering and memory-making beyond history from the eyes of the winners. Needless to say, Grace Poe is dividing Filipinos on the importance of nation-state bound citizenship in a supposedly borderless global village. Mar Roxas, on the other hand, is forcing us to rethink the coherence of the dominant social class while Jejomar Binay is challenging previously held theories on the “masa” consciousness.
Platforms of government have in turn, and rightly so, coalesced around these deep-seated issues. In the words of today’s millennials, the campaign teams are on a “hugot pa more” overdrive – that is to say, drawing from the position of their respective constituents within the broader spectrum of political categories, even categories of democracy which dominant and erstwhile undisturbed narratives.
But as important as platforms are in gauging a candidate, voting on the basis of platforms alone is hardly the fool-proof test of an intelligent vote.
Beyond the surface
Setting aside the question of whether the substantive meat of platforms and policy directions can even be differentiated from each other, platforms are simply declarations. And in a constitutional setting where political actors are bound to act according to privileged norms, even Duterte’s statements that run against the grain of constitutionally protected precepts have to be taken with a grain of salt.
An intelligent voter must go beyond the surface of declared platforms and professionally-managed PR stints and ask two critical questions: 1) what does the candidate presently possess that he or she is willing to expend in order to win?; and 2) once installed, how might his or her expenditure affect regime stability and performance?
These questions are not simply about political platforms. They inquire into the extent of a candidate’s political capital.
The need to evaluate a candidate’s political capital more than a candidate’s platform rests on two realities about politics: foremost is Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics as a decision on “who gets what, when, and how” and secondly on the truth that all politicians seek power and once in power stay there. In political science these refer to the accommodations a politician would have to and would be willing to undertake in order to preserve his or her rule.
Political capital is that stock of trust, goodwill, influence, and material considerations a politician has with the public and with other players in the political field.
How a politician dispenses or spends his political capital and on which issues and for what ends affects not just his ability to perform but his political behavior once in office. But while scholars have thus far studied political capital mostly during the incumbency of an elected official and have so far confined the source of political capital to electoral victory, extending the evaluation of political capital and its expenditure during the campaign period may also yield significant insights that can guide in a voter’s evaluation.
For example, a politician who during the campaign period had to spend political capital not just to win but also dodge key issues thrown at him or her such as judicial proceedings, administrative liabilities and corruption allegations may erode the capital he or she will bring in office. This is because he or she must bring into the winning coalition more people for whom accommodations might be made.
The administration of former president Gloria Arroyo should be instructive. In 2001, when Arroyo usurped the presidency from Joseph Estrada she brought into her coalition a broad range of political actors whose interests and demands had to be accommodated. Given the precarious situation of her ascendance to the presidency it was easy for the regime’s rivals to exploit instances of Arroyo distributing the spoils of power.
It is likely that her 2004 run, despite an initial disavowal of a re-election bid, was informed by the need to satisfy and preserve the interests of coalition partners. This in turn limited her government’s ability to seek an autonomous policy direction, confounding Arroyo with multiple demands. With a much more eroded political capital post-Garci period, Arroyo had to resort to the use of political violence just to keep her regime afloat.
On the other hand, Benigno Aquino III ascended the presidency with a rich stock of political capital. But even that was nearly depleted when his administration pursued policies and political decisions that required accommodating certain interests such as prosecuting Arroyo, impeaching former chief justice Renato Corona, acceding to popular demand against pork barrel, and then consolidating fiscal control through the disbursement acceleration program and defending it against the Supreme Court.
The campaign season must by all means focus on issues and platforms. But without assessing the factors that affect a candidate’s political capital, discussions on platforms and issues are largely to remain academic.
How Grace Poe for example will utilize her existing stock of political capital to bring her out of the legal debacle she is presently facing is likely to diminish the capital she could autonomously use if she still manages to get elected.
How Rodrigo Duterte will utilize his political capital to maintain the hard talking image his supporters find adorable and simultaneously make himself palatable to other voters in the spectrum may also require some tradeoffs.
How Jejomar Binay is keeping the corruption allegations against him on the doldrums carries with it some cost. And finally, how Mar Roxas manages to preserve the capital he has to prevent defections in anticipation of guaranteed loss following his continuing dismal performance in the surveys is likely to be costly as well.
The answers to these inquiries cannot be easily obtained through a checklist of issues comparing items in a platform of government.
More than a comparative checklist, what intelligent Filipino voters need today is a balance sheet. – Rappler.com
RR Rañeses teaches with the Ateneo de Manila Department of Political Science. He is also an independent political and security risks consultant.