OPINION: Leni Robredo: Leading a Principled Opposition

Richard Heydarian

Posted at Dec 06 2016 09:09 AM

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord Acton, the leading British thinker of his era, once warned.

Crucial to any functioning democracy is the principle of checks and balances, which is based on the assumption that state power should not be concentrated in the hands of any specific person or branch of government.

Beginning with the 18th century French political thinker Montesquieu, there has been a growing recognition that tyranny isn’t necessarily a reflection of defective human nature, but instead the overconcentration of power. Human beings are fallible, and thus state power – the representation of the interest of the collective – should be channeled through mutually-accountable and interlocking institutions, not only the executive to the judiciary and legislative, but also the civil society and broader instruments of international law.

The problem is that in the Philippines, checks and balances tend to fall into a state of hibernation due to what Japanese political scientist Yuko Kasuya described as “presidential bandwagon”. Due to the weakness of political parties, not to mention the allure of pork barrel funds, once a new leader is elected, there is a wholesale defection among the ranks of losing candidates.

The benefit of this system is that it allows Filipino presidents, who didn’t manage to gain majority of votes, to build a broad coalition to support their policy agenda for the benefit of the people. This avoids policy paralysis. The downside, however, is the erosion of checks and balances with the disappearance of organized and coherent opposition to keep the (potential) excesses of the executive in check.

Aside from ensuring accountability on the part of the executive, the opposition also acts as a transmission belt to reflect diverse views in pluralistic societies, which are not reflected by the ruling party. No Filipino president, in recent decades, has achieved majority of votes, precisely because they failed to embody the diverse interests of more than just a plurality of voters.

But the job of the opposition is not to criticize the government just for the sake of it or, more cynically, discredit even the best practices of the sitting president for partisan purposes. This is not what political opposition is about. Unfortunately, in the Philippines and many other developing democracies, ‘opposition’ is mistakenly seen through the prism of expeditiously replacing the government rather than constructively engaging with it.

And it is precisely for this reason that the concept of opposition has been generally treated with disdain, especially those who support the government. But now there is a unique chance for the country to finally see a principled opposition. And this is the silver lining to the unfortunate political breakup in the “Rody-Robredo” (Ro-Ro) team, which broke the heart of many, who have supported a ‘unity government’ in recent months. In many ways, this was not completely unexpected.

The president and the vice-president come from two opposing camps, who were at loggerheads in what could be described as one of the most polarizing elections ever. (In other countries, especially America, the two top leaders automatically come from one party to avoid gridlock.) Despite the best efforts of both sides, the past has continued to cloud the dynamics between Vice President Leni Robredo and the core Duterte administration. And eventually, something had to give.

Robredo’s resignation, however, paves the way for her transition into the de facto leader of the opposition, which is yet to take shape and fully crystallize. But, crucially, she has made it clear that what she means by opposition is precisely what the American forefathers had in mind: a principled shadow government, which opposes what it sees as wrong, but supports what is right with the ruling party. May this be the beginning of a more robust and functioning democracy.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.