OPINION: Time to change now

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at May 28 2019 02:07 PM

Each time there is a move to change the political and administrative system, the first argument you hear is “it’s not yet time” or “we’re not yet ready for it”. We have explained this in another article, Pursuing Federalism is not a Question of Time, It is a Question of Opportunity. 

There are key points raised there that we can recall and make sense of the current arguments against change which, by and large, are stuck in the same assertion that we are not yet ready. 

“Timing should be considered more as any opportunity to change what needs to be changed. Any leader who vigorously pushes it should be supported, especially with the objective of making sure that everyone is able to take part and contribute. In the first place, there is no answer to the question of time, especially that the main considerations for it are always given but essentially can be acted only by a particular leader or set of leaders, as it is essentially a political question.”

If at all it is a question of timing, it is because it depends so much on a leader or set of leaders who takes on political reform as the critical agenda. The greater part of the country’s history has in fact been about waiting and pushing for political reform, for a political system that is adapted to our unique circumstances, as early as the time of Rizal. By now, we should have already realized that far-reaching, systemic change is difficult. By now, we should have understood that many of our leaders are our leaders because of the very system that needs to be changed. By now, we should already know that it is a lot more difficult to have a leader who does not only understand the fundamental need for systemic change, but who has the political will to pursue systemic change.

The issue of timing is in fact an issue of trust, that if we do not vigorously address, if we just accept that we’re stuck to it, then we’ll never get pass muster it and proceed. The only way we can possibly move on is to allow the process, that is, support the initiative, but get involved. Then we can trust the process even if we don't trust the ones leading it enough. In the first place, whatever change in the Constitution is introduced, it will still go through a plebiscite.

There are three important points that can summarize the nature of political reform. Hopefully, these can help enlighten why it is not about timing and or readiness.

1.    Because so much depends on the political leader that it is essentially a political question, not of timing. In fact, the whole initiative is political, the purpose is mainly political and the objective is political.

2.    Yes, the problems being addressed include social and economic issues but the solution can only be political as the problems can be addressed only by different policies, different administration or implementation of policies that can only be borne out of a different political setup.

3.    The main actors in this initiative or exercise are political actors who will act mainly on their interests and not on the “question of timing”. The ones who will be affected by reform are the entire country, its citizens, even guests, including the environment; and because reform is supposed to change the rules of the game, all stakeholders are the ones directly affected. When someone or a stakeholder raises the issue of timing, therefore, it is not because of timing, but because of interest. Again, from the earlier article, this is explained further.

“Timing is always an issue because we barely trust our leaders. How can we trust our leaders if good leaders are chosen only by chance? The existing political system is limited only to those who are popular and have the money to sustain a very expensive popular campaign. How many of these popular and moneyed would-be leaders prove to be capable and trustworthy? Qualifications in the first place barely matter or considered, as precisely the choices are limited. You can very well surmise that those who are consistently against changing the current system benefit from it that it is difficult to consider any substantial reform to be introduced.”

As a result, we have a very polarized political environment. The difficulty of trusting our leaders has led to trusting only those we know or those we think we know or those who are known by people we know. Political aggrupation then is also personal as there is no anchor to any institution as we barely have political institutions other than the government. Trust is based on personal and family relations, of school affiliations, professional and socio-civic organizations, ethno-linguistic or regional connection, religion, and anything that can allow one to be identified with a political leader or group of leaders and result to having some level of trust. Those who do not belong to our group or we find difficulty to identify with are therefore untrustworthy, dismissed as incompetent or frowned upon as inferior. Especially for those who have always been in positions of authority and or power or simply influence, anyone who suddenly gets to power who are not of the same group as they are would have to be discarded in whatever way possible.

It’s a vicious cycle and has led to the country’s failure to reach its full potential. We have had 5 presidential and 6 midterm elections, all relatively peaceful, and led to constitutional transition to a new administration after another. Continuity in government, in terms of policies and development programs however is hardly there. Every change of President almost always results to some clean slate, as if all that was done by the previous leadership should be discarded. In some cases however, the same policy or program is retained, but has to be given a different name, as it should not be credited to the previous leadership. Every new administration seems to just always have to have a complete break from its predecessor. In fact, especially with the previous government, anything and everything that’s bad or did not work is the fault of the administration before. Before, it was still possible to find convergence in policies and between leaders, but the situation now is different, as it has become acrimonious. Politics today follows a rather straightforward rule; if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

How much longer can we stand this situation? We now hear so many complaints about the recent elections, that it was rigged and that we now have the worst government led by the baddest President. Because the result is something unacceptable to them, it must be rigged or that the electorate is so stupid that they are the ones voted to office. And there is no letup; recently you have text messages circulating we now have a new President. But this President, and all the other officials, were elected under the same system that the previous leaders were elected. Does this mean that the system is okay except that incumbent leaders elected under the same system are unacceptable and therefore we should get rid of them? If this is the case, then it only means we have an expendable system or no system at all. It only means that the rules of the game remain the rules only when it suits them.

If we then agree that it's the system that has led to this kind of government, how do we move forward? It is always easy to blame other people for the kind of government we have. Thinking again however, those who have been vociferously against this government have been in government before, for the longest time in fact. These are the leaders who had their chance of serving the people, of earnestly working for development in the country. If they did exactly what was expected of them, they could not have missed the need to introduce systemic reforms. Sadly, they failed, or did not even attempt to change the system. If we still have nincompoops and charlatans elected to office, whose objective is only to make the most out of their positions, who do you think should we now blame? The electorate who many would always call stupid? Or those who have been in a position to introduce change but did not do anything?

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

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