WITH at least five political progressives in the Senate (if four more had managed to score victories in addition to Senator Hontiveros), we would surely see a sea change in the direction and direction of Philippine legislation in the upper house, which will engages in policy development with the House of Representatives. And it will be for the sectors that will need good policy the most.
You may ask, in what areas exactly? The introduction of pre-distribution and redistribution programs in current legislation, which can range from lifting the education system out of its mediocre state, to improving the overall delivery of safety nets, to feeding children malnourished in public schools, up to the use of fiscal resources reforms to introduce a wealth tax. Progressives in the Senate can also stop the House’s irresponsible and often unconstitutional legislation that seeks to remove the heritage and equity provisions from the Constitution. Under the specious guise of generating investment.
Any attempt to change the form of government as a back door to keep the authoritarians in power via convenient political charter change will have to go through a gauntlet of progressive opposition senators.
Progressives in many of these legitimate causes do not need a majority. They just need enough numbers to form a central bloc that will, in turn, push for progressive policies and thwart authoritarian attempts to overthrow the workings and institutions of democracy. Even non-progressives in the 24-member chamber can be persuaded to reject questionable policies, with nudges from a prominent progressive bloc. (Examples from the previous Congress: the Senate’s refusal to pass the House Economic Charter change initiative, the Senate’s refusal to ratify RCEP, for fear of further strangling the dying agricultural sector.) But here’s the problem. There is no way this will happen in the real world of Philippine politics under the new administration.
With only Senator Hontiveros as a certified progressive in the Senate, the dream of political progressives to write and pass serious and meaningful legislation and to torpedo autocracy is now a big question mark, if not entirely out of the equation. Politics. As the new Congress convenes next month, the title of this piece provides reality for political progressives. They will write screeds of reform. With the support of like-minded scholars, they can write and propose comprehensive reform programs. But the real work of writing and passing critical and important policies will be done by people like Robin Padilla, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada, all senators in the country. What Robin, Bong and Jinggoy et al. the intent to write and adopt will be the lay of the land, not the well-researched, data-driven comprehensive reform programs written by political progressives.
The tragedy of Filipino progressives, if you look at the wider world, is a microcosm of what is happening in many democracies. Idealistic leaders with considerable megaphones can be found everywhere – in mainstream politics, in universities, in professional groups, in the labor movement and in civil society. They can influence the national conversation, and they can write thought-provoking pieces that truly reflect the nation’s epic areas of failure – with corresponding corrective prescriptions. Filipino progressives now have the enthusiastic support of cultural heavyweights – writers, movie stars, big names in the performing arts, and more.
Unfortunately, with virtually no substantial impact on current legislation. And the disconnect between paper results and political victories is obvious.
What progressive political forces have failed to achieve, at least since Mr. Duterte came to power, is to win a significant number of seats in the Senate and the House, where the elaboration takes place politics. The stark reality is that championing the highest and grandest reform agenda is one thing. Having the power to translate these screeds into policies is another. Indeed, the most gifted progressive intellectual can write the most comprehensive program of reform that offers solutions to our deep socio-economic woes. But the mandate and the power to write policies belong to Robin, Bong and Jinggoy who tend to dismiss these serious proponents as useless intellectual eggheads.
Thomas Piketty, a progressive French economist who wrote Capital in the 21st Century, admits that there is now a “Brahmin left” – progressive intellectuals who wield outsized cultural powers. The problem is, a problem that truly reflects Filipino progressives, that cultural power often does not translate into legislative and political victories. Because control of the legislative process is held by someone else.
Bhaskar Sunkara, a political writer who founded the leftist magazine Jacobin and former vice president of the Democratic Socialists of America (the American left is our political progressives’ version – they read Marx, but they’re not Marxists, they’re basically New Deal progressives), said the American left is “too big to be completely wiped off the map and too incompetent in our ability to carry out our agenda.”
Powerful in terms of cultural presence but “excluded from power”.
This accurately sums up the state of the Filipino progressive movement.
The lesson here for Filipino political progressives and their like-minded counterparts in other democracies? Win enough seats in congresses and parliaments. It is not enough that progressives are adept at writing screeds of reform. They need to get enough votes to get adequate representation in the bodies that pass laws, shape and approve national budgets, ratify treaties and trade pacts. If possible, win the presidency and sweep the elections at the LGU level.
Otherwise, all that solid grounding in progressive, data-driven, and grassroots policies that can be easily adapted to national budget priorities will be a wasted effort. Working papers and policy screeds can only become real programs with working numbers in the chambers that write and adopt the policies.
To make a real difference in people’s lives, progressives must first win electoral victories.