Outside, looking in

Remarks at the Akbayan party-list group’s 16th anniversary program, held on January 30, 2014.

Thank you. I am honored by your invitation. At the same time, I must confess to an inconvenient concern: a journalist in a political assembly should be on the sidelines, not at the podium. So if you will allow me, I will rationalize my presence here today, in my capacity as a writer of columns and editorials, as an act of truth-telling. Incomplete, certainly; maybe even incoherent; but independent truth-telling.

It must be a time of mixed emotions for Akbayan. Your political base remains robust enough to regularly send representatives to Congress, major legislation that you support such as the Reproductive Health bill have become law, some of your leaders are serving in high government offices, and you have the President’s ear. But Risa’s second run for the Senate ended up just short again, and the prospect of a national consensus behind either party leader or political program looks less bright than a year ago.

But in fact, Akbayan did better in 2013 than it did in 2010; Risa [Hontiveros] gained over a million more votes than the first time, and her vote total in 2013 was twice that of Teddy Casino of Bayan Muna. But the rules of political arithmetic are unforgiving. Population growth, electoral cycles, and (not least) campaign funds are as much a determinant of success at the polls as candidate character or party platform.

Where does Akbayan go from here?

I was asked to share my candid thoughts, my honest opinion, as an outsider to (but also an occasional voter for) the party. This is what I see from the outside, looking in.

You cannot go back again.

By that I mean that now that you are part of mainstream politics, you can no longer act as though you are an alternative political party. At least, public opinion won’t allow you that leeway.

What do I mean? Let me explain with an example from a previous political crisis.

In August 2005, a month after the so-called Hyatt 10 resignations helped bring the Arroyo administration to the brink of collapse, Dinky Soliman, for whom I have nothing but the highest admiration, wrote a long letter explaining her decision to resign. It was a candid, soul-baring letter, intellectually searching and morally courageous, but like many other readers, I also found it unsatisfactory for a particular reason.

I wrote then:

… I’ve been thinking about the difference between the language of participation and the language of protest. Protest is easy enough to parse: walkouts, boycotts, abstentions, civil disobedience, and other synonyms of refusal. Participation is the language that civil-society leaders and organizers like Dinky and Ging Deles started to speak when they joined government service. It is the rhetoric of engagement (and hence compromise).

Perhaps … people sense that while it is possible to shift from one language to another, it is done rarely, and with great difficulty. Perhaps people sense that, having mastered the language of participation in the last four years (through some difficult times, such as the debates on the expanded Balikatan war games or the acrimony over the entry into the Cabinet of Blas “Always-on-the-other-side-of-Edsa” Ople), civil-society gurus like Dinky and Ging now have a marked, disconcerting accent, when they speak the language of protest …

I think this limitation now applies to Akbayan as well. Having practiced the language of participation in the last four years, you can no longer speak the language of protest with the same kind of credibility as in the past.

I am not referring to the usual tactics of minority politics: procedural delays, privilege speeches, even (in the least political branch of government) dissenting opinions. I mean something more fundamental: protest actions such as walkouts and boycotts are a form of rejection of the prevailing system. One who accepts that system (including the challenge to reform it from within) by joining the mainstream will find it difficult to convince others to swim against the current.

Please note that I did not say that you can no longer act as alternative politicians. You certainly can, and you should. To use language older than those of participation or protest, you must serve as a leaven. Personal integrity is important, but the real need is for the embrace of the true foundation stone of a republic: public virtue. A corps of political activists dedicated to the honor and glory of the country, consumed with the ideal of public service, will raise the quality of mainstream politics.

You cannot go back again, but at the same time you must find your way back —- all the way to the beginning of our history as a nation.

The roots of your politics lie entangled in the freedom struggle during the martial law years, and it is only right that your political statements, your party positions, reflect that background.

But is it possible that your references are too limiting, your sense of history too, well, recent? I realize that it is a journalist obsessed with the rough drafts of history asking the question, but setting aside the question of possible bias: You might want to consider integrating your political program into a historical framework that goes beyond the First Quarter Storm.

In the first quarter of 2011, Social Weather Stations asked voting-age Filipinos who, in their opinion, were the country’s true heroes. (The actual question was: “Sino-sino po ang mga taong kinikilala ninyong tunay na bayaning Pilipino? Maaari po kayong magbanggit ng hanggang limang tao.”)

Rizal, Bonifacio and Ninoy Aquino were top of mind.

Across the board, about three-quarters of all respondents named Rizal as a genuine hero: 74 percent in Metro Manila, 79 percent in the rest of Luzon, 78 percent in the Visayas, 68 percent in Mindanao—75 percent throughout the Philippines.

Bonifacio was a consistent though distant second: 47 percent in Metro Manila, 34 percent in the rest of Luzon, 35 percent in the Visayas, 25 percent in Mindanao—and 34 percent throughout the Philippines.

Ninoy ran third in the people’s list: 33 percent in Metro Manila, 18 percent in the rest of Luzon, 20 percent in the Visayas, 15 percent in Mindanao, 20 percent in the entire Philippines.

The proportions are about the same, when considering socio-economic classes. Rizal, for instance, polled as follows: 70 percent in class ABC, 75 percent in class D, 79 percent in class E.

What do these numbers tell us?

I am happy to note, first, that the martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino has found its place in the national narrative of heroism. The survey includes some surprising findings. In class ABC, for instance, the same proportion of respondents, 23 percent, included Bonifacio and Aquino in their lists. And in Mindanao, Cory Aquino outpolled Ninoy, 19 to 15 percent.

Second, the preeminence of Rizal is overwhelming, and to those of us who went to college under the steady influence of Renato Constantino’s selective and misleading reading of Rizal, somewhat surprising. But there is truly something we can all learn from Rizal and the so-called Generation of ’72: the youthful cohort who were traumatized and politicized by the gratuitous execution of the priests Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora. The true beginnings of the Filipino nation can be traced here.

In eight years, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the imposition of martial law. Your constituents will fully expect you to mark this national tragedy with the appropriate initiatives, perhaps even lead the nation in vowing, Never Again. But the same year will also mark the 150th anniversary of the Gomburza execution. You might want to take part in the commemorative rites too.

But enough of the past.

You must go forward, and take full part in the defining struggle of our time: the fight against inequality.

Corruption is the familiar dragon that we seek to slay, but there is a bigger monster lurking in the background. We often define this behemoth in economic terms, in terms of the widening gap between the richest and the poorest. But in truth, inequality rears its ugly head in education, in business, in culture, in religion, in politics.

Difficult times lie ahead. In part, the difficulty lies in the terrain that you’ve chosen to put your stake in, towards the political center. That is, I suspect, where most Filipinos would place themselves, if asked. But standing out, cutting a profile, is easier when you’re standing on one edge, leveraging the extreme. But governing — governing is hard work indeed.

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