Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“All politics is local”

Long-time Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is remembered best for two quotes, both borne out of long experience in the arcane art of politics. “People like to be asked”, he said, recounting the story of a failed politician who lost his pursuit of elective office, and learned after defeat that even his neighbour did not vote for him. After the bitterness of personal defeat had mellowed, he asked his neighbour how come he did not vote for him. The neighbour answered, “you never asked me for my vote”. People like to be asked. People want to feel needed.

But the politics of character-reading aside, the more significant lesson one learns from Speaker Tip’s long career is his dictum that “all politics is local”. Even Barack Obama, whose campaign is now widely touted as “new age” politics, widely utilizing the information highway, which was non-existent in O’Neill’s time, learned politics from his days as a community organizer, and applied his lessons in the larger canvass of national politics.

Obama welded together Speaker O’Neill’s dicta in a trailblazing campaign where he asked people to listen to his message of “change we can believe in” through wide and ingenious social networking through the internet. In America, practically every household has access to a computer. And capturing the Democratic nomination by outpolling Hillary who had longer and wider experience and following within the party showed how his community organizing skills resonated with the state politicians he assiduously courted.

The observation that “all politics is local” resonates even more in countries like the Philippines where the ideal level of political maturity has been stunted by decades of feudal politics and economic poverty. In the benighted land, the reality is that the mayor or governor is the “big boss” in the territory, and the guys who provide the “lifeline” (read that as plenty of money) for national politicians, are the “bosses” who matter most.

The provenance of lifeline or wherewithal from business depends on how they read their political tea leaves based on an amalgam of two factors they juxtapose together and then analyze: one is the survey which attempts nearest quantification of voter preferences; the other is the political infrastructure, which is where a network of supportive local politicians is the barometer.

It is where “all politics is local” that the behemoth Lakas-Kampi-CMD place all their eggs upon. Altogether, they control two-thirds of the House of Representatives, not including surrogates and sleepers in both party-lists and co-opted national parties. They have near 80% dominance of local government units.

But politics being local is also a source of national candidate weakness. Local politicians think of nothing other than their local politics. Only the sure winners, by virtue of long warlordism or constituent affection, can afford to think national when elections near. The rule is: think of yourself, and forget about the national candidates. Winning after all is everything, and winning an elective seat can be leveraged when dealing with a “transactional” president, or bargained when asking senators for local projects. That is how Philippine politics has degenerated into the realm of the feudal. And this practice has all the more strengthened its roots under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, even beyond Marcos, the most unabashedly transactional of all our leaders.

Focus on “all politics being local” has also created a great disconnect between the choices for local office and the voter’s choices for national office. The average Filipino voter can be a “command” vote when it comes to the mayor and his coterie of political hangers-on, but not when it comes to his “kursunada” for president, vice-president or senators. In this definition of “kursunada”, it is media, both paid and free, which plays the most functional role. In the run-up to 2010, Villar, Noli, even Mar have used “paid” media most, and Chiz hardly, using his gift of gab, thinking on his feet, and free media interviews optimally to increase his survey ratings.

Take what happened in the 2007 elections. Everybody and his mother in local politics was affiliated to or co-opted by Lakas-Kampi and GMA. But her Team Unity succeeded in getting only two old re-electionists to win: Angara and Joker. And a national neophyte to squeak in – Migs Zubiri. The winners by a mile were from the opposition --- Loren, Chiz, Ping, Noynoy, Cayetano, even Sonny Trillanes. Villar who styled himself as oppositionist and was adopted as a guest candidate by the GO, as well as Kiko Pangilinan, who, along with Greg Honasan, ran as independents. The “command” vote did not materialize, except perhaps in Ampatuan’s Maguindanao. And even that army of local politicians failed to elect Gloria favorites Mike Defensor and Chavit Singson, as well as Ralph Recto, her E-VAT author.

In 2004, as incumbent presiding over the widest coalition of local political forces, GMA had to conspire with Garci to squeak through with a million vote-margin over the hardly organized FPJ campaign. Even in 2001, when every local trapo had switched allegiance to the Dona after Edsa Dos, and when she herself was yet immensely popular, she could not afford to shut-out Dra. Loi and her hated Ping, let alone Ed Angara and Greg Honasan. In 1998, everyone was Lakas, but Erap won thrice as many votes as Joe de V. In 1992, everyone was LDP, but FVR and the independent Miriam thrashed Tata Monching Mitra.

This is not to suggest that a candidate for president can forget about cobbling together a political network of local politicians. Magmumukha kang kaawa-awa if you do not have candidates down to the local level. Even the then extremely popular Erap needed the LDP and adopted Ed Angara as his vice-presidential candidate in order to have a banner for local candidates to identify with. And so, the elections were framed as a fight between Erap and his Lammp coalition, versus Joe de V and his and FVR’s Lakas. The rest --- Lito Osmena, Raul Roco, Fred Lim, Renato de Villa, were “also-rans” for lack of anything but a network in a few provinces. Ditto the 2004 elections, where the fight became FPJ versus GMA.

But the 2010 elections will draw greater parallel in the elections of 1992. You have several candidates who by the time the starting gate opens will have relatively close survey numbers --- Chiz, Noli, Mar, Villar, even Erap. And single-digit raters like Gibo, perhaps Gordon and Bayani. Plus perhaps, and hopefully not, the tele-evangelists Brothers Mike V and Eddie V.

His money can buy Manny V the local “carrying capacity” of many Lakas-Kampi stalwarts. Already, Erico Aumentado of Bohol and Eleandro Madrona of Romblon, both Manny acolytes, are jettisoning whoever their merged party’s candidate will be, whether Noli or Gibo, in favour of Villar.

Mar’s Liberal Party needs more than just the following of two to three dozen local biggies. Can he get the LP-Atienza to return to the fold? That’s a tall order, because Mar, in fairness to his advocacies, has been stridently anti-Gloria. Tukayo’s LP followers will go to each his own. Why, even Lito himself has sought, and gotten, Erap’s support for a re-match with Manila’s Mayor Fred Lim. Where would small Mike and Quezon’s Danny Suarez re-locate?

Chiz and/or Loren has the NPC, but Chiz’ numbers if they hold, and Loren’s numbers, if they do not increase, means the NPC will likely field the younger Chiz as their presidential candidate. The NPC may not be that large, but its following has shown extreme loyalty to their “boss”, Ambassador Danding Cojuangco. And they are the likelier shelter of many from the other parties. Already, Kampi stalwart Louie Villafuerte has declared support for NPC’s Chiz, and many are expected to follow suit.

The ultimate victims of “all politics is local” will be Noli, who courts none of them, and Gibo, even if he tries to court the local trapos. As GMA’s lame-duck presidency gets lamer, the desertions will be an avalanche into the other camps. It would have been different if Noli had not played jele-jele, and GMA had decided early on to choose a “champion” on whom to pass her baton.

Cory had no such personal dilemma. She had eschewed any thoughts of re-election early on, content that her place in history was secure. Hers was a political dilemma --- who to endorse, whether Ninoy’s friend Monching Mitra, her friend Celing Fernan, or the man who mutinied against Marcos and kept off the coup attempts against her presidency --- FVR, whom she eventually blessed.

GMA wants to remain in power, more in fear rather than greed (others would dispute this). In the process, she will hollow out her own Lakas-Kampi-CMD, whose carrion will be divvied up by the other contenders.

Unless her Plans B to Z can yet be carried out. But that’s another devious story, the sub-plots of which are far too extensive for several articles to tackle.

Meanwhile, let’s look for more signs from the SONA, and its aftermath. As for that much-lusted for, and now much-ballyhooed Obama encounter ---finally --- perish the speculations. It will be goodbye. Just that. Hello! And goodbye.