For most of my life, I have been both a sociologist and an activist. After obtaining a PhD in sociology from Princeton in 1975, I plunged into full-time activism, first as part of the movement to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, then as a militant in the international movement against corporate-driven globalization. I returned to academic life in 1994, spending the next 15 years as a professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines at Diliman. In 2009, I became a legislator for a progressive political party in the House of Representatives of the Philippines.
The progressive record of the party to which I belong, Akbayan, was forged during its first decade of existence, 1998 to 2009, when it was for the most part in the opposition. In the legislative arena, the party’s crusading spirit was expressed in a series of bills its representatives filed in Congress, the most prominent of which were the Reproductive Health Bill and a bill to reinvigorate the faltering agrarian reform effort. Bills to end discrimination against the LGBT community, institute appropriate land use, extend absentee voting rights to Filipinos overseas, promote security of tenure for workers, and introduce socialized housing to benefit the urban poor were among our other key legislative initiatives.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the party during this period of opposition was the passage of the bill extending agrarian reform, better known as “CARPER” in 2009, an endeavor I participated in as a novice congressman. Akbayan played a central role coordinating the legislative effort with mass actions on the ground, and it was this formula that eventually delivered victory.
From Opposition to Ruling Coalition
It was with this high profile record of firmly pushing the people’s agenda that the party held its fifth national congress in 2009, when it took up the question of whether it would support the Liberal Party (LP) candidate for the 2010 presidential elections. The debate turned on whether the likely candidate could be relied on to carry out a reform program. It was clear to most Akbayan members that while the LP candidate would most likely not have a left-wing program of wealth redistribution, participatory democracy, and defense of national sovereignty, there was a strong possibility that he or she would carry a good governance or anti-corruption agenda. Given the horribly corrosive effects of corruption on our democracy, good governance was one of the people’s overriding demands, and, in Akbayan’s view, being part of a reform coalition centered on seriously cleaning up government was a progressive move.
But while the anti-corruption agenda was the decisive factor that led Akbayan to support the LP candidate, we also had widespread expectations that he or she would be favorable to other parts of the Akbayan agenda, notably reproductive health and agrarian reform. In the period from 1998 to 2010, the controversial Reproductive Health Bill, of which my party was one of the principal sponsors, had moved to the center of congressional debate. As for agrarian reform, there existed the recently passed CARPER law awaiting implementation by a reform coalition in power. Moreover, we felt that as the coalition evolved, we could “push the envelope” to eventually gain support for other prongs of our party’s reform agenda. These other items in the party’s agenda were an independent foreign policy, especially in relation to the United States; repeal of the automatic appropriations act that made the primary item in the national budget the servicing of the foreign and domestic debt; and the elimination of neoliberal measures in trade, finance, and investment that exposed the local economy to the ravages of the global market.
The LP candidate, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, son of the iconic former President Corazon Aquino and the martyred Benigno Aquino, won the elections. Being the principal representative of Akbayan in the House, the next five years gave me an intense, first-hand experience of the opportunities and constraints of coalition politics facing a progressive party that is a minor partner in a coalition dominated by liberals and traditional politicians.
The following account discusses my party’s experience in pushing three central advocacies as a participant in a governing coalition: reproductive health, agrarian reform, and good governance.
Winning on the Cultural Front
The struggle for a government-supported family planning program, to address both the issue of poverty and women’s reproductive health, has been one of the priorities of the progressive movement since the late 1990’s. When the new administration came to power in 2010, the Reproductive Health Bill, of which my party was one of the principal sponsors, had been on the legislative agenda for 12 years. The biggest block has been the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
In the years leading up to the decisive battle in the 15th Congress, the pro-reproductive health or pro-RH forces had managed to circumvent this block in two ways. First, they built a multiclass alliance for family planning, reaching out not only to the poor and middle class but to the elite as well. Undoubtedly, many in the elite that swung around to the family planning side did so out of enlightened self interest, meaning they saw a reduced birth rate among the lower classes as a way to ease popular pressures for redistribution. However, a not insignificant number, especially from the ranks of upper and middle class women, were won over by the argument that control over childbearing and family size would lead to greater women’s control over their lives.
The second strategy deployed by the movement to outflank Church opposition was to change the discourse. In the beginning of the parliamentary struggle over RH, the pro-family planning forces deployed the population control argument citing the Philippines’ unsustainable 2.5 per cent annual population growth. Against this, the bishops deployed the argument that artificial contraception was immoral because the only purpose of sex was to have children. This had, however, limited appeal, so they enlisted another argument, this one from the extreme left: that family planning was a tool promoted by the United States to keep third world populations down. Thus we had the incongruous spectacle of upper-class religious conservatives parading as anti-imperialists on the floor of the House of Representatives.
For a couple of years, armed with this bastard ideological formula of “anti-imperialism” and anti-contraception, the alliance between the bishops, religious conservatives in the House, and the president the blocked any movement on the legislative front, even as the rest of the country moved forward. Several factors broke the political stalemate in the 15th Congress (2010-2013). One was the election of a president who actively supported the bill. What was the decisive factor, however, was the women’s movement, which, in the 2000’s, reframed the issue as one of women’s reproductive rights and health. Women had the right to space their children and determine how many children they had. Women had the right to protect their family’s quality of life by limiting their offspring. Women had the right to family planning to preserve their health. It was a winning argument, one that was deployed with skill not only at the rational level but symbolically, through the strategic dissemination of the image of an all-male hierarchy and a predominantly male Congress controlling women’s choices. My party had been part of this process of reframing, and as a central participant in the heated debates during the 15th Congress, we reaped the benefits of a winning discourse.
By 2012, some 14 years after the RH bill was first introduced, the hierarchy and its allies in Congress were bereft of viable arguments and forced into pushing two related arguments that came across to the general public as outrageous or silly: that condoms and other contraceptives were “abortifacients,” and that there was no conceptual or real difference between contraception and abortion. The Church’s defeat was sealed, though the bishops chose to go down fighting during the congressional debates in 2012 and 2013. It was a spectacular end to a long cultural war.
The key lesson that I derived from this struggle is that even on burning cultural issues, progressives can register successes. In the RH battle, we witnessed the success of a strategy of constructing broad alliances across classes, with the end in view of driving a wedge between a conservative ideological institution and the ruling elites and the middle normally under its sway. Central to this strategy was an attractive human rights or gender rights discourse that promoted a self-image of being “enlightened” among elite and middle class supporters of the bill.
Agrarian Reform: the Hard Realities of Class
Let me now move to legislative initiatives that bear directly on class issues. The limits to advocacies that cut deeply into class interests are illustrated by the battle over agrarian reform, one of the priorities of my party.
Asia has been the site of four major successes in agrarian reform. China experienced revolutionary land reform during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In Japan, the Allied Occupation Government under Gen Douglas MacArthur used land reform to destroy the landed elite that had served as the social base of militarism. South Korea and Taiwan saw reform from above carried out as a policy to preempt peasant insurgency. In contrast, despite the fact that land reform efforts extend back to the early 1960’s, land redistribution in the Philippines has been extremely slow and the program has been condemned as a failure by critics both on the left and the right.
The Marcos dictatorship had a land reform program in the early seventies but this was placed on hold owing to landlord resistance. With the overthrow of the regime in 1986, a new, ambitious effort was launched under the administration of President Corazon Aquino to redistribute some 10.3 million hectares of tenanted land. The period was a time of great ferment, and undoubtedly a great impetus to the passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) in 1988 was the rural insurgency led by the New People’s Army (NPA). The law passed, but with many loopholes attached by a landlord-dominated Congress that practically limited land redistribution to public land and left much private land untouched for the next two decades.
With CARP in the doldrums, progressive and liberal elements in Congress were able to pass a new law (CARPER) extending agrarian reform and providing it with sufficient funds for land acquisition and support services and plugging many of the loopholes of the 1988 legislation. Two factors contributed to the passage in 2009 of CARPER, of which my party was a principal sponsor and in which I participated as a novice congressman. One was that the number of members of Congress having extensive landholdings had significantly decreased. Second, the movement for agrarian justice came to life, electrified by such events as the now legendary Sumilao farmers’ march which saw a band of peasants advocating agrarian reform undertake a 1700 kilometer march from the island of Mindanao to the presidential palace.
Yet one of the lessons of the agrarian reform campaign in the Philippines is that even if a unique conjuncture of events make it possible to pass a strong law, absence of political will can prevent reform. In the last five years, when a reform coalition has been in power, this is exactly what has happened: presidential neglect and the lack of courage to confront the landlords on the part of the minister in charge of the reform resulted in over 700,000 hectares remaining undistributed by the end of the period of land acquisition and distribution on June 30, 2014. Most of these undistributed lands are private lands that constitute the best lands in the country.
Pressure from the party forced the president to promise peasant representatives in a meeting in June 2012 that he would meet the deadline for land redistribution. When this had no discernible effect on the pace of reform, I publicly called for the agrarian reform secretary’s dismissal. The president ignored this, even as I became increasingly vocal about my opinion that the secretary was one of the main obstacles to his keeping his promise to the peasants. The president’s sheltering of this timid, incompetent official, along with his own nonchalant attitude towards completing the program, was one of the factors that led to my resignation in March 2015.
This is where things are at at this point: agrarian reform has ground to a halt despite the existence of a powerful law to implement it, having been stymied by landlord resistance, presidential neglect, and bureaucratic timidity.
The Good Governance Debacle
I have reserved for last the party’s experience in our advocacy for good governance. The promise that an administration led by the Liberal Party would be serious about reducing, if not eliminating, corruption was the main reason my party joined the reform coalition in 2010. And it was on this issue that I eventually fell out with both the president and my party five years later, leading to my resignation as the party’s senior legislator in the House of Representatives.
A strong momentum for reform on the good governance front did mark the first years of the Aquino administration. As the principal representative of the party in Congress, it was exhilarating to be part of this reform push, the most critical thrust of which was the prosecution of the former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for widespread corruption during her nine years in power. The high point of this effort involved the removal of two of Arroyo’s principal allies in 2011-12–via resignation under fire in the case of Ombudsman she had appointed and through impeachment and conviction for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust in the case of the Supreme Court Chief Justice that she installed in office shortly before her tenure ended.
The elections of May 2013 were interpreted by many, including myself, as a vote of confidence in the administration. But the honeymoon with civil society did not last long. The cause of the discord was a legacy of the American colonial period, the “pork barrel” or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a sum allocated by the chief executive to each senator and member of the House of Representatives. Over time, legislators had developed a sense of entitlement to the pork barrel, at the same time that the executive had made use of it as means of winning over and controlling members of Congress.
After the elections of 2013 it came to light that a skilled political operative named Janet Lim-Napoles had set up fake organizations through which legislators would channel funds meant for development projects and social services to themselves, with Napoles taking a cut for her services. The result was a massive scandal that stoked popular revulsion. What came to be known as the “Napoles scam” showed the pernicious ways the pork barrel was used by legislators. However, instead of taking the lead and seeing the occasion as an opportunity to do away with a long controversial institution of patronage, the president waffled, initially defending it, then backtracking and abolishing it when public opinion became overwhelmingly in favor of its elimination.
As for my party, its longstanding position on PDAF had been to call for its abolition in principle, but until such a time when it could realistically be abolished, to avail of it for projects benefiting the poor and the marginalized. The Napoles scandal made it clear to me that it was time for the party not only to call for PDAF’s abolition in principle but to put its principles on the line by refusing to avail of the sums allocated for the party. To my consternation, my proposal was roundly trounced during a leadership meeting that was held a few days before the surprise presidential decision to abolish the pork barrel. Little did I know then that this was the first of a series of votes when I would find myself in the minority.
The president’s hesitation when it came to abolishing PDAF became understandable when a multibillion peso secret presidential slush fund called the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) came to light on the heels of the PDAF scandal.
The DAP issue hit at the very center of the administration’s good governance agenda. With the non-transparent, unaccountable, cavalier, and reckless manipulation of public funds, the administration was engaged in the same sort of behavior that it accused the previous administration of.
I had no doubt that the Supreme Court would rule DAP unconstitutional, and when it did declare three of the four modes of appropriation and spending as violating the charter, it was time, I felt, for the president to take decisive action to save his good governance platform. Being perceived as practicing double standards—using the good governance campaign to go after the administration’s enemies while protecting one’s corrupt supporters and allies–could be fatal to the coalition. During two leadership meetings of the party, I asked that the party demand that the president ask for the resignation of the Secretary of the Budget, Florencio Abad, Jr., who was principally responsible for concocting DAP. The majority disagreed with me, with some saying that the president was stubborn and to cross swords with him on the issue would simply make him even more stubborn. I said that this was fatalism, not a stance worthy of a progressive party, and that it was the role of progressives to “push the envelope” for reform in coalition deliberations even if this meant a steep uphill struggle.
Getting nowhere with the party leadership, I decided to write the president directly as a concerned citizen. In that letter, I argued that the president had no choice but to fire the Budget Secretary since “he committed a severe error of judgment in his liberal deployment and redeployment of funds appropriated for specific purposes by Congress. The congressional power of the purse is one of the key checks on the Executive, and Secretary Abad should have had a sense that his fast and loose manipulation of funds, with no sense of limits, might have involved a violation of the principle of the separation of powers. At the very least, his acts smacked of recklessness.”
“I find it hard to believe,” the letter continued, “that Mr. Abad was unaware of the tremendous power the Executive was acquiring over members of the Senate with the amounts ranging from P30 million to P100 million being given to each senator, in addition to the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel that was still in existence then. This is precisely the kind of presidential patronage subversive of the separation of powers the Constitution wanted to avert by specifying that the power of the purse belonged to Congress and that the use of appropriated funds by the Executive was to be strictly controlled by Congress.”
The letter raised the tensions within the Akbayan leadership to a higher pitch, with most members sharing the view I had no right to write the president as an individual, that as principal representative of the party in the public eye, my role was to reflect the party line whatever were my individual views. Subordinating my views to the party position was the price, I was told, of being the party’s most high-profile representative. It was an argument that gave me pause, though I must admit I initially resisted its unassailable logic.
It was now clear to me that the president would brook no criticism of his subordinates and that this fraternity-like way of running the country exemplified all that was wrong with political governance in the Philippines. It was also clear that the party leadership would not speak to him on my behalf, perhaps out of fear of angering him even further, losing influence with him, or even losing positions the party had obtained in the administration. In increasingly heated discussions, we in the minority reminded the majority that there were times that the party had to unambiguously choose its values over its interests, and that firmly standing up for good governance on the DAP issue was one of those occasions.
On January 25, 2015, the administration experienced its worst debacle, an anti-terrorist mission in Mindanao that went awry, resulting in the deaths of 44 members of the National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF), along with 18 militants of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with which the government had negotiated an autonomy agreement that was awaiting congressional approval.
The “Mamasapano raid,” as it came to be called, was an undiluted debacle, a dagger plunged in the heart of the administration’s good governance agenda. It exemplified bad governance on three counts. First, the president refused to acknowledge command responsibility for an operation that he ordered that had gone awry, violating a basic tenet of presidential leadership. Second, he illegally placed in command of the operation a crony of his, Purisima, who had been suspended by the Ombudsman. Third, he ordered a mission that was a priority of the United States, not the Philippines, and he did this knowing full well that a mishap in the mission, which involved an incursion into territory of the government’s negotiating partner, the MILF, without clearing it with the insurgent group, would endanger the passage of the Bangsa Moro Basic Law (BBL).
In the name of the administration’s good governance agenda, I demanded that the president take full responsibility for the fiasco and reveal all key dimensions of the raid, especially the role of the United States. As the administration’s crisis of authority mounted, I proposed to the party that we turn the debacle into an opportunity to push the envelope for reform. With the president in a weakened moral position, we should pressure him, I argued, not only to accept responsibility for the tragic raid, which the public was clamoring for, but also to shake up his cabinet by dismissing corrupt, inept, and reckless officials, among them the Secretaries of the Budget and Agrarian Reform This would, I contended, reinvigorate the tattered good governance program. The party leadership refused, again owing to concern that this would be counterproductive since it would do nothing but antagonize the president. More and more, it seemed to me that our disagreement no longer rested on differing assessments of the state of the coalition’s program of reform. More and more, I was being driven to my biggest fear: that the party’s values and principles were becoming hostage to its interests, including the positions that our members occupied at various levels of government.
The president’s intransigence on the question of owning up to responsibility for the tragedy and his continued sheltering of corrupt and inept cronies led me to the realization that I could no longer support him.
That meant I had to resign as Akbayan’s representative in the House of Representatives. For even as I was fully convinced that the party leadership was wrong in not backing me in demanding that the president live up to the principles of good governance by ceasing to shelter allies who had brought discredit to the good governance program, I had also come to accept that the leadership was correct in its position that one could no longer be the party’s representative in Congress if he could not agree with a basic party position, such as its continuing support for the president. No one asked me personally to resign, but the party’s code of conduct as a progressive party was clear: I had to go, and this I did on March 19, 2015.
Throughout this narrative, I have highlighted various lessons I drew from the pursuit of three advocacies: reproductive health, agrarian reform, and good governance.
The reproductive health struggle illustrated that cultural issues are an arena where the progressive agenda can be advanced through careful alliance building and control of discursive battlefield. In the fight for family planning, the pro-RH forces were able to create splits in the upper and middle classes, by substituting in place of the narrative of population control the discourse of women’s reproductive rights, creating the space for the passage of the law in spite of the fanatical opposition of the powerful Catholic Church
The second case study underlines that direct assaults on the structures of inequality are the hardest to win in a non-revolutionary political climate. The dynamic interaction of constraints and opportunities in such struggles is illustrated in long push for agrarian reform in the Philippines. Despite the skill of progressive forces in taking advantage of political conjunctures and spaces to forge a powerful legislative act, CARPER, during a conservative period, the structures of agrarian inequality have remained strong, owing to a combination of presidential neglect, bureaucratic timidity, and landlord resistance.
The third case study, on struggle for good governance, has a trove of rich lessons, though it exacted painful personal and political consequences. One lesson is that a coalition is dynamic. It evolves, and what might have been initially an alliance for reform may turn into something different.
A second lesson is that a progressive party must continually assess its membership in such a coalition, weighing its interests against its values. It is but natural for a party to have interests, like positions in the administration or influence within the coalition, but there may come a time when the maintenance of those interests might conflict with its fundamental values. At such critical junctures, a party of the left, if it is to maintain its integrity, must ensure that its values prevail.
A third lesson is that while it is only to be expected that in the normal course of events the party and its representatives in government have the same stands on issues that are relevant to its continuing participation in the coalition, there may arise occasions when, despite the best efforts on both sides, there may develop serious, if not insurmountable, differences of opinion. At such points, a progressive in government must follow what her conscience tells her is right, even if it means opposing the leadership of one’s party.
Let me end by saying being a progressive has several dimensions. It means having a vision about how society should be organized based on the values of equality, justice, solidarity, and sovereignty. It means having a political program to realize this vision. But it also means projecting an ethical, moral stance. And perhaps, at a time that people have become so cynical about visions and programs because words are cheap and because opportunism and corruption are so rife across the political spectrum, the distinguishing mark of a true progressive holding public office is her or his ethical behavior. For me, being a progressive in the corridors of power means, above all, being steadfast in holding on to one’s principles and values, even if this means losing one’s position, possessions, or life.
*Walden Bello was a representative of Akbayan in the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines from February 2009 to March 19, 2015.