26 March 2007

Diminished leaders, or a pool of inferior choices?

THREE QUICK points in reaction to Manolo's column today, using our experience in Naga as reference. Whether a local experience like ours will hold water at the national level is entirely another matter, so let me proceed with this caveat in mind.

1. Clear mandate, not majority. When Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo won for the first time in 1988, he won by a margin of less than 1,000, over a field at least four candidates. At best, his mandate was by merely plurality. But the results, including that slim winning edge, were accepted by all other parties to the election, particularly then well-known lawyer and current LTO Bicol chief Ramon Roco, younger brother of the late Sen. Raul Roco, who placed second. Further, only three of the elected city councilors came from his ticket; the rest, lionized in local media as the "Magnificent Seven," belonged to Roco's camp.

But that did not prevent him from going against vested interests -- like jueteng and other forms of illegal gambling, lewd show operators, ghost employees and public transport terminal operators -- even to the extent that he had to sever ties with his uncle, then Camarines Sur governor and now 2nd district congressman Luis Villafuerte. Bicol Mail editor Joe Perez's column here has the details on what triggered their split.

2. Inferior choices = diminished leaders. I agree, however, when Manolo said, echoing what GMA declared in her SONA, that our debased and degenerate system has a lot to do with the kind of presidents we have had.

This system is dominated by powerful gatekeepers that frown on well-meaning outsiders and lone rangers -- like Roco and Jovito Salonga -- who are bigger risks to their political and business interests. The media, especially TV, is also a party to it, with its inane programming content biased towards the bottomline instead of the vital public service function they are supposed to perform. So what you get are inferior choices in a pool that gets shallower every time since EDSA '86, and voters who mostly don't know any better.

3. Public participation depends on the space allowed it. If public participation appears to have peaked, it is because our national leaders and their cohorts find it to their advantage to either lay off and do nothing, or worse constrict if not castrate, the democratic space available for its survival and development.

In Naga, for instance, the Sangguniang Panlungsod strictly enforced the Local Government Code provision for NGO accreditation, and went beyond it: they were later federated into what became the Naga City People's Council (NPCP) which selects their own representatives to all local special bodies, up to all standing committees of the sanggunian; and participation by organized groups and individual citizens was welcomed as a strategy to promote inclusivity and sustainability.

In short, the city government realized the value of participation, embraced it and let it flower, in the process sacrificing short-term gains and benefits that can be derived from complete lack of transparency that attends Philippine governance as we know it today. You cannot say the same thing about GMA and her administration.

The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that Urbano's prescriptions on the flawed design of our democracy make sense. If democracy is thriving at some key nondescript communities at the local level, far from the radar of Imperial Manila, the system must explicitly allow them to both flourish at the periphery and inform/reform the center.