Power and Principle: The Vicissitudes of a Sociologist in Parliament

by Walden Bello, Emeritus Professor, University of the Philippines at Diliman, and former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, 2009-15

Walden Bello is a Filipino sociologist of immense international stature as a scholar and public intellectual. He has published major books on development and politics, including the Anti-Development State (2004), Food Wars (2009) and most recently Capitalism’s Last Stand? Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (2013). Apart from being professor at the University of the Philippines, he directed the US-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) (1990-94) and was the founding director of the Bangkok-based institute, Focus on the Global South. He is a regular contributor to newspaper columns all over the world and has been the recipient of many international awards, including the Right Livelihood Prize (aka the Alternative Nobel Prize) and the Outstanding Public Scholar Award of the International Studies Association. Here he describes his experiences and dilemmas as a sociologist in politics – the principal representative of the Filipino opposition party, Akbayan, in the Philippine House of Representatives. Professor Bello was a plenary speaker at the ISA World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama (July 2014). An extended version of this article can be found at Global Express.

For most of my life, I have been both a sociologist and an activist. In 1975, with a newly-minted Princeton PhD in sociology, I plunged into full-time activism, first to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines as a member of the underground National Democratic Front’s international wing, then as a militant against corporate-driven globalization. From 1994 to 2009, I taught 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 party to which I belong, Akbayan, forged a progressive identity from 1998 to 2009, expressing its crusading spirit through congressional proposals including the Reproductive Health Bill, agrarian reform efforts, initiatives to end discrimination against the LGBT community, extension of absentee voting rights to Filipinos overseas, promotion of workers’ security, and introduction of socialized housing for the urban poor.

In 2009, the party debated whether to support the Liberal Party (LP) candidate in the 2010 presidential elections – a question that turned on whether the candidate could be relied on to carry out a reform program. While the Liberal candidate would probably not promote wealth redistribution, participatory democracy, or defense of national sovereignty, most Akbayan supporters believed the Liberals would support good governance or anti-corruption – an overriding demand, given the corrosive effects of corruption on our democracy.

But while the LP’s anti-corruption agenda was decisive, we also expected an LP candidate would look favorably on other parts of our agenda, notably reproductive health and agrarian reform. By 2010, the long-controversial Reproductive Health Bill had moved to the center of congressional debate, while a recently passed agrarian reform law – again one of my party’s main concerns – awaited implementation; moreover, we expected to be able to push other key issues, including an independent foreign policy; repeal of the automatic appropriations act that prioritizes the servicing of foreign and domestic debt; and the elimination of neoliberal measures in trade, finance, and investment.

The LP candidate Benigno Simeon Aquino III (son of iconic former President Corazon Aquino and martyred Benigno Aquino) was elected President in 2010. Over the next five years, as Akbayan’s principal representative in the House, I gained first-hand experience of the opportunities and constraints that participation in a coalition dominated by liberals and traditional politicians offers a progressive party.

Winning on the Cultural Front
Filipino progressives have long sought a government-supported family planning program, to address both poverty and women’s reproductive health. By 2010, when the new administration came into office, my party and other progressives had kept the Reproductive Health Bill on the legislative agenda for twelve years. Despite fierce opposition from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, progressives had built a multiclass alliance, reframing the issue in terms of women’s reproductive rights and health. It was a winning argument, deployed with skill not only at a rational level, but also symbolically through the strategic dissemination of images of an all-male hierarchy and a predominantly male Congress controlling women’s choices. By 2012, we had successfully driven a wedge between a conservative ideological institution and part of the ruling elite and the middle class normally under its sway, and the Bill became law.

Agrarian Reform: the Hard Realities of Class
Agrarian reform, however, illustrates the difficulties of coalition politics, especially around issues touching on class interests. Although land reform efforts date back to the early 1960s in the Philippines, vast inequalities persist. In the 1970s, the Marcos dictatorship’s land reform program faced landlord resistance; it was placed on hold. After Marcos’ overthrow in 1986, President Corazon Aquino’s administration launched an ambitious project to redistribute some 10.3 million hectares, partly in response to the New People’s Army’s rural insurgency. However, a landlord-dominated Congress attached loopholes to the law, effectively limiting redistribution efforts to public land – leaving the most productive privately-owned land untouched.

In my first year in Congress, Akbayan successfully co-sponsored a new agrarian reform law (CARPER), providing sufficient funds for land acquisition and plugging legal loopholes. The bill passed because the number of large landlords in Congress had significantly decreased, while a popular movement for agrarian justice had come back to life, electrified by a band of peasants, who marched 1.700 kilometers, from the island of Mindanao to the presidential palace.

Yet even if a strong law is passed, political will is required for its implementation. Since the law’s passage, presidential neglect and an unwillingness to confront landlords have left untouched some 700,000 eligible hectares – mostly private, including some of the country’s best agricultural lands. Agrarian reform has ground to a halt, stymied by landlord resistance, presidential neglect, and bureaucratic timidity. The reformist President’s refusal to dismiss the timid, incompetent official in charge of land reform, along with the President’s nonchalant attitude toward this reform, was one of the factors behind my resignation in March 2015.

The Good Governance Debacle
Let me finally turn to my party’s experience in advocating for good governance. The promise that a Liberal Party administration would be serious about addressing corruption was the main reason Akbayan joined the reform coalition in 2010. Five years later, it was this issue that prompted my resignation.

The first years of the Aquino administration were marked by a campaign for good governance. As Akbayan’s principal representative in Congress, it was exhilarating to be part of this reform push, including the prosecution of the former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for widespread corruption. The May 2013 elections were interpreted by many, including myself, as a vote of confidence in the Liberal administration.

But the honeymoon did not last. The Philippine political system has an institution called the “pork barrel” or “Priority Development Assistance Fund” (PDAF) inherited from the US colonial period whereby the President allocates a specified sum to each member of Congress to use for projects in his or her constituency. Soon afterwards, we learned that a skilled political operative, Janet Lim-Napoles, had set up fake organizations through which legislators could channel PDAF funds meant for development projects and social services to themselves, with Napoles taking a cut for her services. The “Napoles scam” provoked widespread revulsion and many calls to eliminate PDAF. I strongly believed that my party should have stuck to its principles, joined the call to abolish PDAF, and refused to avail itself of the sums allocated for the party by the President – but to my consternation, my proposal was roundly trounced during a leadership meeting.

Soon, another scandal erupted over a multibillion peso secret presidential slush fund, the Disbursement Acceleration Program. With the non-transparent, unaccountable, reckless manipulation of public funds, the administration was engaged in the same sort of behavior it had accused the previous administration of. When the Supreme Court ruled the program unconstitutional, it was time, I felt, for the President to take decisive action.

When I called on my party to ask the President to demand resignations of the responsible officials, however, some fellow party members disagreed, saying it would only make the President more stubborn – a fatalistic response I considered unworthy of a progressive party. Getting nowhere with the party leadership, I wrote to the President directly, arguing as a concerned citizen that the President should fire the Budget Secretary because of “his fast and loose manipulation of funds, with no sense of limits.” The program, I wrote, created “precisely the kind of presidential patronage subversive of the separation of powers the Constitution wanted to avert” by giving the Executive Branch direct financial clout over members of the Senate and the House.

My letter raised tensions within the Akbayan leadership: most members argued that I had no right to write the President as an individual. Subordinating my personal views to the party position was the price, I was told, of being the party’s most high-profile representative.

As our internal party debates continued, the administration experienced a second debacle: on January 25, 2015, an anti-terrorist mission in Mindanao went awry, resulting in the death of 44 members of the National Police’s Special Action Force – along with eighteen militants of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with which the government was then negotiating a tentative autonomy agreement.

The “Mamasapano raid” exemplified bad governance on three counts. First, the President refused to take responsibility for an operation he had ordered, violating a basic tenet of presidential leadership. Second, he illegally gave command of the operation to a crony in the leadership of the national police who had been suspended on charges of corruption by the country’s Ombudsman. Third, he ordered a mission reflecting American priorities, not those of the Philippines – knowing that a mishap would undermine crucial peace negotiations. In the name of good governance, I demanded that the President take full responsibility for the fiasco and reveal all dimensions of the raid, especially the role of the United States.

As the administration’s crisis of authority mounted, I asked Akbayan to push for reform. With the President in a weakened moral position, I argued, we should pressure him not only to accept responsibility for the tragic raid, but also to dismiss corrupt, inept, and reckless officials, reinvigorating the tattered good governance program. The party leadership refused.

Unable to support a President who refused to take responsibility for the tragedy and who continued to shelter corrupt and inept cronies, my resignation as Akbayan’s representative in the House of Representatives was inevitable. Convinced as I was that the party leadership was wrong, I also realized I could no longer serve as the party’s representative if I could not agree with a basic party position, such as its continuing support for the President. No one personally asked me to resign, but the party’s code of conduct was clear: I resigned on March 19, 2015.

Key Lessons
Through this narrative, I have highlighted the lessons I draw from the pursuit of three advocacies: reproductive health, agrarian reform, and good governance.

The reproductive health struggle illustrates the way cultural issues provide an arena where the progressive agenda can be advanced through careful alliance-building and discursive strategies. In the fight for family planning, the pro-reproductive health forces were able to create splits in the upper and middle classes, by replacing the narrative of population control with a discourse on women’s reproductive rights, creating space for the passage of the law in spite of fanatical opposition.

The agrarian reform experience reminds us how difficult it is to win direct assaults on the structures of inequality in a non-revolutionary political climate. Although progressive forces managed to forge powerful legislation, the structures of agrarian inequality remain strong, owing to a combination of presidential neglect, bureaucratic timidity, and landlord resistance.

The third example, the struggle for good governance, offers a trove of lessons, though it exacted painful personal and political consequences. One lesson is that coalitions are dynamic: in this case, an alliance for reform may have evolved into something different. A second is that a progressive party must continually assess its participation in coalitions. Any party has interests – including administrative positions or influence within a coalition – but at times, those interests may conflict with fundamental values. At such critical junctures, a party of the left must ensure that values prevail if it is to maintain its integrity.

A third lesson: on occasion, serious differences of opinion may emerge between parties and their parliamentary representatives. At such points, progressives must follow their conscience, even if it means opposing the leadership of their own party. Being a progressive means envisioning a society organized around equality, justice, solidarity, and sovereignty – and having a political program to realize this vision. But it also means projecting an ethical, moral stance. Perhaps the distinguishing mark of true progressives holding public office is their ethical behavior. For me, being a progressive in the corridors of power means, above all, holding onto one’s principles and values, even if this means losing one’s position, possessions, or life.

Direct all correspondence to Walden Bello: waldenbello@yahoo.com

Philippines, Volume 5, Issue 3

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