NGOS AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS: PHILIPPINE PERSPECTIVES

PCDForum Column #19,   Release Date August 15, 1991

by Florencio "Butch" Abad

Many of us in the Philippine NGO sector currently find ourselves in a state of transition in our relationship to national electoral processes. The context of that transition is a political tug-of-war between the old oligarchic politics of elite privilege and a new politics of social justice and environmental sustainability. It is a genuine conflict of economic interests, social values and political methods and NGOs are coming to realize that elections are one of its arenas.

1992 will be the first time since 1965 that the Filipinos will chose a president through a normal electoral process and that election will determine whether the Aquino government has provided a transition to democracy or only an interlude between authoritarian regimes. It will also be the first time that non-governmental organizations, social movements and other non-party formations are coming together in the Philippines to flex their collective electoral muscle and establish a foothold in the national and local electoral arena.

We intend to draw strength from broad mass support and the cooperation of critical sectors like the Church, business and academe. Our goal is to achieve key electoral victories that will allow us to bring our alternative political, economic, and social agenda into the mainstream of political and governmental action. We have christened our electoral undertaking, "Project 2001" to emphasize that our commitment is not simply to a single election campaign.

More traditional NGO activities in the Philippines have made important contributions in a number of areas from community empowerment and health care to agrarian reform. Yet even though we often work closely with government counterparts and are often welcomed in policy dialogues with government, our efforts remain at the periphery of the development process, the mainstream of which is dominated by orientations and strategies strongly biased against the poor. To engage the mainstream we find we have no choice but to engage in electoral politics.

There are several indications the time is right for such a move. One is the growing distrust among Filipinos of traditional politicians and institutions. That distrust is based on a realization that the traditional parties have no coherent ideology for transforming the status quo and no consistent history of helping the poor. Increased urbanization, the influence of popular organizations, and a younger, well-educated voting population impatient for change have eroded the traditional clan systems of voter mobilization. Reform-oriented politicians have been increasingly successful in recent national and local elections and several are now actively promoting genuine development work from political office.

In entering the electoral arena we realize we face an uneven battle in which our resources are minuscule. We must avoid any head on confrontation with the oligarchic interests that have traditionally controlled electoral politics with guns, goons and gold. Our strategy must center on moving the mode of political discourse away from the traditional politics of dependent clientilism, patronage, and coercion toward a mode of direct popular participation in selecting agendas, identifying candidates, and assessing the qualifications of both parties and candidates.

Our intervention in the political process will be at four levels: 1) educating voters to create an issue-oriented political consciousness in place of the personality-centered approach that has dominated past elections; 2) lobbying for electoral reforms and monitoring their implementation; 3) developing a people's platform; and 4) supporting specific candidates. This agenda will require building our own electoral infrastructure: mobilizing manpower, skills, financial and technical resources, physical facilities, equipment, and existing grassroots constituencies; reaching out to other sectors sympathetic to our views; and establishing and operating electoral research centers and data banks.

For many NGOs such activities represent a venture into unfamiliar territory. NGOs are rightfully proud of the independence with which they have pursued an agenda of people's empowerment without regard to the particular regime in power. Understandably, they do not want to compromise their autonomy, values, or established ways of working. We realize that involvement in partisan political activity may tend to compromise us in a number of ways. For example, if the party or roster of candidates supported by the NGO sector triumphs, the sector's traditional fiscalizing role may be diluted. On the other hand, if an adversary party is victorious, we may become targets of retribution. The risks are real, but risk taking is not new to NGOs. Indeed it is almost second nature to our sector.

Two decades of experience have dissipated whatever utopian pipe dreams some of us have had about how to transform society. We now realize that the changes we seek also depend on electoral politics. We have no choice but to enter that arena.


Florencio "Butch" Abad is Executive Director of Kaisahan, an NGO devoted to advancing agrarian reform in the Philippines, and an organizer of Project 2001. He was formerly Secretary of Agrarian Reform of the Philippine government and member of the Philippine House of Representatives. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his presentation to the Project 2001 Consultation and Planning Workshop. Kaisahan's address is 305 Katipunan Rd., Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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