Independent, Adaptable, and Coherent Political Institutions

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

Political development is founded on two mutually reinforcing components: the people’s awareness and empowerment, with the latter seen in how government institutions work to accommodate the public’s views. In turn, strong institutions are characterized by autonomy, adaptability, and coherence. All of these factors are affected by changing political and economic conditions. For these reasons, rather than following a linear trajectory, Philippine politics is maturing in a more unpredictable fashion.

A Politicized People

People can be said to be politicized if they are aware of national and local affairs and engage in political processes. A good sense of history is critical to building this consciousness. Thankfully, in learning many lessons since our independence, Filipinos are coming into our own as an empowered nation.

A politically empowered population obliges institutions to be transparent and accountable; a timid political culture reinforces corruption and political decay. Being more than spectators, politicized people mobilize themselves into action. Many do this by working through civil society organizations. Unfortunately, their efforts can be undermined when a group is used to enhance a government’s legitimacy instead of being considered a partner in participatory governance.

Building Political Institutions

For a people to participate in the affairs of society, an enabling environment and an effective venue must be in place. Here, institutions perform a critical role. To “strengthen” them, there are three factors to look at: independence, adaptability, and coherence.

When ostensibly independent institutions are captured by political demands, they are a futile venue for people’s participation. Political capture is not a given, however; in some ways, the decisive stands of President Duterte over law and order, governance, and the economy have fueled the energies of some institutions to protect their autonomy.

Adaptability can be seen in how institutions are open to new blood. The achievements of the 1986 EDSA Revolution have been undermined by the overstaying of traditional politicians and dynasties at all levels in government. An institution becomes more than an individual when leadership changes are possible and productive. In this respect, many of our institutions have simply subsisted for political continuity.

Coherence is another factor. Political squabbling weakens institutions and renders them ineffective in making decisions. The predominance of vested interests is also a divisive element, because it limits decision-making to the few.

A lack of coherence is demonstrated in the situation the DENR finds itself in over mining. President Duterte’s appointment of a proclaimed environmentalist as Secretary was welcomed by the sector. Unfortunately, Secretary Lopez has failed to differentiate her anti-mining sentiments from her responsibility to be an impartial regulator: opening the door for unproductive divisiveness.

As a result, stakeholders are debating whether the wholesale closure orders and cancellation of mining agreements are actions fit for an Environment Secretary, and are no longer challenging each other on how responsible mining can be done. Worse, there is an apparent conflict within the DENR, as its Mines Bureau was left out of these decisions. In addition, there have reportedly been clashes between cabinet members over the issue.

Awareness needs Empowerment

President Duterte could very well inspire Filipinos toward more political engagement, and he could fuel the momentum to implement and achieve much needed reforms. In having achieved greater political awareness, however, the government must ensure there are channels for stakeholder empowerment. Empowerment will be felt when institutions are strengthened in fulfilling their purposes and accommodating the active citizenry. Through this process, the long and winding road will lead us to “real” political development.

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