GRASSROOTS MOVEMENTS AND ELECTORAL POLITICS
In recent years, Philippine grassroots political movements have entered the arena of electoral politics, especially in the legislative body. Contending for even a share of the state’s political power is not without its risks of redirecting, dividing and softening militant social movements. The promise of delivering a fundamental change in limited statecraft can be disappointing if not frustrating, as the present political system will only allow representation at the periphery.
There are opportunities as well as constraints. For electoral forays can be damaging to grassroots organizing and may lull mass leaders into becoming aspiring politicians.
While the post-EDSA I political terrain opened the door for the recognition of people’s organizations and their role in official governance, such as participation through the party-list system, this has also made people’s organizations vulnerable to violent attacks by unofficial state assassins. More than a thousand unarmed members of grassroots organizations have been assassinated while exercising their constitutional rights to free speech, to assemble and to organize. When elite control and domination over political power is threatened by the organized strength of the people, this is not going to be allowed without the organized terror and violence by the army, police and hired minions of those in power designed to protect the rich and powerful.
The entry of more representatives of cause-oriented mass movements augurs well for the historically marginalized sectors who have long sought a voice and representation in the elite-dominated halls of the Philippine Congress. Now, state power is being shared, even as a token, but nevertheless shared, with representatives and leaders of mass movements.
But the hope is not in the electoral struggle per se. The real hope lies in deepening the processes of democratization, to strengthen and widen grassroots citizens’ movements which can act as an effective countervailing force against the economic, political and military domination of the oligarchy. There is hope and optimism if we work hard enough toward sustaining our open though still limited political process, and widening this for greater democratic participation. Social movements should actively engage not only with the legislative and national executive agencies but importantly, with local government units for strengthening and consolidation of grassroots political power. Links and unity and struggle with various interest and professional groups, not just class-based political movements, should be established and firmed up.
The “new politics” advocated by grassroots movements should always be a principled one, and must maintain its high moral ground. It should never imitate the practices of corrupt traditional politicians and the parties of the elite, just to to win power. It should not ride on the money machines of the elite. It should show that it is the genuine people’s alternative to the corrupt patronage politics of the oligarchy.
Once in power, they will confront the same dilemma that faces all liberation and revolutionary movements that have preceded them in post-colonial or socialist states. The emergence in Latin America of progressive governments, such as Venezuela and Uruguay, provides ample lessons for grassroots movements seeking control or even a share of state power. Diversity with other forces of social change should never be treated as a weakness, but as a source of strength to tap creativity and initiative.
When people’s movements campaign for radical social changes through their candidates, radical politics should never be watered down in exchange for a slot in traditional electoral politics. The fight for meaningful social change must be advocated among the people, especially the working people long dominated, divided and manipulated by foreign-controlled oligarchy. Thus, the agenda and program for radical social change must never be watered down or compromised in exchange for present-day buzzwords for international development agencies like “good governance” and “civil society.” It is tantamount to co-optation towards an “acceptable opposition”.
There are grave perils to the electoral and reformist road to change. State power and the political system could become a means to defuse the militancy of the people’s movement by making too many concessions to other social classes, including elites not in power or those factions trying to hold on to power.
Embarking on too many compromises with elite factions that could disillusion grassroots movements is often considered a risk one must take in taking the electoral road to power and social change. But not necessarily so.
The role of the grassroots is not just to provide check and balance in the state or to share power. This is tantamount to co-optation, and may result in a grassroots movement trying to compete for the sake of state power.
The tasks of all progressives is to unify the diverse forces behind a coherent program and political movement aimed at eventually taking state power.
All peoples movements are engaged in a struggle for political power, but they must make a difference, step by step. International development agencies want “civil society” and NGOs to become vehicles for controlled social change, by directing their energies away from social struggles and into electoral channels, thus weakening or breaking up grassroots movements. Real power is not in state power. We have seen this in the former socialist states in Eastern Europe.
Real power is in grassroots movements seeking to wrest control of economic and political power from the oligarchs. But the aim should still be focused on establishing and maintaining a decent and caring society for the vast majority of the people. The lives of the majority must be changed and transformed.
Otherwise, what was it all for?
* Article by Roland G Simbulan – For a full professional background of Professor Roland G. Simbulan (Click Here)