Akbayan and the conscience of a progressive

How does a progressive party behave when it is part of a coalition in power? How does an individual representing that party conduct himself or herself?

I was continually posing these questions to my party Akbayan and myself for nearly five years, from July 2010 until my resignation from the House of Representatives on March 19, 2015.

This essay is an attempt to bring together my thoughts on the matter, mainly in the hope of sparking a constructive discussion on the challenges and, yes, difficult choices that progressives confront when they cease to be in the opposition and become part of the administration. For being in administration is, for a party that cares about its principles, a hundred times more difficult than being in opposition.

Based on this political and personal experience, one that had both its exhilarating and agonizing moments, three things should be said at the outset.  

First, a coalition is dynamic. It evolves, and what might have been initially an alliance for reform may turn into something different.  

Second, a progressive party must continually assess its membership in such a coalition, weighing its interests against its values. It is but natural for a party to have interests, like positions in the administration or influence within the coalition, but there may come a time when the maintenance of those interests might conflict with its fundamental values. At such critical junctures, a party of the left, if it is to maintain its integrity, must ensure that its values prevail.  

Third, while it is only to be expected that in the normal course of events the party and its representatives in government have the same stands on issues that are relevant to its continuing participation in the coalition, there may arise occasions when, despite the best efforts on both sides, there may develop serious, if not insurmountable, differences of opinion At such points, a progressive in government must follow what her conscience tells her is right, even if it means opposing the leadership of one’s party.

The progressive record of the party to which I belong, Akbayan, was forged during its first decade of existence, 1998 to 2009, when it was for the most part in the opposition.  In the legislative arena, the party’s crusading spirit was expressed in a series of bills its representatives filed in Congress, the most prominent of which were the Reproductive Health Bill and Carper, a bill to extend the period of agrarian reform by five years. Bills to end discrimination against the LGBT community, institute appropriate land use, extend absentee voting rights to Filipinos overseas, promote security of tenure for workers, and introduce socialized housing to benefit the urban poor were among our other key legislative initiatives. 

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the party during this period of opposition was the passage of Carper in 2009, an endeavor I participated in as a novice congressman.  Akbayan played a central role coordinating the legislative effort with mass actions on the ground, including an epic 1700 km march of farmers seeking titles to their land from Sumilao, Bukidnon, to Malacanang in 2007.

From opposition to ruling coalition

It was with this high-profile record of firmly pushing the people’s agenda that the party held its fifth national congress in 2009, when it took up the question of whether it would support the Liberal Party candidate for the 2010 presidential elections. The debate turned on whether the likely candidate, then Senator Mar Roxas, could be relied on to carry out a reform program.  It was clear to most Akbayan members that while the LP candidate would most likely not have a left-wing program of wealth redistribution, participatory democracy, and defense of national sovereignty, there was a strong possibility that he or she would carry a good governance or anti-corruption agenda.

Given the horribly corrosive effects of corruption on our democracy, good governance was one of the people’s overriding demands, and, in Akbayan’s view, being part of a reform coalition centered on seriously cleaning up government was a progressive move.  

But while the anti-corruption agenda was the decisive factor that led Akbayan to support the LP candidate – who eventually turned out to be Noynoy Aquino after Roxas gave way to him – we also had widespread expectations that he would be favorable to other parts of the Akbayan agenda, especially agrarian reform, since a powerful instrument already existed in the form of the Akbayan-sponsored Carper law.

Moreover, we felt that as the coalition evolved, we could “push the envelope” to eventually gain support for other prongs of our party’s reform agenda. These other items in the party’s agenda were an independent foreign policy, especially in relation to the United States; repeal of the automatic appropriations act that made the primary item in the national budget the servicing of the foreign and domestic debt; and the elimination of neoliberal measures in trade, finance, and investment that exposed the local economy to the ravages of the global market.

Halcyon days 

A strong momentum for reform did mark the first years of the Aquino administration. As the principal representative of the party in Congress, it was exhilarating to be part of this reform push, the most critical thrust of which was the prosecution of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for corruption during her nine years in power. The high point of this effort involved the removal of two of Arroyo’s principal allies in 2011-12 – via resignation under fire in the case of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and through impeachment and conviction for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust in the case of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.  

A pleasant surprise for the party was the President’s championing of the Reproductive Health Bill, one of its priority initiatives. The RH Bill became the central legislative battleground of the 15th Congress, and, being one of its central sponsors, Akbayan played a pivotal role both in the legislative espousal of the bill and in the mobilization of civil society and public opinion to secure passage of the bill.

Yet, not all was light and sweetness between the Aquino administration and the party even at this stage. The President’s reluctance to alienate his relatives by intervening in behalf of farmers in the Hacienda Luisita case and the slow pace of agrarian reform overall led party leaders to meet with Aquino to urge him to make a commitment to completing the program. Party pressure was among the factors that led Aquino to sit down with farmers’ representatives on June 14, 2012, where he promised to complete land redistribution by June 30, 2014, the deadline for the completion of Carper.  

Presidential promise was not, however, followed up by action. Land redistribution proceeded at a snail’s pace, with the average amount of land distributed to farmers during the first two years of Aquino lower than those of previous administrations. With the likelihood of the deadline being missed without more energetic action, I bucked the ruling coalition’s united front and joined the call for the resignation of Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes at a press conference of the broad civil society alliance for agrarian reform on January 5, 2013.  This was ignored, if it was even noted.

The turning point

The elections of May 2013 were interpreted by many, including myself, as a vote of confidence in the administration. But the honeymoon with civil society did not last long. The Napoles scandal showed the pernicious uses to which the pork barrel or PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) was used by legislators, but instead of taking the lead and seeing the occasion as an opportunity to do away with a long controversial institution of patronage, the President waffled, initially defending it, then backtracking and abolishing it when public opinion became overwhelmingly in favor of its elimination.  

As for Akbayan, its longstanding position on PDAF had been to call for its abolition in principle, but until such a time when it could realistically be abolished, to avail of it for projects benefiting the poor and the marginalized. The Napoles scandal made it clear to me that it was time for the party not only to call for PDAF’s abolition in principle but to put its principles on the line by refusing to avail of the sums allocated for the party. To my consternation, my proposal was roundly trounced during a leadership meeting that was held a few days before the surprise presidential decision to abolish the pork barrel. Little did I know then that this was the first of a series of votes when I would find myself in the minority.

The President’s hesitation when it came to PDAF became understandable when a secret presidential slush fund called the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) came to light on the heels of the PDAF scandal. In a letter published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Nov 6, 2013, Congressman Barry Gutierrez and I expressed Akbayan’s view that such a fund, which was not appropriated by Congress and was used by the President with nothing to check him, was not compatible with good governance: “We remind the President that the DAP is one of the facets of such vast and unbridled fiscal powers of the executive – powers that have been gravely abused in the past and coveted by some of those who seek to replace him after his term.” We said that it was “wrong to dismiss the DAP, more so the executive’s fiscal powers, as non-issues in the overall reform process. Of all people, President Aquino knows too well the dire consequences of the unregulated fiscal powers of the executive having filed the Budget Impoundment Control bill when he was still a senator during Gloria Arroyo’s pillage of the people’s fund.”

The DAP issue hit at the very center of the administration’s good governance agenda.  With the non-transparent, unaccountable, cavalier, and reckless manipulation of public funds, the administration was engaged in the same sort of behavior that it accused the previous administration of.  What was even more worrisome was that some defenders of the administration, including some progressives, defended its actions by saying that manipulation of unallocated funds was a practice previous administrations had engaged in, the difference being that Budget Secretary Butch Abad was “stupid enough” to make the slush fund a formal program and give it a name.

The letter to the editor rattled the President, who made known his displeasure to the Akbayan leadership. This was the first of several “scoldings” we would get for deviating from the administration line.

I had no doubt that the Supreme Court would rule DAP unconstitutional, and when it did declare three of the four modes of appropriation and spending as violating the charter, it was time, I felt, for the president to take decisive action to save his good governance platform. Being perceived as practicing double standards – using the Daang Matuwid campaign to go after the administration’s enemies while protecting one’s corrupt supporters and allies – could be fatal to the coalition. 

During two leadership meetings of the party, I asked that the party demand that the President ask for the resignation of Abad, who was principally responsible for concocting DAP. The majority disagreed with me, with some saying that the President was stubborn and to cross swords with him on the issue would simply make him even more stubborn. I said that this was fatalism, not a stance worthy of a progressive party, and that it was the role of progressives to “push the envelope” for reform in coalition deliberations even if this meant a steep uphill struggle. It was heartening to note, however, that though in the minority, I was not alone, with the representatives of labor in the executive committee and one other member expressing their support for my position. 

Dear Mr. President…

Getting nowhere with the party leadership, I decided to write the President directly as a concerned citizen. In that letter, I argued that the president had no choice but to fire Abad since “he committed a severe error of judgment in his liberal deployment and redeployment of funds appropriated for specific purposes by Congress.  The congressional power of the purse is one of the key checks on the Executive, and Secretary Abad should have had a sense that his fast and loose manipulation of funds, with no sense of limits, might have involved a violation of the principle of the separation of powers. At the very least, his acts smacked of recklessness.”

“I find it hard to believe,” the letter continued, “that Mr. Abad was unaware of the tremendous power the Executive was acquiring over members of the Senate with the amounts ranging from P30 million to P100 million being given to each senator, in addition to the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel that was still in existence then. This is precisely the kind of presidential patronage subversive of the separation of powers the Constitution wanted to avert by specifying that the power of the purse belonged to Congress and that the use of appropriated funds by the Executive was to be strictly controlled by Congress.”

“Owing to a major error of judgment,” I warned the President, “Secretary Abad has brought caused great embarrassment to your administration, promoted cynicism about the reform program, and is now an obstacle to the achievement of your reform agenda.”

The letter also reiterated my request that the president fire Secretary de los Reyes for his miserable performance in implementing agrarian reform, specifically for failing to meet the June 30, 2014, deadline for the completion of land redistribution under the Carper. With over 550,000 hectares of the best land in the country undistributed, saving the reform program, I argued, demanded  “a determined, resolute, and courageous secretary of agrarian reform, one who is not a timid technocrat but a bold political leader who will not be afraid to do battle with the landlords.” As one of the principal authors of Carper, I wrote that I felt “personally betrayed by Mr. de los Reyes’ performance.”  

The letter raised the tensions within the Akbayan leadership to a higher pitch, with most members sharing the view I had no right to write the president as an individual, that as principal representative of the party in the public eye, my role was to reflect the party line whatever were my individual views. Subordinating my views to the party position was the price, I was told, of being the party’s most high-profile representative. It was an argument that gave me pause, though I must admit I initially resisted its inexorable logic.

The letter did result in a meeting between the president and the Akbayan leadership, but this was a waste of time since the President jumped from one topic to another like a boy on a pogo stick, and at the end of the meeting my concerns about Abad and de los Reyes were barely touched on. His lack of desire to focus on and stick to a thread of discussion was frustrating, to say the least, though I was willing to excuse it then as the result of the heavy burdens of office.

Foreign policy skirmishes

Even as the DAP issue was unsettling our relationship with the president, foreign policy developments in 2014 were adding tinder to what was becoming the President’s “Akbayan problem.” Akbayan was in the forefront when it came to challenging China’s moves in the West Philippine Sea. I even authored a resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea, an idea that was taken up by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang. Where we parted ways with the President was on his strategy of inviting the United States to establish a massive military presence in the country to counter China, a strategy that was formalized in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Our stand was determined not only by considerations of national sovereignty but also by the fact that the president’s uncritical embrace of Washington would place us on one side of a dangerous superpower conflict while gaining no US support for pursuing our territorial claims and protecting our 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.  

It was clear from the outset of the alliance, however, that, unlike good governance, we did not consider differences on foreign policy to be a “make-or-break” issue in Akbayan’s relations with the president. But we did make it clear to Malacañang that we would not restrain ourselves from articulating differences with the administration’s policies, particularly where the United States was involved. Not surprisingly, messages came down to me from Malacanang at various times to tread softly on the United States. But this was not something I was prepared to do.

When, among other things, I co-sponsored a joint resolution with Senator Miriam Santiago seeking abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the President made sure I received his message that my behavior was “mas oposisyon pa kaysa sa oposisyon.” That it was right for the party and me to stand our ground was something that we came to fully appreciate later, when the administration’s credibility foundered on the ill-advised, US-sponsored Mamasapano raid.

'Run for President'

Contacted by the press in November 2014 to comment on the continued presence of Vice President Jojo Binay in the Cabinet, I said that he definitely had to go but that others had to go with him. I asserted that being perceived as having double standards in the practice of good governance would erode the credibility of the administration. I repeated my call for the firing of Secretaries Abad and de los Reyes but added that the President should also dismiss Secretary of Agriculture Prosy Alcala and National Police Chief Alan Purisima.

I pointed out that by appointing former Senator “Kiko” Pangilinan as “Presidential Adviser on Food Security and Agricultural Modenrization,” the President was already implicitly recognizing Alcala’s inability to curb corruption and effectively manage things at the Department of Agriculture.  Yet giving the Department two chiefs would simply make matters worse. So why not get rid of Alcala?  As for Purisima, I asked for his dismissal not only because the allegations of corruption on his part were serious but also because rather than dealing with the increasingly bold actions of hold-uppers and kidnappers, he preferred to deny the existence of a crime wave. Little did I suspect that by not heeding this advice coming from me and many others early on, the President was setting itself up for a tragic disaster. 

Again, the majority in the party leadership criticized my position, with the party issuing a a formal statement that, “While we maintain full confidence that Rep. Bello’s statements spring from an honest desire to promote the highest standards of accountability in government, as we have made clear before, his proposals differ from the existing consensus within Akbayan." It added: “'While this path has not been without its share of difficulties, we remain convinced in the sincerity of the President and are determined to exert all efforts in pushing the reform agenda with his administration in the few remaining months till the next Presidential election.”

Other missives from progressives in Malacañang were less kind. One accused me of nursing a “lust for media mileage” while another expressed frustration that I had not followed advice to stay away from the Purisima controversy because it was simply a reflection of “a struggle for succession” within the hierarchy of the Philippine National Police. But I could understand the frustrations of these comrades, for they were in the unenviable position of serving as shock absorbers of the President’s tantrums.

As for the President, his response was, as is well known, to tell me to run for president: “He has a lot of complaints. If he thinks his visions are the right ones, he should try running in 2016. If he becomes president, he will be able to implement those visions.” Among the things I did that especially angered him was my telling the media that he had promised me by text that he would look into my allegation that Secretary Abad was guilty of nepotism for brazenly allocating the sixth largest allocation from the DAP funds given to members of Congress to his wife, Representative Henedina Abad, who represented Batanes, the smallest province and smallest congressional district in the Philippines.

It was now clear to me that the President would brook no criticism of his subordinates and that this fraternity-like way of running the country exemplified all that was wrong with political governance in the Philippines. It was also clear that the party leadership would not speak to him on my behalf, perhaps out of fear of angering him even further, losing influence with him, or even losing positions the party had obtained in the administration. In increasingly heated discussions, we in the minority reminded the majority that there were times that the party had to unambiguously choose its values over its interests, and that firmly standing up for good governance on the DAP issue was one of those occasions. The increasingly exasperated responses I got ranged from not believing Abad made a grievous mistake, or that if he did, this did not merit dismissal, or that the DAP debacle did not mean the closing up of “spaces for reform” under the Aquino administration.

Breaking point

Shortly before news of the Mamasapano raid broke on January 25, my relations with both the Akbayan leadership and the President were at their lowest point.

I still entertained hopes, though fading ones, that I could bring the party leadership to my point of view and that the president would somehow bring his administration’s actions to conform with Daang Matuwid. Indeed, during the Pope’s visit earlier that month, I defended his taking advantage of the Pope’s presence in Malacanang to criticize many in the Philippine hierarchy for being corrupted by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as a continuation of his campaign for good governance, partly to give him the not so subtle message to stop being hypocritical and cease engaging in double standards.

Mamasapano was an undiluted debacle, a dagger plunged in the heart of the administration’s good governance agenda. It exemplified bad governance on three counts. 

First, the President refused to acknowledge command responsibility for an operation that he ordered that had gone awry, violating a basic tenet of presidential leadership. Second, he illegally placed in command of the operation a crony of his, Purisima, who had been suspended by the Ombudsman. Third, he ordered a mission that was a priority of the United States, not the Philippines, and he did this knowing full well that a mishap in the mission, which involved an incursion into territory of the government’s negotiating partner, the MILF, without clearing it with the insurgent group, would endanger the passage of the Bangsa Moro Basic Law (BBL).

During my second to the last privilege speech at the House on Feb 17, I supported the administration’s call for the swift passage of the BBL, saying that, “After nearly 50 years of war, both sides have arrived at a meeting of minds. The last hurdle is legislative approval of this meeting of minds based on mutual recognition of the hard facts on the ground.  Let us not turn our backs on the BBL and give in to those whose hard-line opposition can only result in more years of an unwinnable war and possibly a worse end-game. Those who make autonomy impossible now will make separation inevitable later.” In the same speech, I appealed to the President to “fully accept responsibility for the Mamasapano fiasco and come clean on everything related to the raid, including the big question on everybody’s mind, which is the role of the United States.  This is the only way for him to regain the public’s trust.”

As the administration’s crisis of authority mounted, I proposed to the party that we turn the debacle into an opportunity to push the envelope for reform.  With the President in a weakened moral position, we should push him, I argued, not only to accept responsibility for Mamasapano but follow up his acceptance of the resignation of Purisima with the dismissal of Abad, Alcala, and de los Reyes. This would, I contended, reinvigorate the tattered Daang Matuwid. The party leadership refused, again owing to concern that this would be counterproductive since it would do nothing but antagonize the President. More and more, it seemed to me that our disagreement no longer rested on differing assessments of the state of the coalition’s program of reform. More and more, I was being driven to my biggest fear: that the party’s values and principles were becoming hostage to its interests.

Climax

Things moved inexorably to a climax in late February when Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte’s responded to my criticisms by saying, “Does Representative Bello consider himself an ally of this administration?” When on March 9, the President used a meeting with selected members of the House to heap all the blame for Mamasapano on the ground commander, Col. Getulio Napenas, I decided that was the last straw. This was a mockery of good, responsible governance. I could no longer support this man as president.  

That meant I had to resign as Akbayan’s representative in the House of Representatives.  For even as I was fully convinced that the party leadership was wrong in not backing me in demanding that the president live up to the principles of good governance by ceasing to shelter allies who had brought discredit to the Daang Matuwid, I had also come to accept that the leadership was correct in its position that one could no longer be the party’s representative in Congress if he could not agree with a basic party position, such as its continuing support for the president. No one asked me personally to resign, but the party’s code of conduct as a progressive party was clear: I had to go.

The progressive ethic

Throughout this narrative, I have highlighted various lessons that I drew about how a progressive should behave as a member of a ruling coalition from my experience over the last five years. 

But perhaps the most important lesson is one I would put this way: Being a progressive has several dimensions. It means having a vision about how society should be organized based on the values of equality, justice, solidarity, and sovereignty. It means having a political program to realize this vision. But it also means projecting an ethical, moral stance. And perhaps, at a time that people have become so cynical about visions and programs because words are cheap and because opportunism and corruption are so rife across the political spectrum, the distinguishing mark of a true progressive holding public office is her or his ethical behavior. For me, being a progressive in the corridors of power means, above all, being steadfast in holding on to one’s principles and values, even if this means losing one’s position, possessions, or life.

Spoiled offspring of the ruling class like the Aquinos and Abads will come and go, but Akbayan is a precious child forged in the historic struggles of the Philippine Left and heir to its finest traditions.  Will it find the courage to follow the harsh dictates of its progressive conscience and cease being hostage to a coalition that has lost its raison d’etre? – Rappler.com

 

Walden Bello was a representative of Akbayan in the House of Representatives from February 2009 to March 31, 2015.