Clinton

Identity Matters

How the principle of “shared destiny” shapes the way voters behave.

image courtesy of hiphopwired.com

In the West, identity politics is often equated with minority interests. Barack Obama in 2008 won the presidential contest by refusing to campaign as a black candidate the way the Rev Jesse Jackson had attempted before him. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the other hand came close to shattering “that highest, hardest glass ceiling” but succeeded only in giving it “eighteen million cracks”.

Identity politics can also be used to wedge voters on social issues. Witness how Rick Santorum used it to stake out his claim over social conservatives in the Republican primaries this year. The problem with this strategy is that it often relegates a candidate to a non-mainstream status unable to appeal to a general electorate. But what should happen if the minority or disenfranchised group becomes the majority or mainstream the way the masa or lower income voter has become in the Philippines?

It was Joseph Ejercito Estrada who first harnessed this vote based on his cinematic role as a working class hero when he ran for and won a seat in the Senate back in 1988. Since then, he demonstrated just how potent it can be. One of the reasons identity is such a formidable force is due to the notion of having a “shared fate”. To forge this sense, symbolism, images and myth-making plays an important role. This is why rituals are so important for religious groups in forging a shared social identity.

It was not too long ago, 2009 to be exact, when the love affair between the Aquinos and the masses was reignited. Popular and religious ceremony following the death of Corazon Aquino created a shared sense of community. Not just that, but a line of succession from Noynoy to his vice presidential ticket mate Mar Roxas was established when the two shot to the top of the surveys in their respective candidacies.

Mayor Jejomar Binay entered the vice presidential race as a dark horse with former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada occupying “top billing” in their ticket. “Erap” elected in 1998 as president had been ejected from office in 2001 by an angry bourgeoisie mob who were now endorsing the Aquino-Roxas tandem. His continued popularity with the poor helped chisel away Manny Villar’s edge over Aquino with these target voters. Villar’s chances collapsed once it was revealed that his claims of humble origins were not credible.

It is quite puzzling, but in an election year dominated by the protest vote, why was it that Estrada continued to garner such wide popular support despite his previous conviction for plunder which was the same accusation made against Gloria Arroyo?

Simply put, for the poor, the word corruption has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. In the context of Arroyo’s presidency, corruption was all about her stealing the office of the president from “Erap” through people power forged by the bourgeoisie and subsequently from Fernando Poe, Jr. through electoral fraud. Enriching her family while in office was the sole motivation in their minds for doing such dastardly deeds.

In the context of Estrada’s presidency, the poor did not see corruption in quite the same terms. They did not equate his presidency with corruption the way the more affluent middle and upper classes did. Mr Estrada’s concern for the poor was seen as his overriding motive. If he stole at all, it was not from the public coffers, and he only did so in order to help the poor even more. As his former budget secretary maintains to this day, his administration was decidedly pro-poor in its allocation of resources.

In short, Erap was used as a scapegoat by the elite for their own moral failings, while Gloria never could share that sense of shared destiny with the poor the way he had.

For this reason, Erap could not fathom a coalition with the middle forces knowing what their mental frame was. Binay himself often confronted these same interest groups as the mayor of Makati, the country’s premier business district. They had wanted him out for years and campaigned against him in several electoral cycles.

Despite allegations made by Makati’s elite of Mr Binay’s dodgy practices, the city he managed consistently topped the nation in terms of literacy and health. He demonstrated through the years his sense of shared fate with the poor who have benefited from his administration. This unique selling point and the relentless campaign that he ran allowed him to win the vice presidential derby with a razor thin margin.

At the national level, Mrs Arroyo had contended with these same business groups who had wanted her out for betraying the mandate they had bestowed on her to institute “good governance”. She who had once been quite popular with the masses would never be forgiven for knifing not one but two of their champions in the persons of “Pareng Erap” and FPJ in the back.

Having stumbled down the slippery slope of transactional politics in a bid to win back the masses, Mrs Arroyo found neither favour with them nor with her bourgeoisie patrons, the Aquinos being chief among them. The schism that erupted between their two houses threatened to disable her government. She then resorted to nearly despotic rule to complete her term of office.

Having suffered a backlash for turning against Mrs Arroyo and joining the Estrada/FPJ camp, the Aquinos once again endeared themselves to the masses whose sympathy was translated into an electoral avalanche. They who represented the best virtues of their class through their altruistic sacrifice once again rode a wave of euphoria into office.

Although the vice presidential contest was a mere sideshow to the main spectacle, its outcome has turned out to be significant. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the masses chose to hedge their bets, and rightly so.

Split identities

While President Aquino has remained wedded to the same neoliberal economic principles of low taxes, less government and less spending, which his mother had adhered to to please the bond market, Mr Binay does not appear to hold the same attachment.

Take the case of mass housing for instance. The vice president has called on the government to tap into the foreign currency stock that the country has amassed largely owing to the OFW or overseas Filipino worker phenomenon to fund a mass housing construction boom. This would seem logical and fair given that one of the first things OFWs invest in is housing for their families.

Tapping our foreign reserves, as I have said many times would stem the rise of the peso because much of the spending would leak externally through imported materials for construction, at least initially. This would give our manufacturing sector and dollar earning OFWs some space to breathe instead of giving the bourgeoisie license to go on overseas trips and purchase luxury goods from abroad.

In the medium term, local manufacturers of cement, iron and steel could expand their productive capacity to replace imports leading to an investment boom. This method of pump priming the economy, however, is contrary to the method applied by PNoy’s economic managers who in their first year and a half applied “Aquinomics” by contracting fiscal spending to “crowd-in” private investment. The formula did not work and is partly to blame for the “noynoying” tag assigned to the administration (the IMF outlook sees the Philippines once again lagging behind in ASEAN for the next two years).

In the case of rolling back the value added tax rate on petrol, the vice president has said that he differs with PNoy in that he is in favour of it. Binay is demonstrating through these nuanced approaches that unlike the president’s fervent adherence to economic rationalism, he only wants to find pragmatic solutions for the country’s poor.

Recall that in the latter part of Corazon Aquino’s term of office, when the power crisis raged in Luzon, the public had grown weary of her inability to govern the market. The same could be happening today. The president’s mantra that the power sector has to be liberalized and privatized in order to be stabilized will lead to higher rates and cost his allies votes in Mindanao.

The politically savvy Binay has sought to capitalize on this by having a “united Mindanao” represented by Miguel Zubiri and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel in his senatorial line-up. With Pulse Asia showing Binay’s endorsement being the most potent among political backers, he believes that he can lock-in the Mindanao vote by uniting these warring camps. The island will be crucial in winning the 2016 election.

PNoy on the other hand has doused speculation fed by his own deputy spokesperson that a split with the vice president is “inevitable”. Just like his mother before him, PNoy has chosen to remain “above the fray” and not endorse the nominee of the party of which he is titular head as Roxas intimated he no longer wants to seek the presidency but will be at the disposal of his party. He seems to have lost the will to fight.

Binay in turn will have Sen Jinggoy Estrada as his vice president and “people’s champ” Rep Manny Pacquiao who is expected to run for governor in 2013 in his senatorial line-up in 2016. This in turn will make an Estrada-Pacquiao tandem likely in 2022 followed by a Pacquiao-Binay, Jr ticket in 2028. The pattern set by Estrada, Sr will it seems be replicated by them.

The triumph of the parties that are closely aligned with the masses means that the ruling Liberal Party and its bourgeoisie/elite constituency could be on the periphery of power for years and years to come. The affair with the masses seems well and truly over.

So what should the Liberal Party do?

If I were in their shoes, I would work doubly hard to recruit members of the electorate that comprise the masses to join their party. Identifying genuine champions of the poor with solid track records and attracting them should be their number one priority at this point. It might be an NGO leader who works in the rural or urban poor community or a highly successful social entrepreneur whose innovations have changed lives. By assembling such a collection of individuals, the LP could change the nature of the game and translate their present weakness into their strength.

They have nothing to lose. If they apply a normal, traditional political strategy, they will fail anyway. At least if they go with something new and daring, they will win a major victory in terms of institutional renewal. Even if their candidates come within striking distance of the winner’s circle, that would still be seen as a victory for new, non-traditional politics at the national level.

By redefining their identity, they will also redefine the identity of the Binay led UNA coalition. This strategy is admittedly quite bold and risky, but that is the whole point. It would take the nation by surprise. The fact that it would be attempted by a major political party let alone the ruling party would be completely unheard of and might force voters for the first time to assess candidates based on their platform rather than popularity.

But in order for the LP to execute this strategy, it will have to get to work straight away by conducting a thorough search for prospective candidates, building up their public profile and supporting their campaigns. Only after the party has built a sense of shared destiny with the broad masses of the population will it be able to mount a serious challenge to the mammoth support enjoyed by the opposing mob.

Their ultimate goal is not only to shape the identity of their party but that of the voters, too. If voters are given a non-choice of picking candidates cut from the same cloth, then they will choose to clothe themselves with the ones that offer “winning appeal”. That shapes the identity of the voter as someone who merely follows the herd. If on the other hand they are offered a genuine alternative, they may just surprise us on election day.