Why do we keep criticising our politicos for “failures” but avoid reforming the system that produces them?

We Filipinos love to complain about our politicians. We expect them to achieve herculean tasks and solve wicked problems, and to do so honestly while being paid a pittance. We complain when politicians don’t show compassion or make their presence felt. And yet when they do, we accuse them of engaging in opportunistic premature electioneering (epal, being the derogative term in the vernacular used to describe it).

On the other hand, we Filipinos are also a very patient lot, willing to tolerate the inadequate levels of service from our government, willing to accept the way the system fails to provide for our needs, and willing to tolerate the corruption that goes on with our tacit approval. We love to complain about these problems, but then are often unwilling to consider systemic ways to improve the situation.

One reason for this is that we can sometimes point to exemplary politicians who are honest, decent, hard working and conscientious. Many Filipinos feel that these exemplary individuals demonstrate that it is possible for the system to work, if only the right people are elected or appointed. What they fail to consider is that among the elite, these individuals are outliers. They don’t represent the average politician or the political class from which they spring.

The Philippine condition can be summarised in a few sentences. When America annexed the Philippines from Spain, it introduced representative government without building up a competent, well-functioning bureaucracy, something which the latter had failed to do in over three hundred years. The civil administration that was eventually set-up was populated not on the basis of merit, but with appointees of local bosses who were now occupying national posts. The political elite took advantage of an ill-equipped bureaucracy to extract rents from public institutions, contracts and projects. These rents enabled them to retain power.

The average politician therefore seeks to maximise rents in between elections either legitimately or illegitimately because that is how they are able to compete in the political arena. Very few elected officials ever attract media attention for their work. By and large, the media darlings (or media whores depending on how you view them) who campaign based on their popularity or celebrity are the exception rather than the rule. Your garden variety politician has to rely on other means to gain the support of constituents. This is done by catering to the particularistic needs of clients through patronage.

Clientelism is embedded in our political structure through patron-client networks that emanate from the executive and work their way through senators, congressmen, local government units, down to the baranggay level. Political agents who are unable to dispense patronage are seen as weak and ineffective, while those that bring tangible, concrete projects are well-regarded for their ability to bend the national government’s will to suit their interests.

These networks do not come without inherent costs. To grease the wheels of the system, a lot of deals with corresponding payoffs have to occur, not least of which goes to the political patrons themselves. All this involves high political and economic stakes. It is a high risk, high reward venture that involves a lot of largesse being poured on and spread around to ensure mutual self-destruction, if the whole set-up is exposed.

The priority development assistance fund (PDAF) scam is just the latest in a long string uncovered by whistleblowers. Each time this occurs, the noisy middle class screams for their pound of flesh to be extracted from operators behind the scene. The focus is on getting prominent figures hauled into jail. Certain groups have also sought to ban PDAF or political pork barrel, which in the context of the debate has been framed as lump sums allocated to members of congress or the president, which give these individuals the discretionary decision-making rights to identify projects and implementing agencies or recipient NGOs.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court has laid down the law in terms of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. Legislators are not meant to have a hand in implementing any item of the budget, save for conducting congressional oversight in the way it is spent. If members of congress wish to fund projects in the future within their districts, they will have to propose and have them approved through the budget process. This is the way congressional earmarks operate in the United States and other advanced economies.

Many commentators have said that this spells the end of congressional pork. A caveat has to be attached to that. It is the end of Congress’ pork as we know it. In the future, the art of political dealing will have to occur prior to budget approval, not after. There will still be pork. This is because the same incentive structure is still in place. The same imperative to cater to clientelistic needs and the same problem of political campaign fundraising remains.

Campaign finance regulation is lax. There are no limits on the amount of political donations a candidate can receive from individuals or corporations permitted to give under the election code. The only statutory obligation candidates have is to report these contributions and to limit campaign spending and political advertising. Implementation by the Comelec of these regulations is weak given the meagre resources they have at their disposal. As a result compliance is spotty and slow at best.

Due to the weakness of the system and a lack of state contribution to campaign expenditures, political parties are paper entities. The average candidate for political office does not pass through a merit-based system of primaries or pre-selections at the local level. Candidates are not drafted by their parties, they are its patrons. As a result the pool from which political leaders are drawn is highly constricted.

Once in a while, an outlier will come along and challenge conventions. But we have to remind ourselves, these are often the product of random chance, flukes of history. If we want our political system and culture to change, we will have to deal with the incentive problem and the candidate selection pool in a structured way.

I have written in the past what this would entail: campaign finance reform, empowering agencies to implement election regulations, higher pay for elected officials, state contributions to political parties with conditionalities relating to the process of candidate selection, i.e. having a cap on political dynasties. For these reforms to work, they have to be systematically adopted because they are mutually reinforcing.

Once upon a time, the nobility were singled out for political office because it was only they who could afford to serve the community without much compensation. The Philippines at its inception was a cacique democracy. With the high cost of vying for political power and the weak institutions of the state, even the landed aristocracy and their political heirs have succumbed to the temptations of competitive kleptocracy.

To reverse this dynamic, we would have to adapt our political institutions. Of course some might say that we are over-thinking the problem. Fickle minded voters simply want the current scandals to be dealt with by putting some prominent figures in jail and imposing a ban on pork. Once that occurs, people will turn their attention elsewhere having felt that the issue has been dealt with. The problem is we could simply be scratching the surface not knowing the full-extent of corruption.

Even with a handful of senators and over thirty congressmen both incumbent and past being identified as having something to answer for in relation to the PDAF scam, we are forgetting that the audit report on which this is based was not exhaustive. We really won’t have a comprehensive picture of how pervasive corruption is. The only surefire way to ensure that it does not happen again is to deal with the underlying issues that plague our system.

If we don’t then we will simply be narrowly focused on the outliers on the opposite extremes of the spectrum of political behaviour that attract our attention, without really improving the norms within the institutions which we rely on to govern our state and address the collective needs of our society. If we want a professional political class in our country, we need to get past observing these outliers and concentrate on improving the normal operator who moves in our political space.