OPINION: Politics as partisanship is not public service

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Feb 05 2020 08:33 PM

In a usual banter with friends, one expressed concern that we may be doomed to fail in responding to the threat and preventing the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). My friend’s reason is rather simple; those manning the ports are always on the lookout for opportunities for money. Identifying passengers who show symptoms would just be secondary and the ports are our first line of defense. I had to correct him by saying, from experience, the ones in charge of checking the passengers are not organic to the ports, or if they were, they would have to be trained for that particular purpose. In other words, we won't be relying on those who would likely just be concerned with their daily “delihensya” (bribes). 

Sadly, the general perception of our public offices is that it is ineffective because the people in government are incompetent. We can’t blame the people as this perception is from their experience dealing with and/or seeing how government responds to problems. We have seen for example how the government failed miserably in the Yolanda rehabilitation, and now the same in Marawi. So, the batting average of government response and performance is rather low.

There are considerable improvements but it will take a lot more to really do away with the dominant perception of weakness in our government. Then again, it is systemic. No matter how effective a leader is, unless we really undertake an overhaul of the system of government, this will always be how the public will look at the government. The result even contributes to the problem; this weakness in government is used by some quarters as a reason not to cooperate.

This was evident in the recently conducted Senate investigation on the 2019-nCoV. You had a secretary of health who didn't have the necessary information with him, and therefore only evidently showed the limitations of leadership. On the other hand, you had a senator who’s asking questions as if it was a corruption investigation. The purpose of investigations in the legislature, in whichever chamber, was lost entirely. It was obviously not to “aid” legislation, which means “policymaking”, and therefore intended to improve public service or specifically, in this case, plug the limitations of the Department of Health (DOH) and the overall effort to prevent the spread a contagion. It was mainly intended (for some at least) to denigrate the health secretary and the administration in general.

How low are people in partisan politics willing to go? I have always said that the opposition should find or use another issue other than the war on drugs if it expects to get the public on its side. The coming of the nCoV seems to be a reason to celebrate for some. Yes, everyone is concerned but the partisan groups have found a new issue to discredit the President, especially by tying it to the general perception of his preference and or deference to China.

To criticize the President is but expected. Any President for that matter should be criticized, especially if his or her actions and/or inactions are already affecting the people’s well-being. The purpose should be mainly to contribute to the determination of how the government can improve on its performance or to have public officials accountable. To oust the President, on the other hand is something else, especially in a crisis situation, and you need a government that is at its most effective state and its attention not divided by having to fend off political attacks.

Our politics have really become critically polarized and acrimonious. Since September 2018, there have already been reports of an ouster plot against the President. Perhaps, some would say that in the Philippines that's just normal. I’d dare say however that the frequency of ouster reports is unprecedented. And now, with the nCoV threat, it looks like the critics have shouted eureka; this time, they're openly calling for people to go to the Edsa shrine on 22 February at 2 pm.

Let’s say that this call for another “people power” by a certain “Bunyog” succeeds. Are we certain we’ll have a government that will be a lot better in responding to the crisis, or any crisis for that matter? Will we have a better government, one that would improve on the general perception of a weak government? If there’s no certainty to any or all of these, then why are some groups pursuing it?

Is Bunyog and the people behind it certain that they have everything covered to ensure a successful “revolution”? One that just like Edsa 1 and 2 would be bloodless and swift? Has there been a consideration that there were similar attempts after the two successful Edsas and none of these materialized? Have we learned from any of these attempts before attempting another one? Have we come to a really desperate situation that we need to have another Edsa just to get rid of a sitting President? To my mind, and I say this without any qualms whatsoever: we need a revolution but not just to change a leader, but more to change the system.

We need to change the system because clearly, regardless of how good the credentials and personal capacities of many people serving in government are, the system simply prevents them from performing at their best. Can you imagine heads of departments pointing fingers instead of calmly and objectively assessing the situation and presenting solutions? 

It's the same or even worse with our legislators; it is one thing to show how incompetent a government official is, and it is another thing entirely to present alternative appropriate measures to address the problem. In the first place, telling the whole world how incompetent a leader is doesn’t solve the problem.

Meanwhile, we are left to our own devices. We debate whether to use face masks or not, even if no less than the World Health Organization (WHO) has already issued advisories in this regard. Because we have become so used to not taking the word of authorities, even the words of experts have become suspect. We even have some people who have become experts in everything, all contributing to the interesting mélange of inanities in politics and governance in the country. 

Unless we take a really serious look at our system of politics and public administration, we will always have this circus. Then again, some seem to prefer entertainment. 

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.