PCDForum Column #19,   Release Date August 15, 1991

by Florencio "Butch" Abad

Many of us in the Philippine NGO sector currently find ourselves in a state

of transition in our relationship to national electoral processes. The context

of that transition is a political tug-of-war between the old oligarchic politics

of elite privilege and a new politics of social justice and environmental

sustainability. It is a genuine conflict of economic interests, social values

and political methods and NGOs are coming to realize that elections are one of

its arenas.

1992 will be the first time since 1965 that the Filipinos will chose a

president through a normal electoral process and that election will determine

whether the Aquino government has provided a transition to democracy or only an

interlude between authoritarian regimes. It will also be the first time that

non-governmental organizations, social movements and other non-party formations

are coming together in the Philippines to flex their collective electoral muscle

and establish a foothold in the national and local electoral arena.

We intend to draw strength from broad mass support and the cooperation of

critical sectors like the Church, business and academe. Our goal is to achieve

key electoral victories that will allow us to bring our alternative political,

economic, and social agenda into the mainstream of political and governmental

action. We have christened our electoral undertaking, "Project 2001"

to emphasize that our commitment is not simply to a single election campaign.

More traditional NGO activities in the Philippines have made important

contributions in a number of areas from community empowerment and health care to

agrarian reform. Yet even though we often work closely with government

counterparts and are often welcomed in policy dialogues with government, our

efforts remain at the periphery of the development process, the mainstream of

which is dominated by orientations and strategies strongly biased against the

poor. To engage the mainstream we find we have no choice but to engage in

electoral politics.

There are several indications the time is right for such a move. One is the

growing distrust among Filipinos of traditional politicians and institutions.

That distrust is based on a realization that the traditional parties have no

coherent ideology for transforming the status quo and no consistent history of

helping the poor. Increased urbanization, the influence of popular

organizations, and a younger, well-educated voting population impatient for

change have eroded the traditional clan systems of voter mobilization.

Reform-oriented politicians have been increasingly successful in recent national

and local elections and several are now actively promoting genuine development

work from political office.

In entering the electoral arena we realize we face an uneven battle in which

our resources are minuscule. We must avoid any head on confrontation with the

oligarchic interests that have traditionally controlled electoral politics with

guns, goons and gold. Our strategy must center on moving the mode of political

discourse away from the traditional politics of dependent clientilism,

patronage, and coercion toward a mode of direct popular participation in

selecting agendas, identifying candidates, and assessing the qualifications of

both parties and candidates.

Our intervention in the political process will be at four levels: 1)

educating voters to create an issue-oriented political consciousness in place of

the personality-centered approach that has dominated past elections; 2) lobbying

for electoral reforms and monitoring their implementation; 3) developing a

people’s platform; and 4) supporting specific candidates. This agenda will

require building our own electoral infrastructure: mobilizing manpower, skills,

financial and technical resources, physical facilities, equipment, and existing

grassroots constituencies; reaching out to other sectors sympathetic to our

views; and establishing and operating electoral research centers and data banks.

For many NGOs such activities represent a venture into unfamiliar territory.

NGOs are rightfully proud of the independence with which they have pursued an

agenda of people’s empowerment without regard to the particular regime in power.

Understandably, they do not want to compromise their autonomy, values, or

established ways of working. We realize that involvement in partisan political

activity may tend to compromise us in a number of ways. For example, if the

party or roster of candidates supported by the NGO sector triumphs, the sector’s

traditional fiscalizing role may be diluted. On the other hand, if an adversary

party is victorious, we may become targets of retribution. The risks are real,

but risk taking is not new to NGOs. Indeed it is almost second nature to our


Two decades of experience have dissipated whatever utopian pipe dreams some

of us have had about how to transform society. We now realize that the changes

we seek also depend on electoral politics. We have no choice but to enter that


Florencio "Butch" Abad is Executive Director of Kaisahan, an NGO

devoted to advancing agrarian reform in the Philippines, and an organizer of

Project 2001. He was formerly Secretary of Agrarian Reform of the Philippine

government and member of the Philippine House of Representatives. This column

was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his presentation to the

Project 2001 Consultation and Planning Workshop. Kaisahan’s address is 305

Katipunan Rd., Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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