Thursday, March 23, 2017

[Second Opinion] The politics of compromise

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It was a foregone conclusion that the rubber-stamp Congress would pass the death penalty bill despite its many flaws. Even so, it was still interesting to look at how individual members voted.
Of course, few expected the political dynasts and the trapos to go against Pantaleon Alvarez’s marching orders; you have to be an Arroyo or a Marcos to pull off a dissenting vote and maintain good ties with the Speaker and the President. But for the supposed mavericks in the House, there was an expectation that they would at least put up a brave resistance.

It was disappointing then that Geraldine Roman—“the first transgender woman in Congress”—voted for the death penalty bill. The expectation, after all, did not just come from the idea that her open-mindedness in gender issues would translate to open-mindedness in other matters, but also from her previous opposition to the death penalty: Just last year she was quoted as saying that “people who make mistakes in society” deserve a second chance.

Roman explained her vote by saying that her own convictions notwithstanding, 85 percent of her constituents wanted the death penalty, and that as their “representative,” she was duty-bound to follow them. “I am part of the world of politics, and politics is compromise,” she told law students in Ateneo. “As much as I would want to follow my conscience to vote against the death penalty, I have the interests of the constituents, of my constituents in Bataan, in mind.”

What did she mean when she said that “politics is compromise”?

Roman herself provided a clue in her talk: “What about my other advocacies? Should I have held on to a sinking ship and ran along with me and my constituents and my advocacies? Try and understand my situation.”

Perhaps her justification is merely a sophisticated way of admitting that she jumped ship as an act of political self-preservation. But at the same time, I also see that her attitude is shared by many of our country’s leaders, which is why we must try to focus on where this attitude is coming from—and leave her alone for the time being.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment. Say you’re a passionate supporter of a certain cause, like the construction of dedicated walkways and bike lanes in our major cities. Having no other channel to raise your ideas, you post about them on Facebook. To your pleasant surprise, it goes viral! Then, amazingly, a government official invites you to Malacañang so you can present your ideas to the president himself!

“Very good! I will sign an executive order right away,” the president says, much to your elation. Finally, your vision of walkable and bikeable cities is within reach! But he adds a caveat: “Of course, I expect you to stop criticizing the drug war.”

Now you happen to be a critic of the extrajudicial killings—but you also feel that you’re in a unique opportunity to advance your cause. What would you do? The battle here, as is often the case, is not between good and evil, but between two forms of good. For legislators and even Cabinet officials, the choice is between focusing on their initiatives at the cost of leaving the presidency alone in other matters—or criticizing the president at the expense of losing the positions with which they can pursue their initiatives. Faced with the same dilemma, what would you choose?

Most of our leaders today are choosing compromise.

To some extent, this form of pragmatism makes sense in a system where the president is all too powerful: If he were a smoker, he may never order a nationwide smoking ban, but maybe we can get him to sign a law imposing a “sin tax” on tobacco. If he hates shabu with a vengeance, he may never adopt a harm reduction approach to drugs, but maybe he can embrace the same approach to reproductive health: That should, the thinking goes, be good enough for now.

But if helping to legitimize an unjust measure—or indeed, an unjust regime—either by open support or convenient silence, is the price for your initiatives to be supported, is it worth paying? I hope our leaders realize that there’s a very thin line between complicity and compromise.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 23, 2017:

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