Politics of Coalition-building for Democratic Reform: A Philippine Experience

Politics of Coalition-building for Democratic Reform: A Philippine. Experience

Political scientists, development practitioners, bilateral and multilateral institutions have asserted that social organizations and networks are forms of social capital that promote civic engagement and cooperative problem-solving, catalyzing economic and political development. Non-government organizations and people's organizations are increasingly recognized as "seedbeds of democracy," providing adequate vehicles for reaching, organizing and mobilizing those who have been historically marginalized and disempowered. The main purpose of involving such people in their own development is to strengthen their initiative and critical abilities for meaningful participation in civic government. The impact of their involvement in development processes and in affecting long-term solutions to economic and equity issues has been closely scrutinized.

This article focuses on the peasant sector's engagement in the process of agrarian reform in the Philippines. It attempts to analyze the dynamics and politics of a consensus-building process that influenced the formation of the multi-ideological peasant coalition - the Congress for a People's Agrarian Reform (CPAR) - an unprecedented achievement of peasant organizing in the Philippines.

Political Conjuncture: Promise of Popular Participation and Empowerment

In February, 1986, after almost two decades of repressive and profligate authoritarian rule, a non-violent populist movement overthrew the Marcos dictatorship and swept into power Corazon Aquino, widow of the assassinated opposition politician, Benigno Aquino, Jr. The popular uprising created immense possibilities for general social reform and the reconstruction of democracy. The three-day revolution was led and sustained by organized sectors of the urban poor, trade unions, youth, religious groups and middle-class professionals. The events also signaled the beginning of the increasing role of people's organizations and non-government organizations in the mainstream of political decision-making.

In response to the opportunities presented by the new political environment, NGOs operating in the rural areas, which for some time had been divided on ideological grounds, saw the need to unite behind a common development agenda. Twenty-two NGOs, belonging to the center-left and democratic left tradition of the political spectrum and from all regions of the country, convened a peasants' conference on agrarian reform and rural development. NGO members conducted intense and broadbased consultations to ensure grassroots participation and popular support. Because President Aquino did not immediately decree a comprehensive agrarian reform program, the government's inaction generated resentment among the organized peasant sector and increased pressure to adopt more aggressive tactics.

On January, 22, 1987, the "Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)" the national "Peasant Movement of the Philippines" that was aligned closely with the Marxist-inspired underground National Democratic Front, led a march to Malacanang to press their demands for reform. Before they reached the presidential palace, police opened fire, killing thirteen marchers and wounding hundreds in what is now remembered as the "Mendiola massacre." Overnight, agrarian reform returned to center stage of the national debate. Birth of CPAR

The events following the "Mendiola massacre" put the government on the defensive and gave momentum to the peasant advocacy for reform. To succeed in the struggle for reform, the politically diverse NGOs and peasant organizations needed to rally behind a common set of goals. However, the peasant movement was historically characterized by factionalism and antagonism. Cautiously and without great expectations, thirteen NGOs formed a working committee to formulate a common agenda for the coalition of organizations.

On May 29, 1987, a three-day Congress brought together approximately 200 representatives of 70 national peasant organizations, rural development NGOs, and cause-oriented groups; and prominent personalities from the academy, church, business, and government. The objective was to build a consensus on a comprehensive agrarian reform legislation to propose to President Aquino for enactment by Executive Order. By exercising emergency power under her revolutionary government, President Aquino had abolished Congress and was ruling by decree. Both the strategy and the substance of the agrarian reform movement were discussed.

The KMP and extreme left formations insisted that the free distribution of agricultural lands must be a core principle of the proposed agrarian reform program. The more moderate peasant groups agreed that this would be the ideal situation but argued that it was not a feasible option. They felt that such a hard-line posture would endanger the acceptance of the peasants' positions. As an alternative, they proposed a "selective and progressive system of compensation," whereby the larger the property, the lower the price that farmer beneficiaries would have to pay her hectare of land. Also, the more unjustly the land has been acquired or managed by the owners, the lower the payment required of beneficiaries.

To the Marxist groups, who until the EDSA revolution had been waging armed struggle in the countryside, operating within the legal arena was unpalatable. Despite their serious reservations, they saw in CPAR the potential to contribute to the overall struggle to seize power from the state. In addition, with the impending peace negotiations between the Aquino government and the Communist Party of the Philippines for a political settlement of the armed conflict in mind, they saw CPAR as additional leverage. Moreover, many feared that other peasant organizations were able to unite and succeed in the campaign without them. At that critical juncture, the Marxist-groups could not risk isolation from the democratization process. But if they were part of the coalition, the possibility existed for them to dominate the coalition and harness it for their own revolutionary agenda. The non-Marxist groups were wary that the entry of the radical left could revive problems of domination and manipulation. However, they realized that they would be treated with more respect by the government if the more militant faction of the peasant movement was with them. A united front would be their main source of leverage with the government and the land-holding elite. Despite the desire to organize the broadest coalition possible, peasant organizations who had collaborated with the dictatorship were deliberately excluded from the coalition.

After three days of deliberation and negotiations, the leaders of thirteen national federations of farmers, peasant women and fisher folk adopted an eight-point "People's Declaration of Principle," which defined their concept of agrarian reform. For the first time in the history of the peasant movement, contending and deeply divided peasant groups were united behind a set of principles. For many, the event promised a new era of peasant solidarity.

CPAR's structure was formal. Coalition policy was created by the National Consultative Council, which eventually became the National Coordinating Council, or the NCC. The NCC was composed of a representative from each coalition-member. A pool of representatives from 14 rural development NGOs provided planning, research and networking support. Day-to-day operations and administration of the coalition was vested in a secretariat of non-peasant personnel managed by NGO leaders. Leadership rotated every month among NCC members.

The leadership structure of CPAR stressed consensus-building and collective action to ensure freedom from domination and control by any single faction. Crafting Consensus for Distributive Reform

Immediately after its formation, CPAR focused its efforts on influencing President Aquino to issue an executive order on agrarian reform before the new Congress convened. Many feared that the new Congress would be dominated by landlord interests, and had little hope of passing a genuine and comprehensive law. CPAR's lobbying with the executive and the media succeeded in pressing President Aquino to issue an Executive Order (EO). However, the EO did not meet CPAR's expectations and was totally rejected by them. The order left the decisions remaining on many substantial issues, such as retention limits, valuation, timing, and phasing, to the soon-to-be-formed Congress.

Despite the initial setback, CPAR leaders shifted their focus from the executive to the legislative branch. The coalition identified and met with progressive, sympathetic members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. CPAR members from the expanded secretariat worked as consultants in the House Committee for Agrarian Reform and religiously attended, participated in, and closely monitored Congressional hearings. True to its tradition, CPAR also undertook public protest activities, such as marches and public rallies, including camping out for two weeks in the grounds of the House of Representatives. The coalition held workshops and conferences with various sectors to raise interest and broaden its constituency. It worked closely with allies in the bureaucracy, particularly in the Department of Agrarian Reform, and seized every opportunity to use the media to explain their position and invite support.

CPAR's initiatives resulted in the adoption of its proposal, with some modifications, as the working document of the House Committee on Agrarian Reform. Hopes of substantial victory were raised when the Committee reported in HB 400 on many of the vital provisions of CPAR's proposed agrarian reform code.

The decision to support HB 400 was not easy for the coalition. NCC leaders lamented that two provisions of the proposed bill ran counter to CPAR's principles: the high seven-hectare retention limit, and ownership of land every by non-tillers. CPAR was advocating a five-hectare retention limit and "land to the tiller" wherein people who do not cultivate their lands themselves would not be allowed to keep and own land. For a while, these issues brought CPAR to an impasse. The Marxist elements in CPAR particularly felt that they were already conceding too much. Again, a series of negotiations ensued. Finally, the coalition decided to support HB 400. It was agreed that while HB 400 did not reflect the elements in their proposal, it was still superior to any measure ever introduced in either the House or the Senate.

Most of CPAR's lobbying efforts were concentrated in Metro Manila, the seat of policy-making and executives action. To bring the agrarian reform issue to areas outside Metro Manila and consequently gain more support for CPAR's agrarian reform agenda, the coalition launched a public awareness project called the "Agrarian Reform Express." Two teams of peasant leaders and agrarian reform advocates traveled by bus to several areas in Northern and Southern Luzon to campaign for genuine agrarian reform in key towns and cities. At every stop, the delegations were welcomed by crowds of supporters, many representing the local chapters of the twelve federations in the coalition. The two teams converged three days later in Metro Manila, joined by supporters from various groups. The Agrarian Reform Express was CPAR's most publicized campaign, described by NCC leaders as one of their most memorable and successful efforts. It generated a dramatic show of support for the coalition's work.

Agreements were made within the coalition on the conduct of the Agrarian Reform Express. Because of the nature of the project, coalition members and supporters not identified with the Marxist-inspired National Democratic Front (NDF) feared that the NDF affiliated groups would seek to dominate and capture the coalition. The NGO leaders of the coalition stressed that the campaign was a coalition project and therefore the coalition should take center stage, with the NCC leaders acting as collective spokespersons of the coalition.

Despite the increased cohesion of the coalition, its lobbying efforts and the growing support of other sectors, Congress finally passed a Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) that was a heavily watered-down version of the original HB 400. The bill had been changed to the extent that the pro-CPAR legislators who had introduced what eventually became HB 400 voted against the CARL. Once again, CPAR totally rejected the agrarian reform measure. However, members of the coalition felt that there was still the need for a united voice to challenge the law that had been passed while protecting and consolidating the gains achieved.

Undaunted by their failure to obtain legislative support for their version of a comprehensive agrarian reform law, CPAR convened its own "People's Congress." This two-day conference brought together 600 representatives from all over the country, representing 39 peasant formations, sectoral and cause-oriented groups, non-government organizations, and political alliances, including individuals who were recognized as agrariam reform advocates. The participants affirmed their commitment to genuine agrarian reform and passed their own People's Agrarian Reform Code (PARCODE). CPAR embarked on a campaign strategy to implement PARCODE by means of a signature campaign and independent peasant initiatives. By utilizing a direct democracy provision in the Philippine constitution that allows citizens to initiate or amend a law by a process of initiative and referendum, a national PARCODE signature campaign was launched. The objective was to gather three million signatures to repeal CARL and replace it with PARCODE. However, to accommodate the demands of the more radical groups within the coalition, CPAR also pursued another track: organized, aggressive, non-violent initiatives such as land occupation, boycotts, food blockades, and other means of acquiring possession of land and modifying tenure relations.

CPAR established Regional PARCODE Campaign Centers (RPCC) to facilitate the signature drive and information campaign in the provinces, but failed to collect the minimum 2.5 million signatures. Within a few months after the RPCCs were launched, the slow pace of gathering and retrieving signatures became evident. To address this dismal performance, all NCC representatives agreed in late 1988 that each CPAR member federation was to collect at least 100,000 signatures. Still, by 1992, the campaign yielded merely 500,000 signatures, or one-sixth of the minimum prescribed by the Constitution.

The failed PARCODE signature campaign once again threatened fragile unity within CPAR. Some of the major member organizations of CPAR, particularly the national democratic groups, doubted from the beginning that peasant groups could succeed in such an exercise. Furthermore, their continuing distrust for legal processes and their limited exposure to open, parliamentary work revealed deep reservations about the process. In addition, some leaders felt that their continuing participation in the signature campaign was drawing them away from more militant action. In fact, KMP asserted that the contribution of a coalition member of the PARCODE campaign should not be measured solely by the number of signatures collected, but more importantly by the number of land occupations and rent-boycott campaigns undertaken.

On the other hand, while comfortable with the signature campaign, the moderate groups were also open to militant action, such as land fishpond occupation and farm labor boycotts. Unlike the NDF groups, however, they felt that both the signature campaign and land occupation modes could contribute towards realizing PARCODE.

The growing divergence of strategy within CPAR reflected the nature of consensus arrived at during the launching of PARCODE. In practice, consensus did not really mean that the coalition had to be united on every point. It merely required that a group take actions which could be classified under either signature campaign or militant peasant initiatives. Each federation remained free to choose which option to pursue. There were no minimum expectations set to ensure a certain level of unity in strategy.

Ironically, what was commended by CPAR's supporters as "consensus-building at its best" was the agreement that each of the participating federations could use its own mode in promoting PARCODE. At this point, NGO coalition-builders believed that what was important was to keep the coalition intact and at the least maintain a semblance of unity. The basis of the consensus was the desire of all the CPAR members to protect the gains achieved, the need to continue the discussion of a genuine agrarian reform program in the national agenda, and to expand the constituency for the needed reform.

The other reason for the failure of the signature campaign had to do with the legal feasibility of the strategy. First, with no enabling law from Congress to implement the constitutional provision on initiative and referendum, the whole exercise had no legal anchor and could not have been validly assessed in the courts of law. Therefore, the most that the campaign could have achieved was to provide the basis for a referendum. It could not have repealed the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. Second, fulfilling the requirements of the constitutional provision required tremendous logistical support to finance a nationwide operation and maintain a national network of full-time, fully-equipped personnel. CPAR did not have and could not generate these essential resources. Therefore, the exercise was doomed from the start.

The dismal performance of the PARCODE signature campaign and the implementation of CARL signaled a shift in the struggle from a national to a local level. The underlying principle was to concentrate their meager resources in selected local campaigns. In July 1990, CPAR embarked on a regionalization program aimed at establishing provincial coalitions. This was a significant departure from earlier efforts to strengthen its national organization and reflected the shift in strategy. Two conditions had to be fulfilled before a provincial coalition could be organized: first, the local coalition must be formed only in those provinces where the base organizations were aligned with more than one ideological bloc (to ensure the pluralist character of the national formation); and second, the local coalition could only be set up after holding base consultations to ensure that coalition efforts would be grounded on the needs, interests, and readiness of groups to coalesce. CPAR secretariat personnel, composed of non-peasants aligned with the different political blocks, were deployed for provincial coalition-building in the three island regions of the country. Structures were set up and funds were accessed to make these efforts possible. Every development in their work was legitimized by prior consensus within the NCC. After a year's operation, it became evident that the provincial coalitions formed were developing a life of their own. Initiatives were being taken without the knowledge or permission of the NCC. Most of the provincial coalitions also began to discover that they could cooperate on local efforts ranging from local advocacy, aimed at resolving agrarian cases, to implementing socio-economic programs. They began to achieve small victories in their engagement with state agencies, which they felt would have been impossible had they not come together.

Despite these victories and to the surprise of the secretariat and the provincial coalitions, some NCC members (not limited to the militant groups) began to voice their reservations about the regionalization program. They cited the following reasons: first, funds being accessed by CPAR for socio-economic programs of the provincial coalitions allegedly had the effect of diverting the loyalty of the local organizations from their national federation to the provincial federation; second, identification of the provincial coalition activities as CPAR activities was projecting CPAR and the provincial federation at the expense of the mother federation. This had implications for the fundraising capability of the mother federation. Lastly, with interest in agrarian reform waning on the national level, CPAR national leaders felt that their energies should concentrate on national advocacy rather than diverting and dissipating them on the parochial regionalization program.

In the face of so many complaints, the regionalization program was terminated. This decision revealed that groups within the coalition feared losing ground in favor of the coalition.

Disunity within CPAR had never been more intense than in the months which followed the May 1992 presidential and national elections under democratic rule. Because of the insurmountable conflict with the NCC, CPAR could not endorse a common candidate for President and Vice president, and failed miserably in projecting a peasant vote during the 1992 Presidential elections.

As the ability of CPAR to achieve consensus progressively declined at every campaign and exercise, suspicion and ideological blocs began to re-surface. In July, 1993, the NCC painfully came to a decision that it was best to dissolve the coalition. What began as the broadest and most promising coalition project in the history of Philippine social movements had come to an end.

Insights and Lessons Learned 1. The life of a coalition is dependent on its tactical value to the members. The experience of CPAR shows the vulnerability of a consensus-based, but ideologically heterogeneous, coalition to external forces and events. The effective life of the coalition is short and largely dependent on whether organizations see a tactical value in coming together. The possibility of reform impressed upon the different peasant organizations the urgency and the importance of unity among their ranks. Without this important factor, unity would have been more difficult.

The organized peasant sector is beset with intra-class conflict, which is primarily ideological. The different levels of consensus were reached due to the pressing need for strategic unity for the sector and for possible tactical gains for the individual peasant federations. This is the reason, particularly during the PARCODE campaign, that the consensus built could be characterized as "conveniently vague." In this case, the common denominator was the dissatisfaction with the CARL, leading to its rejection, but leaving the members to their own interpretation of "rejection." This eventually became a bone of contention when peasant organizations became increasingly less tolerant of the range of positions to which the coalition subscribed in relating with the state. What sustained CPAR, despite the intra-ideological conflict was the tactical value it offered to its individual members. For the NDF-aligned groups, CPAR could be used as leverage for the political settlement of the armed conflict during the peace talks. For the non-NDFs, CPAR provided them with the necessary projection as a legitimate peasant organization and a position independent from the NDF groups. 2. The organized peasant groups in the Philippines need to enhance their level of organization and build their capacity to function effectively in the legal arena. The experience of CPAR showed certain characteristics of the peasant movement that need to be transformed to increase peasants' participation in political decision-making. The organized peasant movement was small, divided (by ideological and personal rivalry), and led by an old guard; thus, it was only of marginal, political significance. These attributes became apparent during the different campaigns waged by CPAR: the small number of signatures gathered for the PARCODE; the inability of the member federations to assert their position for provincial coalition building; and the unsuccessful attempt to organize a massive peasant vote during the May 1992 national elections. Increasing the number of organized groups is needed, especially when elective officials - faced with the power of the state and landlords - always assess the organized peasants' influence in their respective constituencies when voting for particular policies in the legislature. 3. The catalysts of peasant class solidarity in CPAR were the NGOs. The maintenance of CPAR for six years and its ability to craft consensus at different moments of its history were facilitated by NGO leaders. It was important that these NGO professionals manifest impartiality and fair-mindedness to effectively coordinate the coalition. On the other hand, NGOs and POs need to temper their uncompromising cause-oriented politics while operating in the larger political arena, whether it be the bureaucracy, the legislative or the electoral arena.

It was from the CPAR experience in lobby work that peasants realized how unprepared they were to operate within the mainstream. Their absolutist demands prevented them from appreciating marginal but significant gains. A good example is the enactment of CARL. While far inferior to PARCODE, CARL was comparatively the most substantial legislation ever passed by Congress. CPAR has to learn that success in advocacy within an imperfect democratic setting is measured not by ideal policies but by improvements to existing ones. 4. The limits of full consensus in policy reform advocacy. While full consensus is desirable in fragile coalition undertaking, this can hamper success in coalition campaigns. This is particularly true in a very fluid and volatile political environment as was the case right after the EDSA revolution. Such a situation presented opportunities for political gains to political forces that had the influence, skill, and flexibility to negotiate. The rigidity of CPAR's decision-making process limited its negotiations. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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