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16 May 2016 Editorial


16 MAY, 2016

Left, Right, Left?

An emerging third player in a polarised political field can effect unpredictable changes to the electoral outcome. The Bharatiya Janata Party will not end the dominance of the two alliance formations in Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Frontand the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, but may be set to alter the political scene in the State in new ways. Traditionally, BJP sympathisers, drawn from the considerable cadre base of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have voted against the Left, seeing the Congress as the lesser, god-fearing evil. However, with the BJP now scaling up to a significant presence in Kerala, a section of Hindu votes may shift towards it and away from the Congress. At the same time, such calculations may be upset if the BJP, now in a seat-sharing arrangement with a party that purports to represent the State’s large Ezhava population, traditional supporters of the Left, makes electoral inroads into this upwardly mobile backward class community. Kerala’s polarised politics hides a deeply fragmented polity held together by coalitions and power-sharing. Smaller parties have earned their place in one or the other front on account of their proven ability to tilt the scales for the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in specific constituencies. The UDF-LDF polarisation was thus achieved on the basis of accommodative politics, and not through marginalisation of the smaller players. Over the years, casteist and religious groups have found a place in both fronts, and some parties have moved from one front to the other with ease. But the BJP, with its right-wing politics and its anti-Congressism, is a different political force — it cannot, and maybe will not, allow itself to be assimilated in either of the two fronts. Kerala might thus be witnessing a slow political churning, one that could unsettle the two major fronts with long-term consequences. While parties seeking to represent the Muslim and Christian communities, the Indian Union Muslim League and the factions of the Kerala Congress, may not cohabit with the BJP, its future may lie in replicating the success it had in wooing the Ezhava-backed BJDS, and attracting the support of other caste-based outfits.

The LDF seems to have overcome, if only on the surface, the factional rivalry in the CPI(M) between former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and former State secretary of the party Pinarayi Vijayan. The UDF is mired in corruption scandals and the anti-incumbency factor hangs heavy on Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The bar bribery scandal, involving Kerala Congress (Mani) leader and former Finance Minister K.M. Mani has also exacerbated divisions within the UDF. This is an important election for the Congress, which is looking for an Assembly election victory it can call its own after the Lok Sabha debacle of 2014, and for the Left, which desperately needs to return to power in Kerala after losing its stranglehold on West Bengal. In a State where a small vote swing can determine the result, much will depend on how BJP supporters vote: they will determine whether this election will alter the revolving-door pattern that has seen one Front yielding to another every five years.

A new strongman in the Philippines

During his election campaign, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was often compared to Donald Trump. Like the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate, Mr. Duterte ran a divisive, anti-establishment campaign built around a strongman image. His contempt for law, threats to “shut down Congress” and pledge to send the army and the police to kill criminals had all revived memories of Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal dictatorship, brought to an end by a “revolution” in 1986. Mr. Duterte’s victory in the presidential elections by a clear margin, has thrown the future of the Philippines into uncertainty. The country’s political elite are partly responsible for the triumph of his brand of politics. Though outgoing President Benigno Aquino is hailed as a champion of economic reforms, the high growth barely trickled down to the poor. Despite the economy clocking an average annual growth rate of 6.3 per cent between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of Filipinos living below the national poverty line in 2015 stood at 26.3, almost the same as in 2009. Infrastructure is poor and corruption is persistent. The revolution that brought the Marcos era to an end has, over the years, ossified into oligarchic rule, with a few political dynasties pulling the strings. Mr. Duterte, known for his crackdown on crime in Davao as the city’s Mayor, presented himself as an alternative to the oligarchs in Manila. His populism and showmanship helped rally the electorate to his side.

The race to the presidency from the office of a city Mayor was indeed tough. But ruling a country of 100 million people that faces enormous challenges is going to be harder. Mr. Duterte lacks experience in national politics and support among the legislators. If he turns dictatorial, as Marcos did, he risks a mass rebellion. Those who voted him to power could easily turn against him. If Mr. Duterte is serious about implementing reforms to spread growth beyond Manila, he will require the help of the very legislators he antagonised during the campaign. He should tread cautiously because the established parties that control Congress can make his job more difficult. Two of Mr. Aquino’s immediate predecessors faced impeachment charges — one had to resign and the other was jailed after her term was over. Geopolitically, Mr. Duterte’s election comes at a crucial moment. The Philippines and China are in a stand-off over claims in the South China Sea. Mr. Duterte’s brash comments on other countries, including regional allies, seem to point to a lack of diplomatic equanimity needed to grapple with complex geopolitical issues. These challenges and weaknesses don’t guarantee his failure as President. But he would do better if he toned down the rhetoric, adopted a more conciliatory approach in order to buy peace with political rivals, and pursued an inclusive, growth-centric approach.

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