111th Birth Anniversary Celebration
of Don Juan Sumulong

Speech of President Edgardo J. Angara
at the 11th Birth Anniversary Celebration of Don Juan Sumulong
Sumulong Park, Antipolo City,
on 27 December 1985

We meet today to commemorate the 111th birth anniversary of Don Juan Sumulong in circumstances that are extraordinary even for a country whose history has been marked by extraordinary events. In only a little more than a month we shall either be reelecting a president who has governed this country for the last twenty years, or we shall be electing a woman president.

This election by itself is unique in our history. What makes it unique aside from the obvious fact that a woman for the first time is standing for election to the Presidency, it is taking place in an economic crisis of the first magnitude largely brought about by our politics that failed to embody thee vision and philosophy of Juan Sumulong. Juan Sumulong's singular contribution to Philippine political development was his life long dedication to the cause of responsible high-minded opposition which is the hand maiden of good government.

Postwar politics in our country, until 1972, saw the alternating cycle of Nacionalista and Liberal party administration. The 26 years that passed from 1946 to 1972 saw slow but steady economic progress but also witnessed the deterioration of the political process that culminated in the total abolition of the party system when martial law was declared in 1972.

The declaration of martial rule in September 1972 dismantled the two-party system in that many of the leasers and forces identified with the opposition today were effectively displaced as countervailing force to the powers of a strong government.

Strangely enough, not a few political observers, U.P. political scientists among them, praised this development as ushering in the end of government by paralyzing debate and the promise of effective government by consensus. Time, however, has shown that it produced neither. The end of dissent produced a blind overconfidence on the part of government and the paralysis simply made way for polarization.

We have, of course, all heard the argument that we never really had a genuine two-party system. The two major parties which vied for power at every election before 1972 merely represented the same sectors and the same interest. They were the same dog with a different collar. That might well have been true, but it hardly justifies the conclusion that the best government is government without opposition. The two-party system, at the very least, allowed various sectors, classes, and personalities to raise issues that often transcended narrow interests and touched the national welfare. Most importantly, it created several, competing power centers which prevented the undue concentration of power in a single man or group, thereby preserving, at least, the individual liberties, if not the general well-being of all.

It was to this system that Don Juan Sumulong was deeply committed.

Don Juan Sumulong was a tireless fiscalizer of government in the infancy of the political system. He believed that an effective and responsible opposition was crucial to the development of a democratic polity and therefore devoted his entire political career towards achieving this end.

He too had to struggle under a strong President, but it was a duty he discharged well, from 1916, when the Democrata Party was established to challenge the formidable Nacionalista Party of Osmeņa and Quezon, until 1941, when an alliance of small opposition parties was formed to challenge a consolidated Nacionalista Party for the Presidency. Don Juan Sumulong, through this many years, sought to preserve the opposition and to infuse it with vigor, keenly aware that its weakening would signal the beginning of the end of a democracy still in its infancy.

The determination of Don Juan Sumulong to preserve the opposition essential to the preservation of democratic rule was most clearly manifested in 1941, when Quezon, one of the most powerful president we have ever had, sought a second term. Sumulong dared to run against Quezon when no one else would, heading an alliance of a few opposition groups. Quezon, the skillful politician, had coopted most of the former oppositionists who had opposed him in the past. Though realizing that the challenge his coalition posed against the mighty political machine of Quezon was a puny one, and though already in his sixties, Don Juan Sumulong persisted, convinced that a functioning two-party system was necessary for the growth of a democratic Philippines.

Don Juan Sumulong therefore launched such a vigorous campaign that illness overtook him shortly before the elections. He was not to recover from this, and he died the following year.

Though soundly defeated, Don Juan Sumulong revealed during the campaign a rare integrity, and that even rarer gift, the courage of one's convictions. Quezon had made known that Don Juan only had to withdraw from the race and he would be made senator without having to work for it. Such deals were not uncommon during the period, but Don Juan Sumulong rejected Quezon's offer.

His commitment to the two-party system was indeed consistent, even in the face of the argument that all Filipino political leaders should be united so as not to compromise the then ongoing campaign for independence.

Don Juan Sumulong remained steadfast for the development of "a normal party system". He believed that the national preoccupation with independence was not incompatible with responsible opposition and indeed was crucial to the future of an independent Philippines.

In addition, Don Juan Sumulong believed that the campaign for independence did not to obscure other issues which he believed had to be addressed. In the first half of the 1900s Don Juan Sumulong was one of the few who already understood that political independence would not mean much unless the country was economically independent.

Hindsight tells us now that Don Juan Sumulong was a man ahead of his time. If the country had heeded his advice to substantiate a formal political independence with real economic progress, succeeding generations would have been spared the social and economic crises that have marked our history since Independence.

Don Juan's contemporaries might well have heeded also his views on the U.S. bases in the Philippines, particularly his concern over the ambiguous provisions relating to jurisdiction over military personnel. He was asked to keep his opinions to himself so as not to endanger the prospect of independence, but a point was reached when he had to speak up on the doubtful economic concessions. If he had been listened to, we know now that we would still have been granted independence but we would not have today the divisive issue of the bases.

Over and above his contributions on specific issues, the greatest debt the Philippines owes to this man is, perhaps, the example of his political life. He lived his conviction of the critical role of principled opposition. Had the various opposition throughout our brief history exhibited the same consistency and integrity, the country might never have allowed the current experiment in unopposed government. Our people would have seen the real virtues of checks and balances and been convinced of its necessity.

The proposition that effective and responsible opposition is essential to good government is not new. It has been a common place of democratic theory. But, for as long as it was preached and not practiced, our people never believed in it. And when the system was challenged, it was not surprising that they did not rally to its defense. Today, we are seeing the re-emergence of this system. And again we are hearing repeated assertions of its necessity in the future government of our country.

But unless we see more Don Juan Sumulongs among our political leaders practicing it as often as they preach it, I don't think it will survive either this time around. The challenge we face today are greater than any in the past and the temptation to tackle them directly by cutting through democratic institutions and liberties is even greater. Our people must be made to understand how important these institutions and liberties are. But the only way they will understand and appreciate them is if they see them lived, and not just preached, by our leaders in government and in opposition - - lived and preached as Don Juan Sumulong did.