Philippine Opposition Faces Rebuilding Over Next Three Years

For the first time in 80 years, no opposition candidate has won in the Philippines’ midterm senatorial elections. On May 22, the country’s Commission on Elections proclaimed the 12 winning senators, which included nine backed by the administration PDP-Laban party and three independents from the Hugpong ng Pagbabago party.

That is a grim indication that President Rodrigo S. Duterte’s murderous drug war remains enormously popular, along with a perception that the president is taking concrete steps to do something about the endemic corruption that has dogged the country for decades. His approval rating stands at 66 percent according to the leading polling organization Social Weather Stations across all areas, age groups and genders.

But it is also an indication that a muddled opposition lacked a clear message and put up a lackluster slate including Manuel A. Roxas, who has at least twice been shunted aside in his decade-long effort to become president. Senator Kiko Pangilinan, the opposition party's president, and Quezon City Rep. Kit Belmonte, the as secretary general, both offered their resignations to take responsibility for the debacle but were turned down by Vice President Leni Robredo, the Liberal Party chairperson.

The results of the election thus give the Duterte administration largely a free hand on bills pending including reinstitution of the death penalty, lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 and a possible lifting of term extensions in order to free the President and other high-ranking officials from possible later penalties arising from his war on drugs.

A proposed revised draft of a Constitution which would pave the way toward a change of government from unitary to federalism is also pending in the House of Representatives. Critics fear it will include provisions that would allow the president to evade the six-year limitation on his term in office

Alongside these, positioning for possible presidential and vice-presidential candidacies will intensify in the next few months but first expect a political honeymoon for the next 16 months. A heightened jockeying for all the possible presidential-vice presidential tandems, coalitions, and alliance building between the elites will start as early as December 2020.

In light of this scenario, it is difficult to see how a crippled opposition could step up its game for the next three years to thwart President Rodrigo S. Duterte’s ambitions. Critics and analysts were quick to point out that Otso Diretso banked on negative campaigning and repeated the mistakes of the Liberal Party-led “Daang Matuwid” Coalition in 2016.

Instead of attracting new voters and widening their base, they preached to the same crowd during the 90-day campaign period. The same exclusionary politics that cost Liberal Party the 2016 presidential election also caused the shutout. While Otso Diretso’s attempt to pursue a principled politics is laudable, the reality is that, it alienated the voters.

For the next three years, the incumbent opposition senators led by Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, Frank Drilon and Leila De Lima – who is handicapped by being in pretrial detention for criminal charges branded as bogus by local and international rights groups – need to collaborate with the administration and the independent senators and position themselves as not just oppositionists to the administration, rather that they are willing to work with the government on key legislation that is in their interest.

It is crucial that the opposition broaden their base of support. For the past three years, the “with me or against me” framing of the Duterte government has been the dominant message in silencing dissenters.

The opposition has played into that narrative instead of being regarded as constructive. Ccritics were relegated to the now derogatory term “Dilawan (Resistors). While we cannot do something about this because of the government-sponsored propaganda and troll army in social media as well as its muzzling the independent press, it is impetus for the opposition to broaden the movement. They must step out of their comfort zones and connect to the basic masses outside of the areas friendly to them.

Pundits also say the opposition senatorial slate could have formed a broader coalition to include independent incumbents Grace Poe and Nancy Binay as well as left-leading candidates Neri Colmenares, Leody de Guzman and others.

]While this might have created an unwieldy alliance among candidates from different poles, the opposition-led Liberal Party must start exploring coalitions with other critics of the administration for the next three years. This could bring a united front against issues of authoritarianism and human rights violations of the current regime.

New leader must emerge

Lastly, a new leader should emerge for the opposition. One thing that Otso Diretso campaign has given birth to is the emergence of new leaders - Manuel "Chel" Diokno, Samira Gutoc, Pilo Hilbay, Erin Tanada, etc. Diokno has been successful in capturing the attention of millennials who comprise the youth vote. Still unstained and lacking in excess baggage, Diokno is in a pivotal position to lead the opposition for the next three years.

The familiar faces in the party -- Bam Aquino, Robredo and Pangilinan can still lead the LP contingent of a broader opposition but Diokno, an independent, is regarded as an effective voice to unite the progressive and critical voices under one umbrella. He is regarded as capable of managing a formidable run against Sara Duterte, Grace Poe, or Cynthia Villar as possible presidential candidates in 2022.

For the broader opposition to succeed, it needs to regroup and build on whatever positives it still has. It needs people to step up and leaders who are confident to own the mistakes and commit to rebuilding a united and broader front in order to ensure victory in 2022.

Start reimagining a new narrative of resistance that will convince Filipinos that there is something wrong with the government. They should go back to the grassroots and build alliances with basic sectors. They should be bold enough to pick leaders outside of their inner circle. Is a broader and united opposition in the Philippines up for this task?

Jed Alegado works for a global environmental movement. Currently based in the Philippines, he holds a master’s degree in development studies (major in agrarian, food, and environmental studies) from the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. He is also a teaching fellow at the Ateneo School of Government where he earned his Masters in Public Management (MPM) in 2014.