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MANILA, Philippines – There’s an old joke that stalwarts of the Liberal Party (LP) love to tell new members before administering their oath. There was a time, they say, when all they needed was a Volkswagen Beetle because they could fit all members inside the small car.
Things have changed dramatically for the party since the victory of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III in the 2010 presidential election. Now the ruling party, LP takes pride in saying that it needs a lot of buses to accommodate its growing membership.
Every Friday, the LP headquarters in Expo Centro at the Araneta Center is packed with new members sitting through hours-long orientation seminars on liberal democracy that precede oath-taking ceremonies. Many of them previously belonged to the former ruling party, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats.
In the Philippines, it is common for politicians to jump from one political party to whichever emerges as the new ruling party. Because the power to release government allocations lies with the executive, politicians understandably flock to the President’s party in the hope that they would get a favorable share.
Small but relevant
The second oldest political party, LP has a long lineage of icons in Philippine politics. Among them are Senate President Jovito Salonga and the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr and Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo.
LP also produced 4 presidents: Manuel Roxas (1946), Elpidio Quirino (1949), Diosdado Macapagal (1961), and Benigno Aquino III (2010).
But the gap between Macapagal and Aquino is almost half a century. Between the two presidents, party membership dwindled.
LP kept itself relevant through the years by coalescing with dominant parties. In 1986, it supported Aquino’s mother, Corazon, as the common candidate of the anti-Marcos political parties, although she was officially fielded by PDP-Laban. It also pledged its support to the administrations of Lakas-CMD presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, even naming the latter its honorary chair and supporting her candidacy in 2004.
During the administration of President Arroyo, LP only had about 20 members in the House of Representatives. LP suffered a painful split when Sen Franklin Drilon led a faction of LP in abandoning President Arroyo at the height of allegations that she cheated to win the 2004 presidential elections.
Other members led by then Manila Mayor Lito Atieza stuck it out with Arroyo. The Commission on Elections eventually recognized Drilon’s faction as the legitimate LP.
What really made LP a force to reckon with even before Aquino’s electoral victory was its presence in the Senate. Among LP senators before 2010 were Manuel “Mar” Roxas II (now incoming interior and local government secretary), Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, and President Aquino himself. LP senators were always actively involved in national issues. After the split, the LP senators were among the staunchest critics of Arroyo.
Among the issues they opposed were the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, Constitutional Assembly to favor Constitutional Convention as a mode to change the 1987 Constitution, and the midnight appointment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
LP now has 89 members in the House of Representatives. Some of the LPs who bolted the party with Atienza have returned. It’s still small compared to the 130 or so that Lakas-Kampi-CMD had in the legislative chamber during its heyday. But this is because LP is selective. It has rejected a number of political bigwigs who had applied to join LP.
“We try to abide by the standards of recruitment. There’s a process involved. If we really opened the floodgate, we could be twice as big. We are still controlling the entry of new members,” says LP secretary-general Joseph Emilio Abaya.
But despite its growth, LP was forced to coalesce with other major political parties—the Nacionalista Party (NP) and the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC)—for the 2013 senatorial election. “At this point, no party can fill up the full slate by themselves. The important thing is we only coalesce with like-minded politicians,” said Abaya.
The administration admits it needs the vote of NP and NPC in Congress to push for Aquino’s reform agenda.
Is Aquino a partyman?
Aquino, however, does not appear to be actively involved in ensuring the party’s growth.
Aquino served various positions in the party. He led LP members when he was Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives. He is now LP chairman, the party’s titular head. However, LP’s role in his presidential campaign in 2010 was curious. It still is in his administration.
After Roxas gave up his presidential ambition to back Aquino’s candidacy, LP threw its political infrastructure behind him. But Aquino found it necessary to put a parallel campaign led by political allies outside LP. This is the root of the high profile rift between the Balay (LP) and Samar factions now plaguing the administration.
As president, Aquino put LP members in critical government positions. But his political adviser who carries a Cabinet rank, ironically, doesn’t come from the party – Ronald Llamas, former president of Akbayan.
The man running the show in LP is Roxas, the grandson and namesake of former President Manuel Roxas, who founded the party in 1946. The older Roxas was originally a member of the NP, but he and other members of the NP’s so-called “Liberal Wing” bolted the party to form LP.
Although he refuses to discuss the 2016 presidential elections, Roxas is going to be LP’s presidential candidate, according to members.
During orientation seminars, LP stalwarts always say they need to grow the party so they can win the 2016 presidential election. “We want to continue the reforms and the nice things happening to the country,” Abaya said.
But in an environment where party loyalty is a rare commodity, the question is: How reliable are the new LP members? How Roxas plays his cards will make 2013 a make-or-break elections for the party. – Rappler.com