Can progressives win Senate seats this time?

Lian Buan
Warring unions join forces for the first time in decades to push for the pro-worker agenda that Duterte has failed to deliver. Will this be enough of a game changer?

MANILA, Philippines – They are straightforward with their platform: end contractualization, raise wages and improve working conditions for the Filipino. Yet many of the voters do not know their names, most don’t even care.

For the 2019 midterm elections, name recall is poor for the progressive labor leaders seeking seats in the Senate: Ernesto Arellano, Ka Leody de Guzman, Sonny Matula, and Allan Montaño.

The 4 labor leaders decided to join forces and create the slate “Labor Win,” which includes the bet of the Philippine Left, former Bayan Muna party-list representative Neri Colmenares.

Out of the 5 of them, Colmenares is the most known, but still not popular enough to barge into the so-called winning circle of the pre-election surveys. In the latest Pulse Asia survey, Colmenares ranked 24-29, with the rest in the labor slate at the lowest brackets.

What changed?

But this is not surprising. The last time that a union leader won a seat in the Senate was in 1992 when Ernesto “Boy” Herrera – the so called titan of the labor movement – secured a second term.

The Philippine Left has been unable to send a representative to the Senate since it joined mainstream elections in 1987.

What are the progressives’ chances this time around?

For one, warring unions have forged unity to push for a pro-worker agenda that, they said, President Rodrigo Duterte has failed to deliver, thus far.

“Not since the mid-’90s has this happened. This is a first, we’re hoping it will make a mark,” said Colmenares’ campaign manager Teddy Casiño, who also ran for the Senate in the past but lost.

De Guzman of the Bukluran ng mga Manggagawang Pilipino said the historic unity of labor groups will excite, and hopefully inspire, workers and grassroots unions.

“Isa ring factor kasi si Duterte, ‘yung kanyang pangako sa kontraktuwalisasyon, pinaasa ‘yung mga manggagawa, tapos tinalikuran, isa ring nagtulak sa aming mga labor leader na wala talaga tayong maaasahan, wala nang maaasahan kundi tumindig sa sarili,” De Guzman told Rappler.

(Duterte was really a factor, his promise to end contractualization was just a promise, then he turned his back on us, so i pushed labor leaders to think that we have no one to rely on but ourselves.)

Is it wise to hit Duterte?

Professor Carmel Abao, who teaches Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University, said that the progressive candidates can try to use Duterte’s failed promise to end contractualization, as well as the high inflation rates under his administration, but only up to a certain extent. (READ: Against all odds: Voting for ‘progressives’)

“Those fed up with the Duterte rhetoric and faced with the realities of inflation, etc, are likely to vote for them. But then again, Philippine elections are fundamentally about affinity and name recall – so the premise might not be sufficient to win an election,” Abao told Rappler.

Casiño also does not advise Colmenares to focus his campaign on just being anti-Duterte. (READ: How Duterte’s political style is hurting PDP-Laban in 2019)

“Ang approach ni Neri is, if he will discuss the issue, at coincidental na natatamaan minsan si Duterte – because marami sa platform ni Neri, pinangako ni Duterte na hindi natuloy – para sa amin, we’d rather stick to the issues, gusto rin naming iwasan ‘yung this will be a referendum on Duterte,Casiño told Rappler.

(Neri’s approach is, if he will discuss the issue and Duterte is hit coincidentally because many of his platforms are built on Duterte’s broken promises – for us, we’d rather stick to the issues, we also want to avoid the elections being a referendum on Duterte.)

Casiño said there is a segment of Duterte supporters who still support the Left, or other progressive groups.

“Sabi nga nila eh lahat ng administrasyon binatikos niyo, so they know this is not about Duterte. This is our role, some in the Duterte administration appreciate that this is our role, so may ganung space sa Duterte supporters,” said Casiño.

(They always say we hit all administrations, so they know this is not about Dutere. This is our role, some in the Duterte administration appreciate that this is our role, so there is that space among Duterte supporters.) 

Labor lawyer Allan Montaño said he also has supporters from labor groups who are still aligned with the Duterte administration.

Strategies, styles

Abao said that Duterte won the presidency by demonizing the opponent – the so-called ‘dilawans’ – a campaign style that successfully captured the culture of Philippine elections. (READ: Liberal Party now ‘listens’ to the people it once ignored)

“Voters use emotional connection/affinity – instead of platforms – as their ‘rationality’ during elections.  This kind of political culture is a product largely of an electoral system where political parties do not really matter – only personalities,” said Abao.

So if the progressives are to do the same, they must focus on hitting one enemy – the elite.

“The only way one can shake things up in Philippine elections is through demonizing one’s opponent and to be very convincing in said demonization. Usually, the players are elite (because elections are very expensive) so winning an election is often a matter of convincing voters which elite is ‘the demon’ and which elite is deserving of the people’s vote,” said Abao.

Demonization of the Left

Demonization of the elite is a narrative used largely by the progressive bets.

But the longtime demonization of the Left is also what’s working against them.

“The left has been vilified for 20 years under Marcos so ang lalim nun (so that’s really deep), there is that fear of the Left brought about by decades of anti-Left hysteria by the Marcos administration,” said Casiño.

During the GMA News senatorial debates, labor leader Ernesto Arellano was asked whether workers’ right to strike is inherent, or if there’s a limit to that right. It signals the predisposition of the middle- to upper-middle class to dislike the rallying types.

De Guzman said the leftist brand is something he has accepted; “kung kanan ang gobyerno, eh di kaliwa nga kami (if the government is right, then we must be Left.)”

“I’m advocating reform, so if you’re advocating reform, then you must be for the Left,” said Montaño, although he added that his group’s work is less on the streets, and more in Congress lobbying with lawmakers and stakeholders.

Casiño said that the Colmenares campaign will not make an effort to tone down the disruptive messaging of the Left; instead play it up to send a message.

“Instead of downplaying na hindi naman kami maingay, ang style namin is sabihing minsan talaga kailangan ng maingay, para marinig ang boses ng nakararami,” said Casiño. 

(Instead of downplaying and saying we’re not noisy, our style is to explain that sometimes you need the noise so that people’s voices can be heard.)

Abao said that by her definition of a progressive – a person with an ability to radicalize public discourse and with the backing of a social movement or a mass-based constituency for reform, among others – Otso Diretso’s Chel Diokno and Samura Gutoc can be considered progressives.

In terms of winnability, Abao cited the example of Akbayan’s Risa Hontiveros whom she also called a “progressive.”

“I think what (Senator Risa Hontiveros) did right in 2016 was to stick to a single issue – health – and this resonated with voters. Again, that notion of ‘emotional appeal,’ in Filipino linggo, we call that yung konek sa tao (connection to people) is important,” Abao told Rappler.

Grassroots campaign

In the US elections, rookie politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won on a largely leftist agenda at a time of Trump’s conservatism, because she said she out-hustled her opponent. Cortez said she knocked on as many doors and met as many New Yorkers as she could.

But Cortez was only gunning for the votes of one district in New York – national elections are a different animal altogether.

“Ang realization namin, pagdating sa national campaign, you can only do so much in the ground war, you need at least 13 millon votes to get the 12th slot, tapos ‘pag inoperate ka malalaglag ka, so ilang milyong votes ‘yan, kahit 3 taong mag-ikot si Neri (hindi niya mapupuntahan lahat),” Casiño said.

(We realized that when it comes to the national campaign, you can only do so much in the ground war, you need at least 13 million votes to get the 12th slot, then when you’re operated against, you’ll fall lower in the ranks, so how many million more do you need, even if Neri goes around for 3 years he can never cover all.)

Colmenares is able to afford a television ad. The rest of the labor bets have none, and neither do they plan to raise funds for one.

According to De Guzman and Montaño, they will be relying on the local union leaders to lead a personalized campaign. 

What does this mean? The candidates will hold as many assemblies with union leaders as they can, in as many places as they can go to, after which their campaign teams will just coordinate small outings in their communities.

This is as small as campaigners going to a factory nearby and handing out leaflets.

Labor Win has created a national secretariat which will monitor these efforts. But due to low campaign funds, staffers will not be paid separately for the campaign work. The campaign will just be add-on tasks to their salaried jobs for their different organizations. The rest are volunteers.

De Guzman estimates that the coalition has around 200,000 members, but loose members could reach up to a million, he said.

“Hangga’t hindi ko makita na gumagalaw ‘yung organisasyon na nag-pledge bakit ako gagastos, eh ang daming superstars, powerful. Kung hindi mo nakikitaan ng full support ‘yung organisasyon, gagastos ka eh di sayang,” said Montaño.

(As long as I don’t see the organizations moving to pledge, why would I spend when there are so many superstars and powerful people. If I don’t see full support from the organization and I spend, it will just be a waste of money.)

To tell you frankly, kinakailangan pa talaga namin silang iinspire, abutin pa, ilinaw (to tell you frankly, we still need to inspire them, reach them, clarify some things),” said De Guzman.

Abao said the progressive candidates must realize that the labor vote is not automatic, as “less than 10% of our labor force is organized.”

“Their challenge is two-fold: to make sure that their own pre-existing constituencies will vote for them and to expand their reach beyond their constituencies. The more fundamental challenge, however, for these candidates is how to win in traditional elections through transformative, non-traditional (non-corrupt, non-personalistic) ways,” said Abao.

De Guzman acknowledged that even getting the labor vote will be challenging. The reason why only a small part of the labor force is organized is because of fear of being fired by their employers for joining, or even just talking to, union groups.

De Guzman hopes that the premise of election will make it easier for their campaigners to reach workers.

“Iba ‘yung klima kasi eleksyon, hindi kami nag-aaya ng welga, kasi eleksyon kaya may nangangampanya,” said De Guzman.

(The election climate is different, we’re not asking them to join rallies, there’s an election so we’re campaigning.)

Shaking things up

Some US analysts also credit Cortez’ win to good campaign branding, materials which used corporate branding tools similar to the Obama campaign.

In an increasingly visual world, candidates are looking to design to help them better communicate who they are and what they stand for,” wrote Vox’s Diana Budds.

Of the Labor Win candidates, Colmenares would be the one who has enough resources to pay attention to branding. 

But Casiño said that even if they hire the best graphics people for the campaign, if they don’t have enough money to pay for airtime for television ads, “sayang lang (it would be a waste).”

Montaño cannot even afford to have a graphics team. He said his donors are kind friends who donate 50-100 tarpaulins. “Tatawag sila para humingi ng high definition na picture, isesend ko, bahala na sila (they will call to ask for a high definition photo, I will send them, and they can print it however they want).”

“More than branding, I think a strategy based on a deep understanding of and rootedness in Filipino culture – with all its complexity – including how one can use such culture to one’s advantage during elections, is what matters,” Abao said.

Casiño said it is a continuing experiment.

For the Colmenares campaign, Casiño said they will pick out the best traits from their success in winning seats in the lower chamber, and hope that a formula or two would work.

I’m just hoping na may mangyaring milagro (that a miracle happens),” said Montaño. 

“We just have to try and try,” said Casiño. –

Photo: Labor Win’s proclamation rally in Plaza Miranda on February 14, 2019. Photo courtesy of Defend Job PH 

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.