No room for elitists and purists in a united opposition in 2022

To defeat President Rodrigo Duterte’s anointed one in 2022, opposition forces must leave their ivory towers.

That line alone will certainly raise not a few eyebrows among those who identify themselves as part of the dissenting voices against Duterte. But this is the reality that the newly-formed 1Sambayan coalition must grapple with if they are to succeed in their goal of fielding a united slate in the next presidential elections. 

“We have discussed this, again and again, and this is the understanding of everybody: That unless we are united, we cannot win in 2022,” said lead convenor Antonio Carpio, retired Supreme Court associate justice, during their group’s launch on March 18.

The opposition must agree on only one standard-bearer, but this is easier said than done. 

At this early stage, 1Sambayan’s supporters are already bickering online, bringing up old but festering wounds and brandishing the “holier than thou” narrative that political pundits believe led to the opposition’s embarrassing loss in the 2019 midterm elections

Questions have been raised if supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo would ever settle for anything less than a presidential candidacy for her. Others refused to consider moderates like Senator Grace Poe and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno even if they are on the list of the 1Sambayan convenors. 

There are doubts if Makabayan would ever be at peace with the once-ruling Liberal Party (LP), after its chairman emeritus Benigno Aquino III was indicted for usurpation of legislative powers due to a petition filed by the progressive bloc. The tension between the Binays and the liberals, mortal enemies in the pre-Duterte era, is still as potent as ever. 

Never mind the President’s own supporters belittling 1Sambayan; there are those within the opposition movement who say the coalition is just another political farce by the same old elites.

UNITING THE OPPOSITION. The convenors of 1Sambayan launch their coalition at the posh Makati Sports Club on March 18, 2021. Photo by Rappler

But for political science professor Carmel Abao of the Ateneo de Manila University, insisting on ideologies would only lead to 1Sambayan’s downfall. To win, the convenors – and their supporters, most specially – must be tactical, ready to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good.

“You insist on ideology alone, you’re not really going to unify, so I think people shouldn’t be looking for ideological allies,” Abao told Rappler. “They should be looking for tactical allies. All I’m saying is that, those in that room need more allies. It cannot be just them.”

Before facing the well-oiled machinery of the Duterte administration’s bet in 2022, the 1Sambayan coalition must first overcome the faults of its own people.

Go beyond the anti-Duterte rhetoric

For now, what binds 1Sambayan’s convenors together is their collective rejection of the abuses of the Duterte regime – from extrajudicial killings in the bloody drug war to the President selling out to China.

This is why the coalition was very quick to rule out any endorsement of presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte as well as Senator Manny Pacquiao, whom they aptly described as the President’s enablers.

Good governance and competence were the buzzwords during 1Sambayan’s launch. The plan is to select the final slate by subjecting potential bets to a vetting process, where they would be screened based on their track record, “upright” stand on key issues, platforms, and winnability.

The danger here, argued governance expert Michael Yusingco from the Ateneo School of Government, is 1Sambayan getting stuck in the anti-Duterte narrative. They could end up failing to articulate the specific programs they can offer to the people – much like what happened to the LP-led Otso Diretso slate in 2019.

“That’s actually one of the problems of Otso Diretso – their grandstanding [overshadowed] their platform… So this is exactly what the 1Sambayan should avoid,” said Yusingco

The Otso Diretso bets focused on attacking Duterte, instead of presenting themselves as the better alternative to the senatorial candidates whom the President was endorsing. They even resorted to a publicity stunt with a jet ski and a boat docked at a pier to showcase their intent to protect the West Philippine Sea from the Chinese military. 

There’s much to be disgruntled about with Duterte, the misogynist president whose government could not stop the coronavirus infection of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Yet Duterte remains popular among ordinary Filipinos, who remain averse to confrontational politics and prioritize livelihood and survival over everything else. 

So what can 1Sambayan do? Stick to a clear post-pandemic plan, suggested Yusingco, because the Duterte administration has clearly failed to address the COVID-19 crisis. 

Escaping the trap of the anti-Duterte narrative also means hinging the platform not just on competence, but seeking accountability from officials who fail to be competent. 

Otherwise, explained Abao, 1Sambayan could end up perpetuating the culture where those in power – regardless of their political affiliation– insist that they are the only ones who can do things right. 

Case in point: In rejecting Pacquiao, Carpio said in an ANC Headstart interview that the lawmaker being a top absentee back in the House of Representatives is a sign that he is not qualified to run for president. Pacquiao clapped back with a well-crafted message: He appealed to 1Sambayan to give the people a chance to know the “real” him, and that he would treat the criticism as a reminder to do better. 

It’s a page straight from the Duterte handbook of escaping accountability by claiming helplessness in the face of an insurmountable burden. This, even if he was directly responsible for that burden in the first place, having downplayed the coronavirus early on when he could have stemmed its spread.

In Pacquiao’s case, he said he was absent because he had to visit his district, not because he was training for his boxing matches. 

“So that’s what I’m saying: Competence cannot be the main issue here because it's also very easy for them to claim they are competent,” said Abao. “The debate should not be about, ‘Who’s better between us?’ The issue in 2022 will really be accountability. That’s what people are going to listen to, especially at a time of crisis.”

Aim for the gut, not the brain

It is also quite clear that the 1Sambayan coalition is glued together by the convenors’ deep respect for the triumvirate that is Carpio, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, and ex-foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.

Other convenors include La Sallian Brother Armin Luistro, retired rear admiral Rommel Jude Ong, lawyer Howie Calleja, former Negros Occidental governor Lito Coscolluela, former Commission on Audit commissioner Heidi Mendoza, Partido Manggagawa chair Renato Magtubo, and Ricky Xavier of the People’s Choice Movement.

But it has to be said: a mother struggling to feed her children in the slums of Tondo will not be able to relate with the legal luminaries in 1Sambayan. Would she care about the Chinese military ships on Philippine territory if she can’t even buy a kilo of rice for her children?

In 2022, the opposition can no longer afford to be elitist and out of touch with reality. 

“The professionals, those in the academe, their discourse is going to be intellectual, but it’s far from the actual concept of democracy. For the people, it’s not just about being cerebral; it’s about their gut issues. And I don’t think a Tony Carpio can articulate it, right?” said Abao.

The coalition has to work harder to involve crucial sectors in its activities, including the urban poor, laborers, women, and the youth – representatives of whom were noticeably missing from the main table during 1Sambayan’s launch.

Labor leader Leody de Guzman of the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino described 1Sambayan as a “breath of fresh air,” but challenged the coalition to go beyond the rhetorics of good governance. Failure to do so, he said, would only lead to more personality-driven politics.

If the coalition wants to taper off the base of the authoritarian yet popular Duterte regime, then it must espouse the principle of ‘good governance’ by pushing for the direct participation of the masses in politics, and start with practicing this within the coalition itself,” De Guzman said in Filipino via a Facebook post.

That 1Sambayan has made the call for other organizations and potential candidates to join their fold is a welcome step in this direction.

The ultimate sacrifice

The elephant in the room: Will any of 1Sambayan’s initial choices for its president-vice president tandem even stick it out with the coalition?

The convenors are eyeing to endorse Robredo, Poe, Moreno, former opposition senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, and Senator Nancy Binay for the two highest positions in the land.

So far, only Trillanes appears to be all in for 1Sambayan, saying that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing the country for the 2022 polls “are not mutually exclusive advocacies.” 

This is in contrast to the stance of Robredo and Moreno, who both said they are honored to be considered by 1Sambayan but would rather focus on pandemic response for now. 

Binay agrees that only a united opposition can win in 2022, but insists she is not planning to gun for higher office. She pointed out the difficulty of having to work with certain personalities in 1Sambayan whom she believes were responsible for the attacks against her family when she ran for senator in 2013 and 2019, and when her father, former vice president Jejomar Binay, sought the presidency in 2016. 

Poe has remained silent so far, but this is not surprising: 1Sambayan is led by Carpio who once said in 2016 that allowing a foundling like Poe to run for the presidency is a “mockery” of the election process. The High Court later ruled Poe is a natural-born Filipino and can thus run for president, but she still lost to Duterte.

The reluctance of these potential bets to commit to 1Sambayan only proves that it is still a loose coalition that lacks the ability of traditional political parties to enter into quid pro quo arrangements with candidates.

“It’s really going to be a challenge for them because we do not know who will give up what, and who will gain what,” said governance expert Yusingco. 

1Sambayan’s success, however, rests on the willingness of the candidates to be a part of the process through and through. This means that once 1Sambayan chooses its presidential bet, the rejected candidates must actively campaign for the opposition’s standard-bearer – and not just stay silent, or worse, run for president, too.

1Sambayan convenor and former Bayan Muna congressman Colmenares put it best: “Many of us are here because we agree that we all want a united opposition to resoundingly defeat the forces of tyranny that have ruled this country in the last 5 years. For us, that is the main unifying point here.”

History provides precedence here: In the 1985 snap elections, Doy Laurel of the United Nationalist Democratic Organization gave way to LP’s Corazon Aquino so she can become the opposition’s presidential candidate and defeat the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

To once again topple a popular strongman like Duterte, the opposition must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – whether that means sharing tables with their rivals or giving up their own dreams of sitting in Malacañang altogether. 

As election day looms, the opposition must never forget that their true enemy is the authoritarian forces under Duterte. Not themselves. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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