PDP-Laban struggles for unity, survival ahead of 2019 polls

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – With only a few months left before the 2019 midterm elections, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) struggles for stability and survival amid internal and external challenges hounding the ruling party.

PDP-Laban was President Rodrigo Duterte’s political vehicle in the 2016 elections. What was once a small party rapidly expanded to a 100,000-strong membership in 2018.

But now, the ruling party faces threats to its so-called power, as other administration-allied parties are gaining prominence. In particular, there is  the recently-launched Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) led by Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio, the President's daughter. 

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, PDP-Laban president, downplayed the matter. It is a non-issue, he said, as all administration groups are rallying behind Duterte.

“Allies of the President may belong to one or both of these parties, but we are all on the same side; we all stand by the President” Pimentel said on Tuesday, August 7.

“As I have stated to my party mates, Hugpong ng Pagbabago is a regional party, PDP-Laban is a national party. There is really no problem with dual membership in the national party and regional party,” he added.

However, things are not as easy and simple as they seem. With just a few months away from the October filing of certificates of candidacy, there are talks some PDP-Laban members are transferring to HNP and other political parties. Others have expressed concern about the confusing dynamics involving the ruling party.

Aside from HNP, there is also Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, composed of members of the Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte-National Executive Coordinating Committee (MRRD-NECC), which campaigned for Duterte in 2016.

Amid all these groups aligned with him, where is the President?

University of the Philippines political science assistant professor Gene Pilapil said Duterte’s lack of support for the party is contributing to its breakdown.

“The support is lukewarm. You’re not sure of his support. The President is disinterested,” Pilapil told Rappler in a phone interview.

Duterte, he said, has so far taken a hands-off approach on the issue. 

“It appears that when it comes to the President’s allies, matira matibay (the strongest will survive),” Pilapil said. He explained Duterte would rather not dictate on his allies, leaving it to them to resolve their issues. 

Pilapil said an alliance among pro-Duterte groups might still be possible. For now, however, the animosity between PDP-Laban secretary general Pantaleon Alvarez and HNP's Sara Duterte remains. 

Pimentel, Alvarez booted out

PARTY LEADERS. Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and former House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez at the PDP-Laban assembly last August 2. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

PARTY LEADERS. Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and former House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez at the PDP-Laban assembly last August 2.

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Party affairs began to escalate when two of its officials – Pimentel and Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez – were stripped of their powers in Congress within just two years.

Alvarez was ousted as House Speaker in late July, with at least 120 party members rejecting him and replacing him with former president and Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, also a party member.

Lawmakers suspected that it would cause the exodus from PDP-Laban. Alvarez’s removal has sparked calls for some party members to replace him as secretary general and for Arroyo to be given a more senior role. But Pimentel is so far not keen on doing so.

In an August 2 assembly attended by over 100 party members, Pimentel called on them to trust the party leadership. (READ: Pimentel, Alvarez call for unity in PDP-Laban amid infighting)

Hindi 'yung dahil wala na sa posisyon 'yung tao, kakalimutan na natin agad kung ano naidulot at naiambag ng tao na 'yun,” Pimentel said. (We don't forget what a person has done and contributed when he's no longer in power.)

"[We should] not lose our focus.... And please trust in your party leadership. We've never ever made a decision to the detriment of the party. Mahal namin itong partidong ito. Mahalin natin ang partidong ito (We love this party. We should love this party),"

This is, however, easier said than done, as election season nears. Politicians would want to be associated with and endorsed by the party favored by the President – something that isn't clear right now: is it PDP-Laban or Sara Duterte Carpio's Hugpong ng Pagbabago?

Arroyo's faction

Cracks in the ruling party were brought to public attention as early as mid-2017. But it became more evident when Arroyo replaced Alvarez as Speaker.

While both are party members, Arroyo has the solid backing of other party mates, owing to her stature as former president. She is also a staunch ally of President Duterte, making others suspect that he knew about the change in leadership that happened a few hours before his State of the Nation Address last July 23.  (READ: Duterte admin revives Arroyo policies, controversies)

LONG-TIME ALLIES. President Rodrigo Duterte and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo walk on the center aisle of Sanctuario de San Jose in Mandaluyong City on January 8, 2017, as principal sponsors in a wedding ceremony. Malacau00f1ang file photo

LONG-TIME ALLIES. President Rodrigo Duterte and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo walk on the center aisle of Sanctuario de San Jose in Mandaluyong City on January 8, 2017, as principal sponsors in a wedding ceremony.

Malacau00f1ang file photo

House Majority Leader and Camarines Sur 1st District Representative Rolando Andaya earlier said a “handful” of PDP-Laban members are now eyeing to jump ship to other political parties in time for the 2019 polls.

Andaya, himself a PDP-Laban lawmaker, earlier said several of his party mates felt they had been “left out in the cold” despite being among the first politicians to join the ruling party in 2016.

He said the “tipping point” was Arroyo’s takeover of the speakership. But there has been a growing discontent among district representatives allied with President Duterte’s party for a long time. (READ: Alvarez-Arroyo showdown, lawmakers in pre-SONA talks)

“The problem was, the first batch of leaders that came into PDP-Laban were congressmen because they first needed to elect a Speaker for them to have a leader from the ruling party. There was a massive recruitment in the lower chamber. They were able to elect Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez,” Andaya earlier said.

“When they started going out to different provinces, a lot of these congressmen were feeling left out. They were not part of the decision-making process. PDP had their own strict, internal rules on choosing who will be provincial leaders, regional leaders,” he said.

On top of this, there was a publicized infighting in the party. The so-called Mindanao faction held elections for new party leaders in what Pimentel called an “unauthorized” national assembly.

'ROGUE MEMBERS.' FACTION. A group within PDP-Laban is seeking to unseat Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez as party leaders. Rogelio Garcia (R) claims to be the 'new' president. File Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

'ROGUE MEMBERS.' FACTION. A group within PDP-Laban is seeking to unseat Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez as party leaders. Rogelio Garcia (R) claims to be the 'new' president.

File Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

It was a dubious event to say the least, with most attendees not belonging to the party and others not knowing who the persons on stage were.

The faction slammed Pimentel’s group for conducting mass oath taking of new members “without proper basic seminar” and officials “involved in illegal drugs.” They also questioned why there were no assemblies and elections held, when the party constitution supposedly requires it every two years.

They elected Rogelio Garcia, Duterte’s classmate, as party president to replace Pimentel. However, they retained Duterte as the party chairman and Special Assistant to the President Bong Go as auditor.

Go claimed he only found out about the party infighting after the gathering. Upon relaying the issue to Duterte, Go said the President has set a caucus to unify the two factions.

“I mentioned this to the President that there are different factions [in the party]. I mentioned it to him yesterday. I did not know there were factions. I told him, you're chairman of both factions. I'm also auditor of both factions. So, he said, he will just call a caucus to try to unify the factions,” Go said in Filipino in a radio interview.

Despite this, Pimentel denied that the party is in trouble and in disarray.

For UP assistant professor Pilapil, Pimentel should be "worried." The fact that Duterte wants to hold a caucus between the factions shows he is recognizing the "rogue" members. The President is set to meet with both groups on Friday, August 9.

Partido Federal, Bong Go’s group?

NEW PARTY. Partido Federal ng Pilipinas. Photo by Hinlo

NEW PARTY. Partido Federal ng Pilipinas.

Photo by Hinlo

Then came an emerging party, Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP), led by former interior and local government undersecretary Jesus “Jayvee” Hinlo Jr of the MRRD-NECC. Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones is also a member.

Hinlo told Rappler they were previously with PDP-Laban but decided to form “PFP in order to promote a shift in our unitary [system] of government to a federal [system].”

"[The party] is mainly supported by the President's biggest mass movement, together with other volunteer leaders, local, and national officials," Hinlo said.

The group has a pending accreditation application with the Commission on Elections, filed last April 30.

PFP is set to field local and national candidates in 2019, according to Hinlo. Photos on social media show they are actively campaigning for Go, who, despite consistent public appearances and media interviews, has denied his plans to run for the Senate.

"Yes, Sec. Bong Go knows about the PFP," Hinlo told Rappler.

An insider, who refused to be named, said the group is expecting clashes between local candidates of PDP-Laban and PFP. But for the national elections, they are supposedly open to the idea of an administration coalition.

In an earlier interview, Go said there is nothing wrong with the creation of the party, as it advances federalism.

“In the federalism campaign of the President, it is certainly welcome if it is a good thing, if their goal is good. People also need to understand federalism through our education campaign,” Go was quoted as saying in June.

Hugpong and Sara Duterte’s ‘power’

HUGPONG. Presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte with politicians expected to run for the Senate in 2019. Photo shared by Sen. Ejercito

HUGPONG. Presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte with politicians expected to run for the Senate in 2019. Photo shared by Sen.

Ejercito

While HNP is currently a regional party, there are concerns that it would endorse candidates outside the region, even national bets. In fact, HNP has started to endorse some senatorial candidates, such as reelectionist Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito, former Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa, and Go.

Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos and reelectionist Senator Cynthia Villar were spotted joining HNP's events. On Monday, August 13, HNP sealed an alliance with the Nacionalista Party of Villar and Marcos, as well as with Ilocano Timpuyog, the latter's regional party. (READ: Pimentel downplays Hugpong alliance with political parties)

There are also talks Carpio herself would run for the Senate, given her current standings in pre-election surveys. She, however, has played coy about her political plans – a move reminiscent of her father in 2015. (READ: To annoy 'detractors,' Sara keeps mum on final 2019 plans)

Pimentel himself admitted that the possibility of HNP endorsing national candidates could be an issue to the ruling party. He said he would relay the concerns to Duterte.

"PDP-Laban might face opposition, competition from allied forces. Sasabihin ko sa Presidente (I'll tell the President): how can we minimize such a situation? If we cannot totally avoid it, we should minimize it. Hindi naman siguro buong bansa gano'n (I don't think it's happening in the entire country)," Pimentel said.

It was not helpful, either, that Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque's statement – that Hugpong is Duterte’s original party – might be misunderstood. 

"This is without prejudice to alliances that Hugpong may enter into, including with PDP-Laban, that is not really an impossibility. He (Duterte) is also the chairman of PDP so I should also be there, but first and foremost, when I asked him, the President said Hugpong has always been our party," Roque said. 

Duterte's local party is Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod. His daughter adopted the word "Hugpong" for recall and launched her own regional-wide Hugpong ng Pagbabago only in February 2018.

Pimentel downplayed this, saying that since HNP is a regional party, dual membership is not prohibited.

But if HNP is only a regional party, why are senatorial aspirants flocking to it? Roque, who is reportedly eyeing a Senate seat, even joined it because of its ties with President Duterte.

"I am the presidential spokesperson and the President said that ever since Hugpong is his party. I think it's only right that I also join his party," Roque said in a media briefing.

There are rumors HNP would seek national accreditation but it remains just that. Since it is a regional party to date, it cannot issue Certificate of Nomination and Acceptance (CONA) for candidates in other regions and in the national level.

Sara Duterte continues to be a force to reckon with, especially following Alvarez’s ouster. Pilapil said it was a clear example of how local politics was catapulted to the national scene, leading to an unprecedented kind of ouster. (READ: The women behind the fall of Alvarez)

Some claimed that Duterte had no idea about his daughter’s actions while others refused to believe this. Whatever side you’re on, it showed the so-called strength of the presidential daughter, who is bent on destroying Alvarez.

Alvarez, who is set on running again for Davao del Norte 1st district representative, is surely going to face opposition from HNP bets. (READ: Davao governors bolt parties to join Sara Duterte’s Hugpong)

As for Pimentel, Pilapil said some might have been turned off that he, as Senate president then, was initially unable to “protect” the reelectionist senators at a time when Alvarez was excluding them from the PDP-Laban lineup. Pimentel later on vowed to fight  for them.

Confusion and PDP-Laban’s future

Amid controversies and criticisms, PDP-Laban officials are trying to be upbeat about the party’s future.

While Pimentel maintained the party is not in chaos, some members have expressed confusion over its dynamics.

During the assembly held on August 2, one local politician relayed to the party leadership her confusion over the dynamics between PDP-Laban and other Duterte-allied parties, such as HNP and Go’s supposed group, which was not specified.

Opponents, she said, are joining HNP and Go's group, leading to confusion and apprehension among party members.

“'Di ko po alam sino ang dapat namin makasama. Mga PDP, mga ibang kasamahan, lumilipat sila sa Hugpong or Bong Go. Nakaka-alarm mga kalaban namin. Masyadong magulo, iyon po ang concern namin,” the local politician asked.

(I don't know who we should ally with. We have party mates who have transferred to Hugpong or to Bong Go. It's alarming. It's too confusing, that is our concern.)

In response, Pimentel said he was surprised to know about Go's supposed group. He also said there is no formal agreement with HNP, so far, but the party would look into it.

“If they are supportive of President Duterte, dapat di tayo nag-aaway-away. (We should not be fighting with each other.) We are open to entering formal alliances with allied forces…. We only have one month to go before filing. 'Yan ang susubukan natin (That's what we will try),” Pimentel told her.

For PDP-Laban founder, former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr, the party has survived graver problems during Martial Law and is sure to survive again the test of politics.

For the former senator, it would not be a problem if PDP-Laban will no longer be the ruling party, citing its history.

“We’ve been through the worst times.... Kung titignan mo talagang kaunti lang naman talaga kami (If you'll look at it, we have always been small),” the elder Pimentel told Rappler in a phone interview.

It might even be better, he said, as it would show who the real members are – those who really stand by the party’s principles and ideologies; not just for convenience.

And surely, with barely 3 months left before the filing of COCs, the revelation would come sooner than later. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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