IN JAKARTA OVER THE WEEKEND, I discovered that a famous political saying from the Philippines enjoys wide currency particularly within the circle of President Sudhuyono: “My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins.” The phrase dates back to 1922 when public opinion became a factor in elections and it summarizes the recent decision of Francis Escudero to renounce his party affiliation and to adopt – in fact, reintroduce – a proposal first made in 1940, that of Partyless Democracy (which is still being seriously discussed in India to this day) and which rejects parties as guardians of patronage, the spoils system and partisanship in politics.
The Nationalist People’s Coalition, the second-largest party in the country, has carved out a role for itself as a useful ally in forming coalitions. What, exactly, that useful role serves, beyond its share of spoils by always having a seat at the table, has been widely perceived by the public as being a simple one, as far as objectives go: to maintain, protect, and if possible, expand, the economic power of the party’s principal. For power doesn’t flow merely from the barrel of a gun, but also from the depths of a deep purse.
The legitimate ambition of Escudero – that he can be the youngest president the country’s ever had since the presidency has been the actual gift of the electorate – naturally had to collide with a party oriented towards such limited goals. His frustration over the condescension of his party elders reflects similar sentiments among an overwhelmingly young population over the short-sightedness of their elders. He had to leave, not only to fulfill his destiny but in order to continue representing the aspirations of his followers.
His alienation is the alienation of his constituents, his defying convention a reflection of his follower’s impatience with hierarchy, pragmatism, consensus and cooperation. But it leaves leader and followers alike without prospects of what the very things they are rebelling against, make possible: the transformation of opinion into action. The National Democratic Front and its affiliates know how to translate resentment into action.
The NDF was caught off-guard and left befuddled by the entry of Aquino into the presidential derby as Villar’s camp – with whom the NDF had decided to ally, out of pragmatic consideration – was, and for the same reasons: it upset the political calculations that had driven the political campaigns of all sides up to that point. Pursuing their generations-old vendetta against the Aquinos, the Left faced a backlash when its immediate reaction to Cory Aquino’s death was sustained criticism; it nimbly did an about-face and embraced her so as not to be exposed as having such a deviant opinion from the public as a whole. But the Great Remembering followed by the Great Awakening when Cory died gave rise to the candidacy of Aquino.
Before Benigno Aquino III threw his hat into the ring, the then-frontrunner, Manuel Villar Jr., by all accounts had oriented his campaign towards considering Escudero as his number one opponent, the real threat to his presidential prospects. Aquino’s entry into the fray – at the precise point when Villar had achieved what all the experts assured him was a major turning point in the campaign, achieving the crucial 25 percent survey rankings that made him the man to beat – essentially wiped out Villar’s gains, since Aquino’s ratings raised the bar and rendered the conventional wisdom obsolete.
Manuel Roxas II accurately read the signs of the times and sacrificed his 2010 ambitions. But Aquino also made Escudero seem callow by comparison, so it seemed, for a time, as Roxas took his time to accept Aquino’s offer for Roxas to be his running mate, a window of opportunity had opened for Escudero to make a similar renunciation of ambition and become Aquino’s running mate, instead. But Roxas accepted Aquino’s offer (the sensible and honorable thing for both candidates to do) which left Escudero out in the cold, and facing a lukewarm reception from the leadership of his party, besides.
Escudero and the NDF proved to be mutual saviors of each other’s sagging prospects of remaining relevant in 2010. It was bad enough for the purists in the field to have to accept their Eternal Chairman’s decision to back Villar; just as bad were proposals to open discussions with Aquino for this would confront the NDF with another dilemma: having to support an Aquino when it had demanded the blood of martyrs to stain their claim to representing the democratic aspirations of the people.
Escudero’s role is to be a wedge. His political gifts are the sharp point that the NDF parties flocking to his banner perceive to be the sharp point of their mission to chop the existing democratic order to smithereens. Of course, there is an irony in iron-disciplined NDF party lists proclaiming the virtues of a man who has disowned party affiliation. Put another way, they would make short shrift of someone trying to leave their ranks in order to fulfill an individual sense of political integrity.
But he’s from the outside. Chances are, somewhere down the road, in fulfillment of the sense of historical inevitability that drives their faith, the excommunication of Escudero will come. But not now, not when he can be so useful.
The importance of Escudero doesn’t lie in his becoming the next president of the Philippines, but rather, how he will influence the prospects of the current frontrunners. His newfound allies calculate he is their secret weapon in pursuing their vendetta against the son of the Aquinos who conclusively proved the public prefers reform and non-violence to blood and revolution, and he will do so by trying to out-Aquino the real deal. So he has decided to ride the purring tiger.