Picking up the pieces


THE political opposition’s attempt to win the presidency has ended in disaster. The gambit the opposition used to clinch the presidency and save its titular leader, ousted president Joseph Estrada, from the death penalty by fielding widely popular movie actor Fernando Poe, Jr. as his presidential candidate, has failed. The opposition has been left sore and fragmented. It now faces six years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whom opposition leaders refuse to believe won the election cleanly.

But if that is their belief, it is imperative that they work for reunification to effectively oppose the Arroyo administration. The problem is, no one is quite sure as to who is its leader. Sen. Edgardo Angara, president of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino drove away the group led by Rep. Agapito Aquino in order to support Sen. Panfilo Lacson whose strong finish has positioned him as the opposition’s only hope in 2010. Lacson, though, seems to be going his own way and has scorned reunification calls. Sen, Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., whose principled and tenacious stand during the congressional count of the presidential and vice presidential votes has shown him as a dependable and firm leader –but of whom? And what of Poe, who refuses to concede defeat and goes around the country claiming he is the elected president, but who knows nothing of politics, much less leadership?

The opposition may still look up to Estrada as its leader, but the man is doomed and cannot provide the leadership the opposition needs to play a responsible role in government and reposition itself for the mid term elections of 2007 and the presidential derby of 2010 (if we still have the presidency as we know it by then).

As leader of the opposition, Estrada suffers from two handicaps. The first is that his actual power was taken away in January, 2001, and any illusions of a moral claim to authority evaporated with the end of his term in May, 2004. He is firmly an ex-president, without having had the chance to sink in the political infrastructure necessary to guarantee a hold on the bureaucracy after his term. His people have been thoroughly purged from office in the three and a half years his successor had before she herself sought election. The second is that he remains in jail and lacks a large enough number of supporters within the government to effectively fight for his interests. His political legacy is one of failure: failure to keep himself in office, failure to effectively and consistently maintain his followers in power, failure to engineer a successful election for a follower who will do his bidding. His natural constituency has been eroded over the years, and its more mercenary elements have already begun to stampede away from him, looking for greener pastures. He has clout enough to have his son elected senator; but lacked the clout to ensure the election of his hand-picked successor.

As for the prospects of his anointed successor, they are slim as far as being an effective leader of the opposition is concerned. From the very start, Fernando Poe, Jr. proved susceptible to the charms of Estrada but proved quite unwilling to be totally at his beck and call. He simply would not pay his dues as the anointed one, which includes learning at the feet of his political master. Poe will have no master, and the few attempts he made at conciliation and pragmatic accommodation proved inept and clumsy. The French saying is that victory has many fathers, but that defeat is an orphan –and the man whose hard-headedness and political obstinacy has left the opposition orphaned of power can expect precious little by way of gratitude or loyalty from those he led on the swift and surprising road to defeat.

Indeed, the best description of Fernando Poe, Jr. and Estrada, too, isn’t a contemporary one, but rather, one that must be borrowed from overseas. The Chinese memorialized a governor general of Canton during the Second Opium War in the 19th century in this way: “He would not fight, he would not make peace, and he would not make a defense. He would not die. He would not surrender and he would not run away.” No better description of the Estrada-Poe tandem could ever be written. Both are condemned to treading political water over the next six years.

This is not to say the two should be discounted. But while both are undoubtedly fearless men, and while both possess great physical courage, both of them lack an essential attribute of political leadership: political courage. Estrada abandoned his office, only to seek refuge behind his lawyers, who then came up with a spirited defense of the continued existence of a position Estrada threw away. All the legalisms manufactured to defend, ex post facto, Estrada’s flight from the Palace ignores a central reality of power, which is that once let go, it is extremely difficult to get back. Even Estrada’s constituency realized as much, only coming to his defense when civil society stupidly demanded he be paraded before the public and humiliated, itself a tactic that is dangerous and which more often than not, backfires against those who perceive humiliation as the handmaiden of justice (which it is not).

As for Poe, his Hamlet-like agonizing over which tactics to pursue in his campaign and beyond, set him apart both from his chief backer, Estrada, and their common constituency, the masses, who deplore indecision and the conservative distaste for rabble-rousing that Poe so obviously possesses.

The result is that Estrada is at the mercy of the present dispensation, while Poe has failed to infuse his followers with the will to fight. If Estrada is able to wrangle any considerations from the administration, it will be on his own personal terms and due to his own cunning, than anything else –and it will come at a time when he, perhaps, needs concessions from them more than they need cooperation from him. Poe, on the other hand, needs the opposition more than they need him –and it is difficult to see of what great use he can be as a symbol to rally around, when the opposition’s defeat can be attributed in great part, to Poe’s own decisions (or lack of them).

What of Senators Angara and Pimentel? A biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt once described Norman Thomas, the perennial American socialist candidate, as having “had his political clothes stolen so often he was in a perpetually indecent political state.” The two have lost so often that they may be equally described as being in a perpetually indecent political state.

Senator Angara is in a more indecent political state than Senator Pimentel, since Angara has been out of power longer. Pimentel, too, at least, has a very strong –indeed, the strongest, within the ranks of the opposition- political mandate from the people. His victory is fresh, while Angara’s is old hat. The chief problem both of them have as putative leaders of the opposition is age. A generational shift has been taking place and building momentum, while both are now members of the Old Guard. As septugenarians, they are not, perhaps, as obviously in ranks of the “departure lounge generation,” as octogenarian Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is. But both men are in their sunset years while the opposition must grapple with trying to survive over the next at least three, if not six, years. Durable workhorses that they are, they certainly have the stature and the political standing to be first in line for consideration as leader, if not leaders, of the opposition.

Then again, another problem arises. Both lack a formidable political infrastructure. Weaknesses in political machinery can only be compensated for by personal charisma. Both are deficient in this regard, Angara more so than Pimentel. Neither is known for their ability to foster unity within the ranks of their party organizations, in their respective cases Angara’s Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino and Pimentel’s PDP-Laban. Neither has a significant political bailiwick, either.

They do have the advantage of having more cohesive political organizations, ironically because of the smallness of the parties they lead. Angara’s insistence on backing Poe to the exclusion of his partymates has purged his party of potential rivals. Pimentel’s party is also small in numbers but has discipline and a tremendously effective strategist and operator in the person of Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, arguably the most effective and politically pugnacious mayor in the country today. Both Pimentel and Angara, as old veterans of politics, also have a large web of contacts which allows them to keep a sensitive finger on the public pulse, and which can provide them with the lifeblood of any effective opposition: information, particularly on the goings-on among the people in the administration.

Were Angara and Pimentel to unite their parties in turn, the opposition would then be defined according to their own terms, and composed of people who have more in common with each other than any other political organization except the communists. The administration coalition is vast, but unwieldy, and as all Filipino political coalitions are, not particularly loyal, energetic, or obedient. Political hunger can do wonders for party discipline and morale, and a union of the forces of Angara and Pimentel could suddenly raise from its bed the currently comatose opposition.

The question of the personalities, including the egos, of the two, however, necessarily affects prospects for such a union. Who will be the paramount leader, who will be content to play a more subordinate role? The political history of such dual leaderships is long in our country, but has proven dangerously susceptible to open warfare breaking out between two leaders. And yet there is no reason why Angara, calmer, more placid, more of a behind the scenes man, and Pimentel, more fiery, more mercurial, and willing to be an in-your-face man, cannot hammer out a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

As political insiders, such a combination might prove well-night irresistible to the politicians left outside the administration’s political mosquito net, and serve as a foil to the emerging efforts of a man they both don’t like to serve as the leader of the opposition: Panfilo Lacson.

Senator Panfilo Lacson came in a poor third in the presidential election, but he still came in third. He did so without a formal party machinery, without a network of national and local political allies, without singing, or dancing, or even smiling much. He did so, too, as a candidate who could seriously claim to be fit for office in terms of experience and intelligence. He did so, too, as the idol of a small, but energetic, and organized sector of the population that yearns for government that rules with a mailed fist.

Lacson’s problems, besides an inherent distrust of military men among the general population, and allegations concerning his conduct as a police officer, stems from his being an unrepentant political outsider. Politicians simply get nervous around him. He doesn’t speak their language, with its love for flowery phrases and obscure terms, he pointedly declines to be a hail fellow well met, he professes to a contempt if not indifference for the backslapping, kneeslapping habits of traditional politicians. He is a leader in the mold of Spain’s Francisco Franco –grim, humorless, ruthless, personally disciplined and of a somewhat mystical mindset. His politics are unsuitable to our traditional type of party organization, but instead, ready-made for a sort of mass movement. If he devotes his energies to the building, and then nurturing, of such a movement, it could prove potentially earthshaking. But even if he does attempt this, the results will be of a kind unseen before, and firmly outside the political establishment. He would be using the political process tactically, participating in it when strategically called for, but waging a campaign that in a sense has decided to short-circuit the entire political process. The only other people to attempt a similar, selective, participation in our politics are the communists. The difference, besides Lacson’s wholehearted devotion to the principle of private property and the amassing of capitalist wealth (and its protection for those who already have it), is that he is much more palatable than the communists can ever be. Politicians and officers may not like him, but all are forced to respect him: many people think he could make the system work.

Still, the circumstances surrounding Lacson’s peculiar type of charisma does not make him first in line for leadership of the opposition. He is first in line to head a strong third force, pitted against both the mainstream opposition and the administration, which are widely perceived to be two sides of the same corrupt and corrupting coin, anway.

When Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez famously said that politics is addition, he meant, among other things, that politics is all about getting more people to agree with you –and support you- than the other guy. It is obvious that there is a large, even overwhelmingly so, number of people skeptical about the administration. The administration has been able to cobble together a coalition composed of enough people who feel they have more to gain from cooperating with each other, than the opposition.

The opposition therefore has to first of all constitute itself as the opposition, and not a bunch of oppositions who expend as much energy opposing each other as they do opposing the administration. They also need a larger purpose than a sort of animal shelter for stray lapdogs of defeated dispensations.

The Estrada-Poe factions are the remnants of the old Marcos Kilusang Bagong Lipunan machine, and additions made to it by Estrada himself, with a sprinkling of new people brought into the fold by Poe. The Pimentel groupings are the remnants of the old Parliament of the Streets coalitions that opposed the Marcos machine. Both are embittered by decades of defeat that made their brief restoration to power under Estrada all the more missed. Both are increasingly suffering from age. Both need a larger purpose, a greater goal, a new sense of identity. They have, on their side, a long and splendid history of similarly politically-challenged groups that used their time out of power to lay down the foundations for a successful bid for power. They have, too, the many chronic ills of the country, and the natural tendency of the electorate to be dissatisfied with any incumbent, with which to fight the administration in the arena of public opinion.

The yearning of the country for politics based on something nobler than naked grabs for power is clear. It was manifested in the impressive but still failed, campaign of Bro. Eddie Villanueva. As much an outsider and maverick as Sen. Lacson, he too has contented himself with feeding on the political carcass of the campaign of Raul Roco. The reason Villanueva is not included, however, in the list of potential opposition candidates discussed in this article, is that he remains far too removed from the political setup: even Lacson, after all, holds a government position and is a successfully elected candidate for a national office. Villanueva’s support, if sought and given, will certainly buttress the efforts of any side that manages to successfully woo him. But he will continue to be a useful ally, but not a leader of crucial political consequence, in the near future.

The many oppositions are not in as bad a political way as many people assume. They have a lot of things going for them, and one main thing going against them. With unity comes strength. The overarching concern for its leaders should be accomplishing unity, any sort of unity.

This may be possible if left in the hands not of the senior leadership, but the emerging leadership. There was a marked study in contrasts, for example, between the leadership provided by Rep. Francis Escudero, who belongs to the opposition, and that provided by Sen. Francisco Pangilinan. The Remullas, too, have fresh blood and new faces to continue their efforts to build national, and not just local, prominence.

It may just be that if the younger leaders get together, they can infuse the opposition with a new identity, one not held hostage by the past, but which instead looks forward to the future.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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