The Long View: We saw the alternative

We saw the alternative

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 09:54pm (Mla time) 01/17/2007


Published on page A11 of the January 18, 2007 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

MUCH as I’m not the only one underwhelmed by the United Opposition’s Senate slate, I feel uncomfortable with the hammering it is getting because of the names it contains. Not only because the list isn’t finished; much of the criticism is unwarranted and unfair.

The United Opposition is in the unenviable position of being a political necessity, if not an outstanding political success. If it didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. The problem is, by force of necessity, it has been fulfilling a role for which it’s unsuited. As Billy Esposo put it, in marketing synopsis now reaching legendary status because everyone’s referring to it, “Brand Y isn’t sold by merely promoting an anti-Brand X sentiment. An anti-brand sentiment may drive consumers away from Brand X but that does not guarantee the sale of Brand Y. To capture the market, the promoters of Brand Y must convince the consumers on the reasons why they should switch to Brand Y.”

This is the “who is your alternative” argument that has stumped everyone opposing the President, and which has gained the administration much-needed breathing – and wiggle – room. It began with the President making sure that her immediate constitutional successor would be pliable, loyal and manifestly unacceptable to her core constituency – except as a spare tire. It continued with her political lieutenants being both indifferent and sensitive to public opinion. That opinion, for much of the 2005 to the present crisis period, has expressed itself firmly on the side of a self-defeating scenario for the President’s critics: by all means, get rid of the most disliked President ever, but – and here’s the big but – only within certain limits.

Those limits have been, as events have proven as they unfolded, the following: no coups or withdrawals of support by the military; no revolutionary governments or councils. Nothing, then, outside the Constitution, which only provides for presidential succession in four ways: the Cabinet proclaims the President unable to serve (no chance of that happening); the President dies; or resigns (the public fully knows the only way the President, like Charlton Heston, would relinquish office is if you pried it out of her cold, dead hands); or she is impeached. The public, though, has at least expressed opposition to some of the tactics the President has used to keep herself in power, and is pretty firm on not tolerating her in office past June 30, 2010.

But that being the case, if the assumption is that the President has been given a new lease on political life, still, it means that her political career has an expiration date: the end of the term she began in 2004. In which case, the coming May election is not about alternatives to her, per se. It is not even all that much about surveying the horizon for her eventual successor in 2010. It is about the composition of Congress, and whether the 14th Congress will be as disgraceful as the 13th was.

What made the 13th Congress the most disreputable in our history, worse than the first post-war Congress which voted itself a backpay for services never rendered during the Japanese Occupation, and which instituted congressional allowances (which hadn’t even entered the minds of prewar legislators) as a means of augmenting their salaries?

The first was the House of Representatives’ belief in three things: that politics is only a “numbers game”; that the national interest is identical with their parochial political well-being; that the House must be subservient to the Palace and exists only to collect patronage from it.

The second was the Senate’s insistence, validated by the Supreme Court, that investigations are an essential function, and the reminder from the public that such investigations shouldn’t come at the expense of its lawmaking duties; and a reminder that for all its defects, the country was slightly better off with a lackluster, but hardheaded, Senate than with being at the mercies of a pushover and mercenary House.

Forty years ago, in the November 1967 elections, a senatorial candidate achieved third place even though he was dead: Gaudencio Antonino. He ran on the issue of opposing increases in congressional allowances, and he opposed the proposal from congressmen to allow themselves to simultaneously sit as constitutional convention delegates. His opposition resulted in his being expelled from the administration Nacionalista Party, and in his running as an independent.

Antonino explained to the Philippines Free Press why he had to run: “I don’t have to win,” he said. “If I get a million and a half votes running on the issue of congressional allowances and running alone, congressmen will know how strong is the sentiment against congressional allowances. Imagine if I got more than two million votes, would they dare vote themselves their old allowances? But if I don’t run, then the congressional allowances issue will be dead and they will vote themselves all kinds of allowances, in the Senate as well as in the House, without fear of the people’s anger. The issue will be politically dead with me.”

What does this have to do with the United Opposition slate? Take a look at the administration slate. It’s in an even more embryonic stage than the opposition’s. If the opposition can be faulted for at times being reckless in confronting the administration, then the Palace deserves criticism for overreaching its powers time and again. That we aren’t a unicameral, pseudo-parliamentary, one-party regime under the leadership of a president-for-life (which is never a good thing, regardless of the leader), it’s not for want of an administration’s trying. The gambits failed because the opposition did its job, with very little by way of credibility or resources.

In a word, it’s been responsive, and even responsible, compared with the alternative, which was Con-ass [a constituent assembly to change the Constitution].

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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