The Long View: A coalition and not a force

A coalition and not a force

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 01:32am (Mla time) 02/01/2007

EARLY this year, colleague Bel Cunanan said a third force was guaranteed to lose; her fellow traveler, columnist Emil Jurado, chirped along the same lines in his column.

But I beg to differ with them, though of course they’ve been around far, far longer than I have, and I can personally recall only what I have gleaned from the accounts of their contemporaries and from relevant literature. I do believe the third force in senatorial elections is a venerable political reality and plays a crucial role in politically superheated situations.

In normal circumstances, there’s the opposition and the administration, the party in power and the one eager to replace it. But there are times when both the majority and minority parties come to resemble each other too much; and when party identities, which naturally evolve over time, are pressured into evolving even faster by the emergence of a third force.

In 1922, the dominant Nacionalista majority and the Democrata minority were challenged when a splinter from the majority became the first third force, the Collectivistas. This inaugurated a period of change that was only resolved in 1933, when the Democratas merged with the Nacionalista Antis to oppose the Nacionalista Pros. The Collectevistas won in the Senate in 1922; they also won in the House but lacked the numbers to seize power without a coalition; its unhappy reunion with the Nacionalistas meant that with the second split in 1933, they more sensibly coalesced with the Democratas who abolished themselves.

A third force was going to be formalized by President Ramon Magsaysay who was exasperated with both the Nacionalista Party and the Liberal Party; he wanted to set up a new party along the lines of the 1922 and 1933 breakaway parties. But without Magsaysay’s charisma and political will, his political heirs suffered a debacle in the 1959 elections. The Grand Alliance, composed of Manuel Manahan, Raul Manglapus and Ambrosio Padilla, were trounced. The administration Nacionalistas obtained five Senate seats, the opposition Liberals (who broke their alliance with the Magsaysay loyalists) won three seats. By all accounts, the two winning parties simply divided the Grand Alliance’s votes among themselves.

But the defeated “third force” achieved a kind of posthumous vindication. Its star reformers would dominate the political discussion thereafter until the Marcos era. As shown when Marcos (and the opposition Liberals) received a posthumous slap with the victory, from beyond the grave, of an independent, Gaudencio Antonino in 1967. The point is that a “third force” can be a force of one, or two, or three.

In an era of stronger parties though, ruling parties would retain the House, even if their presidential candidates lost. In 1953, the Magsaysay Nacionalista landslide saw him become president with a Liberal majority in the House; in 1961, Diosdado Macapagal became a Liberal president but with a Nacionalista-dominated House; when he lost to Nacionalista Marcos in 1965, the House elected was ironically Liberal-dominated; and the former parties of presidents dominated the 1992 and 1998 elections where their presidential candidates lost.

I’ve said I’m instinctively sympathetic to the idea of a third force. But the so-called “third force” today is a traditional coalition; it shouldn’t pretend to be different simply because it’s more ambivalent about the President. That’s not a political virtue; it’s old-fashioned pragmatism that looks to 2010 in expectation of being the nucleus of the next party in power.

I strongly feel the opposition deserves credit. If anything’s been achieved so far, it’s to make doubly difficult an extension of the present administration past 2010 by means of a one-party, unicameral parliament. Still, as we get closer to 2010, the end of the Arroyo era means that we must pay attention to what will come next – which shouldn’t involve backsliding to the Joseph Estrada years or more of the unedifying style of governance of the present dispensation.

If only President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo showed an inclination to purge her administration of its more notorious fixtures and to rededicate herself to democratic ways, I’d say national reconciliation would become an irresistible urge – but that seems unlikely, given the fact that the administration refuses to even contemplate turning the coming elections into a clear referendum on itself. At least in public. In private – the leaked briefing Secretary Eduardo Ermita had with government publicists revealed – the Palace knows May is a referendum on two levels: at the House and at the Senate. If the President wins the House but loses the Senate, then it’s the status quo; if she loses both, her presidency may prematurely end. If she wins both, she’s home free – and can preside over “achieving First World status in 20 years.”

The conventional wisdom or traditional view is that senatorial elections, particularly during midterms, serve as a referendum on the sitting administration. The voters think similarly – more often than not, generation after generation. Sometimes, as in 1933 and 1967, the result is a decisive showdown. In other years, as in 1967, 1987, 2001 and 2004, there are mixed results. Much has been said recently, though, that regardless of the public’s verdict on the Senate, with impeachment being part of the issues raised, the House will be contested, too. And that the administration will retain the House. In any way it has to.

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Manuel L. Quezon III.

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